How Internet Streaming May Save Nollywood

Nollywood is a big business—contributing 1.2% to Nigeria’s gross domestic product and employing more than a million people—but the distribution of its films poses a barrier to the industry’s growth. Sales of DVDs account for more than 90% of revenue but film-makers complain that poor regulation of street markets leaves them open to piracy. That, combined with often low sales volumes, means that little cash reaches their pockets.

The saving grace is that most of Nollywood’s output is shot on a minuscule budget. Nollywood productions, including series such as “BlackBerry Babes” or “Lekki Wives”, are often filmed in just ten days and cost some $40,000, yielding notoriously low-end content. “Making money is tough, especially for film-makers who are increasing the budget, paying more attention to the quality, and making movies that can travel,” says Obi Emelonye, a director. “Distribution is hands-down the biggest problem…Solve that, and Nollywood will explode.”

Across the world, the film industry has been threatened by online distribution, which leads to plummeting DVD sales, falling cinema attendance and internet piracy. But Nollywood is hopeful that the internet could be the answer, not the problem.

Streaming services have been operating in Nigeria for several years, but are only now beginning to gather momentum. The biggest of those is iROKOtv, which has made some 5,000 titles available to online audiences. Others such as Pana TV, which secured the rights to stream “Half of a Yellow Sun”, a film based on a Nigerian novel, and iBAKATV are expanding fast.

Jason Njoku, the British-Nigerian founder of iROKO, said that when he first started buying streaming rights from Nigerian film-makers four years ago, the industry had almost no concept of online distribution. “It was almost like I’d come from the future,” he says. Today online portals are a crucial source of cash. IROKO, for instance, pays between $8,000 and $25,000 per film for a set period of time. Film directors like Mr Emelonye often sell to several online platforms. Going online has “absolutely” made business more profitable, he said.

It is also giving film-makers the chance to export their art. iROKO has more viewers in London today than in Nigeria. Caribbean and Latin American audiences also lap up Nollywood films. Witnessing the appetite for such content among diaspora communities, Africa Magic, a pay-TV channel airing African movies and soaps, has also launched a streaming service for Africans living abroad.

So far, video-on-demand services have struggled to create much of a market at home, where power is intermittent and the vast majority of the population does not have access to a computer. Streaming to the 100m smartphones in sub-Saharan Africa is a mouth-watering prospect.

Most DVD vendors do not yet feel a threat from streaming services. But even the hawker Taiwo admits to watching Nollywood online. As internet access rises, directors are hoping that new distribution avenues will unleash the potential of Nigeria’s film industry. It is a gamble, Mr Emelonye said. “But we have to take a risk.”

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