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A Scorsese in Lagos: The making of Nigeria’s film industry (II)

The businessmen behind Nollywood have followed a similar path from upstart to mogul. In the absence of strong legal institutions, Nigeria’s movie marketers formed a…

The businessmen behind Nollywood have followed a similar path from upstart to mogul. In the absence of strong legal institutions, Nigeria’s movie marketers formed a guild to govern their industry, colluding to regulate supply and production costs. The guild has resisted all attempts by actors and producers to push for a larger share of revenue.

“We created the industry,” Gab Okoye, a marketer who goes by the name Gabosky, proudly said one afternoon. We were standing near the red carpet outside a Lagos banquet hall, where the local chapter of the guild was about to inaugurate new officers. To celebrate and pay homage, all of old Nollywood had turned out in its flashiest finery, lots of bright ankara cloth and dark sunglasses. Gabosky, who was wearing a hip-hop-inspired ensemble, told me he felt disrespected by the new filmmakers like Afolayan. He called them “houseboys” who had forgotten their place. “He’s started complaining about his master,” he said, “who was giving him a job yesterday.”

Inside, the powerful guild president, Emmanuel Isikaku, took the stage. “Nollywood is still alive,” he told the audience. “Nollywood is still great.” The defensive tenor of his declaration was indicative of the marketers’ mood. They had built an entertainment enterprise without precedent in Africa, and yet they felt unappreciated and besieged. The government was trying to crack down with increased fees and oversight. The event’s written program warned of the calamity of regulation and maligned Nigerian actors as “lazy.” When stars become too demanding, marketers deal with them ruthlessly. A few years ago, they put several prominent actors on a blacklist, and none were allowed to work, according to a guild official, until they begged forgiveness.

The marketers say they can’t afford the extravagances of talent. The production budget for a typical Nollywood movie ranges between $25,000 and $50,000, less than a tenth of what Afolayan was proposing for “Phone Swap.” The marketers contend that spending more would be foolish, because the low price of Nollywood movies is part of their appeal. “You must first identify who your primary market is,” Isikaku, a shrewd and sinewy operator, told me. “If your primary audience is the elites and the middle class, the people that can go to the cinema, fine, well and good. But there are some programs that are meant for the people on the street.”

Richmond Ezihe, the guild boss at Alaba market, tried to explain Nollywood economics to me. We met one afternoon in front of the stall that serves as the base for his company. Pasted to its metal door was a poster for a recent feature, “Palace of Blood.” When Ezihe, who is the financier and executive producer, comes up with the concept for a movie, he gives it to a couple of screenwriters he keeps on retainer and then hires a director to hurriedly shoot, having the film ready for sale on the Alaba market within a month or two.

Ezihe has a number of ways to monetize his product: there’s a satellite television station, an overseas DVD market catering to the African diaspora and even a Netflix-inspired Web site called Nollywood Love. But most revenues still come from physical sales. It costs less than 20 cents to burn a blank VCD and package it, but the wholesale price for movies is so cheap that a marketer might need to sell 100,000 copies just to make a decent return. The average Nollywood movie has a shelf life of about two weeks before the pirates get hold of it. In Nigeria, an estimated 5 to 10 illegal VCDs are sold for every legitimate one, and the police make no serious effort to deter the trade.

“It really has eaten deep into our finances,” Ezihe said, claiming — as did every other marketer I met — to be mystified about the identity of the troublesome scofflaws. “They’re hiding,” he said. In fact, clues as to the pirates’ whereabouts were strewed all around Alaba, where American movies and TV series, rap music and video games of doubtful provenance were selling next to the latest Nollywood hits. Many of the movie marketers originally got into the business by pirating Hollywood movies, a practice that continues to flourish. “Piracy is not a problem with the system,” said Jade Miller, an academic at Tulane University who has researched Nollywood’s economics. “It is the system, essentially.”

The legal and illegal industries continue to operate in parallel, within an opaque system of relationships and rules set by the Alaba cartel, Emeka Mba, head of Nigeria’s efforts to regulate the film industry, told me. “The pirates, they know them — it’s part of them,” he said. The marketers seldom use lawyers, accountants or written contracts; when they make a film, it is often unclear who even holds the copyright. When Mba’s agency tried to impose some legal order, for instance mandating that marketers register under a postal address, he met brutal resistance. Anti-piracy raids, though rare, have sparked violent uprisings at Alaba.

Isikaku did not deny that there were pirates in his membership’s midst, but he claimed that guild leaders were trying to confront them, sometimes physically, sometimes with persuasion. But the reality is that when everyone is stealing, you have to price like a pirate.

Carl Laemmle might have recognized the marketers’ situation. When he started Universal, he immediately came into conflict with Thomas Edison, who held patents on movie cameras and projectors. Edison had been waging a legal battle against “dupers,” unauthorized copyists who would take a film and redistribute it, often just snipping off the copyright frames. As Edison saw it, his intellectual property rights gave him a monopoly on all film production. He went after Laemmle, too, filing some 289 lawsuits against him and dispatching goons to break up his film shoots.

