NIGERIAN cinephiles rejoiced last month as news emerged that “Half of a Yellow Sun” (pictured above), arguably the most ambitious film project in the nation’s history, had received a release date in its own country. For three months the nation’s media censorship board had held up the film, citing vague concerns over its depiction of the nation’s bloody Biafra War. But that is not what makes the film’s release notable. “Half of a Yellow Sun” was actually released a year ago, premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival, then finagling releases in major markets such as Britain before making it back home to Nigeria. It was a strange route for a Nigerian film, given that most of the country’s output consists of cheap productions aimed primarily at a domestic market. But “Half of a Yellow Sun” is a symbol of a new wave of filmmaking and distribution that is changing the way Nigeria’s massive movie industry operates.
Ever since Nollywood’s 1992 emergence, when a local importer reputedly acquired some outdated videocassette tapes and shot a cheap movie to make a quick buck, the industry has focused on scale. By the late 2000s, Nollywood produced up to 50 movies a week for $40,000 each, selling 50,000 copies of each film. Its bulk made it arguably the world’s second-largest film industry, bringing in $800m per year. Yet global audiences long turned up their noses at its quality.
This changed, says Onookome Okome of the University of Alberta, with the production in 2006’s “The Amazing Grace” (not to be confused with a British production that year called simply “Amazing Grace”). Although unsuccessful with local audiences, Nigerian directors took a cue from the film’s high budget and the quality of its production. By 2009, a movement known as New Nollywood had emerged, producing films for six times the average budget and consciously vying for international acclaim. “Anchor Baby”, made in 2010, became the first Nollywood film sold on iTunes. “Half of a Yellow Sun” cost $9m to make. Most of this was raised from local investors.
These films attracted enough international acclaim for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to approve the creation of the Nigerian Oscars Selection committee, the first group permitted to screen and submit a Nigerian nominee for the Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Film category. This was a minor honour, but a milestone for those seeking newfound respect and recognition for Nollywood.
Yet hurdles remain. Despite the development of new theatres, local distribution platforms are too weak to support these high-budget films, says University of Liége Fellow Alessandro Jedlowski. One solution may be online distribution, says Jason Njoku, the chief executive of iROKOtv (a service that is Nollywood’s equivalent of Netflix). But for now New Nollywood is abandoning mass appeal for motifs that speak to elite, diaspora, and international audiences to sustain itself, Mr Jedlowski says.
New Nollywood is a niche. But artists, investors, and officials alike recognize the potential value of award-winning movies. The government recently announced an $18.7m programme for film training and industry tax relief. And next month Lagos will host the first Nollywood Digital Cinema Fair. It may be a while before a Nigerian film wins an Oscar. But a growing desire to prioritise quality in Nollywood will drive up the chances each year.
This post was first published on the The Economist baobab blog.