Hooray for Nollywood: Behind the Scenes of the Nigerian Film Industry

Hooray for Nollywood: Behind the Scenes of the Nigerian Film Industry

As the dust settles in Tinseltown post-Oscars, we turn our attention to Nigeria’s Nollywood—the third largest film industry in the world behind Hollywood and Bollywood. Nollywood annually produces over 2,000 movies, and brings in profits of approximately $250 million per year. With the help of actresses such as Ebbe Bassey and Osas Ighodaro, and producer Oji Idakwoji, BlackEnterprise.com gets a peek behind the scenes of the popular films at the ways they thrive, and ways they simply survive.

Emerging in the late 1980s, Nollywood depicted stories reflective of everyday life, making them identifiable to its audiences. While still illustrating the crime and anxieties of Nigeria and other African countries, filmmakers nowadays gravitate toward themes that involve moral dilemmas facing modern-day Africans, many of them with overt Christian, Islamic, and evangelical themes, in addition to the depiction of prostitution, romance, a corrupt police force and disease.

Similar to model used by African-American filmmaker Tyler Perry in the states, the films are typically produced at a very modest budget and yield a high return. With an average production rate of $15,000, Nollywood films often yield up to 10 times that amount in return.

Nollywood filmmakers—eager to use Black American talent in order to broaden their international appeal—say that while the actors might not be able to demand the same paycheck as actors like Denzel Washington would for Safe House or Viola Davis would for The Help, the sky’s the limit on the types of stories they can tell.

In other words, says Ebbe Bassey—a Bronx, New York-born, Calabar, Nigerian-raised actress who appeared in the award-winning 2011 Ghanian film, Ties That Bind, starring U.S. actress Kimberly Elise, and in such TV shows as Law & Order: SVU—it wouldn’t be necessary for Davis to dress up as a maid in order to win an award.

“Nollywood films allow Black people to shine,” says Bassey. “[Unlike in Hollywood], we’re not being killed at the end of the first scene. We’re not gangbanging or on drugs,” she says. “We can be doctors, lawyers and whatever else we want to be. Nollywood films allow Black people to choose roles that fully express their humanity.”

It’s for this reason Bassey says that she thinks the industry—although it is largely based in Nigeria—is hugely popular all over the African continent, throughout the Caribbean, and yes, even in the United States. With an estimated 1,000 straight-to-DVD films annually produced by independent companies and businessmen in cities like Abuja, Lagos and even California, customers have an ever widening selection of actors and story lines to choose from.

Even with grand plotlines, Bassey says Nollywood productions are able to maintain their low budgets in part because most Nollywood films are not shot in a traditional studio. Instead, some are filmed in hotels, people’s homes and offices. Plus Nigeria, she says, as well as other parts of Africa, like Ghana—where Nia Long filmed the controversial 2011 film Mooz-lum—offers the kind of bureaucratically streamlined filmmaking process that most American producers only dream of but may be surprised to know.

“You don’t have to worry about filing much paperwork here,” laughs Bassey, who reports that Danny Glover, who co-starred in Mooz-lum, has visited Nigeria several times to discuss potentially developing projects there.  “If you’re [a producer] shooting in the states, you’re using union actors and directors so you have to file with the Screen Actors Guild, and that’s a nightmare,” she says. “As a filmmaker, you also spend far less money on licenses and have a lot less input [from the government] on how to run your company. If you wanted to pull out your camera and start shooting in the street, it’d be okay.”