Access Nollywood, Nigeria’s Booming Film Industry

This West African nation already beats the U.S. in film production quantity, and is aggressively improving quality and global distribution, too.

Illustration by Tyler Hoehne

Many people now know that Bollywood, India’s 101-year-old cinematic tradition, is the world’s largest film industry. But surprisingly, Hollywood is not even the second largest—as of 2009, that honor arguably goes to Nollywood, Nigeria’s 2,500-movie, $600-million-per-year powerhouse, the nation’s second-largest employer after agriculture. Because Nollywood has traditionally had trouble finding markets and distribution networks for its films, it’s mostly been limited to cheap, locally-distributed fare. Over the past couple of years, though, all of that’s started to change. New Nigerian entertainment firms like iROKO have bypassed the need for DVD distribution and theatres, bringing Nollywood directly to the web and making it easier for more and higher quality Nigerian cinema to reach the world.

It’s not surprising that Nollywood lacked a real distribution network until now, given the young industry’s origins. Although Nigeria’s made films for decades, Nollywood proper only began around 1992, when a used electronics importer got a crate of outdated video cassette tapes and decided to make a quick, cheap, and simple movie to help turn them around. In a country with only 14 theaters (not counting small screens at local cafes) for a population of more than 170 million, it seemed like the only way to make a profitable Nigerian film for over 15 years was to crank out repetitive, pandering, and poorly acted films—sometimes 20 to 40 per year per producer—for about $40,000 each. These small films were a tremendous success, employing thousands of people and generating millions in profits. But in a vicious circle of mediocrity, producers never pushed for wider distribution networks, making it almost impossible to solicit funding for higher-quality films, much less get them seen abroad.

Around 2010, a British Nigerian entrepreneur named Jason Njoku decided that no matter the quality, there would be a global market for Nollywood films—especially among the Nigerian diaspora—if only they could be cheaply and efficiently distributed. Although inaccessible in much of Nigeria, the internet seemed like a great way to bring films to a wider international audience. So, Njoku started buying up Nollywood online streaming rights on the cheap—direct from producers—and launched a YouTube channel called Nollywoodlove. A year later, he launched iROKOtv, sometimes called the “Netflix of Africa,” scoring 152 million views by the end of 2011 alone. Since 2012, Njoku and his team have switched to freemium and monthly-subscription models in some regions and raised $25 million in funding to acquire film rights, build partnerships with outlets like iTunes and Amazon, and develop its international presence. As iROKOtv continues its rapid expansion, Njoku hopes that the global distribution network and secure revenues it provides will help incentivize the creation of high-quality Nigerian cinema.

Photo courtesy of iRokotv

Starting with 2009’s The Figurine, Nigerian producers had already begun to develop higher-quality films with Hollywood-level production values and budgets north of a quarter million dollars. But these “New Nollywood” films, as they are dubbed, often premiered abroad. Some, like 2013’s Half of a Yellow Sun—the highest quality and most expensive Nigerian movie ever produced—do not receive a screening in Nigeria until more than a year after their initial release. Conventional wisdom was that such films would remain a small niche for elite Nigerians and those in the diaspora, but Njoku hopes that platforms like iROKOtv will actually bring those international Nigerian films to a local Nigerian audience.

With internet accessibility in Nigeria growing exponentially and new iROKOtv operations in heavily-wired African countries like Kenya, Rwanda, and Tanzania, the “Netflix of Africa” model has become far more than a diaspora phenomenon. Now also offering Bollywood and Hollywood titles to draw in users from more than 170 countries, the digital distribution network is attracting a broad, global audience, many of whom are being exposed to Nigerian cinema for the first time. And as that exposure grows, so does the profitability and security of the industry, empowering the higher quality New Nollywood films and making the cinematic tradition all the more appealing for new viewers. Some doubt iROKOtv’s business model and longevity, but Nollywood as a whole has already reached a new plateau of visibility, accessibility, and quality, making it likely that we’ll see a lot more great cinema coming from Nigeria in the future.