Laemmle responded by organizing some other “independents,” a handful of mostly Jewish movie producers who operated out of New York. In 1917, they defeated Edison in the Supreme Court. But by that time the independents had already moved en masse out to California, where they could shoot in sunny weather, away from the chill of legal scrutiny. “They were pirates!” says Bic Leu, a Fulbright fellow who has studied Nollywood. “They moved to L.A. to get away from Thomas Edison.”

One evening at a hotel bar, I happened to run into a Nigerian-born actor named Wale Ojo. We got to talking, and he said that after scraping by for years in London, he returned to try his luck back home. A few days thereafter, in a true Nollywood twist, I met Ojo a second time, when Afolayan introduced him to me as the new lead actor in “Phone Swap.” Afolayan had us over one Sunday evening to drink wine by his poolside, along with some friends from the industry and a couple of international film buffs. “Black British actors are cheap right now,” Ojo said. “Good,” Afolayan replied. “Because I don’t have the money to pay you.”

Afolayan had also come up with an actor to take Sam Loco’s role, so everything was in place for “Phone Swap” — except the financing, which remained frustratingly elusive. The director kept offering self-confident assurances that his backer would come through. But anyone could tell that, all quips aside, he was anxious.

Perversely, the rise of video, which had given Afolayan the ability to practice his father’s craft, had also robbed it of its value. His career represents a possibly rash wager: that even in the most lawless marketplace, talent is still worth a premium. When he started to make “The Figurine,” announcing on Facebook that he planned to spend 50 million naira, roughly $350,000, the universal reaction was incredulity. Afolayan told me: “Everybody started writing, saying, ‘How will you make your money? You want to commit suicide?’ ” To pay for “The Figurine,” Afolayan took out a bank loan for half the budget, pledging his house as collateral, and subsidized another third of the movie through product placement.

“Kunle was out to make a statement, that it was possible to make a good film in this country using local hands,” Yinka Edward said. When he ran out of money at one point, stalling production, Afolayan borrowed from family and friends and asked his cast and crew to keep working on good faith. His efforts appeared to receive vindication in the box-office performance of “The Figurine.” But the triumphal narrative breaks down when you examine the financials. For all its acclaim, Afolayan said that “The Figurine” had yet to turn a substantial profit. The movie showed to packed houses, but there are just seven major theaters in Nigeria, and it grossed only around $200,000 in its initial release, not enough to cover Afolayan’s investment.

To maximize revenues, Afolayan made a deal with an independent entertainment company that was having encrypted DVDs of “The Figurine” shipped in from China for mass distribution. The executive handling the project told me that his plan was to simultaneously release a huge number of copies across the country, so as not to create scarcity, which encourages piracy. Then he drew a diagram of his network, each strand of which ended with some regional marketer. There was just no way to circumvent the unyielding force of the cartel. Emeka Mba, the government regulator, told me that he saw Afolayan’s efforts to devise a new distribution system as an inspirational experiment. “Here’s a guy who wants to do things differently,” he said. “Here is a guy who is brave.”

After weeks of waiting for his nervous investor, Afolayan called his editor and sidekick, Steve Sodiya, into his office and said he had decided to move forward. “I want to start with my own money,” Afolayan told him. “We have to start the shoot. I’ve been making a backup plan.” It involved some financing from product placement, and a large personal endorsement contract — from a cellphone company. His production company’s office, sleepy for days, was suddenly abuzz with frantic preparation: costumes, casting, equipment rentals. Afolayan spent an afternoon in last-minute negotiations to knock down everyone’s fees. “You think I am not resourceful?” he shouted at one resistant crew member.

In the final week of August, “Phone Swap” finally began shooting in Badagry. Afolayan presided over the shoot from a canvas director’s chair. The week before, local meteorologists warned of an epic rainstorm, but this time luck was with him. One evening, on the shabby farmhouse set, Wale Ojo, who was playing the uncomfortable city slicker, positioned himself for his first scene, and Afolayan shouted, “Action!”

Weeks later, after shooting wrapped, Afolayan e-mailed me a clip of the rushes and informed me that he was “dead broke.” A trailer, featuring a scene in an airplane cabin painstakingly recreated by Pat Nebo, built anticipation when it hit YouTube in November. The movie is scheduled to have its premiere over the next two months in Lagos, Accra and London. Already, though, Afolayan is planning his next film, which he calls a passion project. He told me something about it while I was in Lagos. Sitting in his unlit office one rainy day, he excitedly explained that it would be about a dead man who walks the earth, refusing to admit his condition. He said he hoped to land Danny Glover for a big part. “I’m creating two worlds,” Afolayan told me. “The land of the dead and the land of the living.” It seemed impolite to interrupt to ask when the office’s electricity might return.

(Concluded)

Courtesy: New York Times


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