In the late hours of February 25 2020, a newly verified twitter account @netflixnaija tweeted ‘Naija, how far’ followed up with a poster of 14 Nollywood juggernauts including Mo Abudu, Richard Mofe Damijo, Kunle Afolayan, Omoni Oboli, Kemi Adetiba and other prominent practitioners. In 24 hours, the account racked up 15,000 followers and hundreds of thousands of interactions.
The tweets, alongside a launch party in Lagos attended by Netflix’s Chief Content Officer, Ted Sarandos and other local stakeholders, put an end to speculations about the streaming giant’s plot to tap into the largest entertainment powerhouse on the continent.
Before now, not many people foresaw a soon-as-possible coming. Despite the fact that Nollywood has continued to gain global attention as the second largest film industry in the world (by production volume), it is still very far from competing with its foreign counterparts.
Early Nollywood stories were deeply rooted in themes of love, marriage, money ritual, religion, and conflicts with a mother-in-law. They were quickly made with often low-production budgets, poor distribution, bad acting and shallow scripting, resting the industry’s strength on quantity over quality. Nollywood is a DIY-industry that strives on half baked film directors, actors, with shoestring budgets, but it still manages to appeal to a large percentage of Nigerians, Africans and the diaspora.
The crew and cast don’t get to take all the blame, if anything, they deserve praises for building out of nothing––literally the ’N’ in Nollywood. Widespread piracy and rampant circulation of unlicensed copies on videotapes and video compact discs (VCDs) has eaten into their profits for decades, and scares off investors from bounty funding. The distribution system made the industry widely popular across Africa and its diaspora. But it prevented Nollywood from consolidating its economy and raising the quality of film production.
Nigerian cinemas draw audiences who prefer American films to Nigerian ones. They are also mostly situated in urban centres or cities, and are relatively expensive, shutting a large percentage of the population out of the equation. The government and its policies aren’t helpful either, so it makes zero economic sense to make too large an investment in a film project.
However, these challenges have paved the way for Nollywood’s evolution and its increasing global acceptance. If the norm was higher filming standards, proper regulation, and a paying culture amongst Nigerians, Netflix could have established its first African shop in Nigeria, instead of South Africa––the continent’s most advanced economy armed with an increasing middle class.
The number of Netflix subscribers in Nigeria isn’t public but South Africa has an estimated 152,588 active subscribers. Don’t sweat, Nigeria surely doesn’t have up to a quarter of those numbers. SA is the only African country that pops up on Netflix’s Top 50 subscribers in the world. The 50th country on the list, Luxembourg has 52,151 subscribers which suggests Nigeria may have far lesser number.
Nigeria has a poor cinema culture that is often blamed on costs of movie tickets and inadequate infrastructure––there are only 150 screens for a country of 200 million people.
One of the very few people that spearheaded the digital cataloguing of Nollywood assets is British-Nigerian entrepreneur Jason Njoku. Founded in 2011, Njoku’s IROKOTV set out to get worldwide distribution for a broken and undervalued movie industry. The subscription-based service gives paying users access to its vast collection of Nigerian and Ghanaian movies. In less than six months after its launch, Iroko recorded over 500,000 registered users and secured $8m in funding from US-based hedge Tiger Global. It also signed content distribution deals with Dailymotion, iTunes, Amazon, Vimeo and the likes.
What Iroko was doing and is still doing, is acting as a pipeline for homemade Nigerian content for a wider audience, and helping content creators monetise in more ways. At the early stages of the business, not much of its subscribers and views came from Nigeria, where Njoku set up primary operations. It took a steep increase in Internet penetration across the country, robust marketing, starting an in-house production studio, cable adoption and more funding for the product to scale in its homebase.
Almost 10 years after, Iroko is yet to rack up to 1 million paying subscribers. This shouldn’t undermine the impact the company has had on new Nollywood. Their production outfit contracts actors and directors, both experienced and newbies; churning out enough original content to keep the users satisfied.
But Iroko doesn’t escape the stereotypical Nollywood pattern––shallow scripts, popular themes and the recycling of actors, stories and even locations which can become very glaring to an avid viewer.
ROK studios which is managed by Jason’s wife and actress-producer Mary Njoku, was recently acquired by Canal+, a French media company owned by media conglomerate Vivendi in an undisclosed deal. The acquisition will help channel administrative support, finance and equipment, and spread ROK’s content across French-speaking Africa, whilst giving Mrs Njoku full autonomy. So far, the studio has produced more than 540 movies and 25 TV series on low budgets typically around $25,000 and above.
Netflix’s romance with Nigerian film can be dated as far back as 2015. At the time the company bought the rights of blockbusters such as Kunle Afolayan’s October 1st, Biyi Bandele’s Fifty, and other indie films long after they were screened in Nigerian cinemas. In 2018 at the Toronto International Film Festival, Netflix announced its acquisition of worldwide exclusive distribution rights for Genevieve Nnaji’s debut film as a director, Lionheart, a first of its kind in Nigeria.
Netflix is already making new investments in content production and infrastructures. In 2016, it deployed a dedicated server in Nigeria in partnership with Spectranet, to hold the entire Netflix content library and will provide customers “with the best possible video streaming performance.”
Another advantage for Netflix is that it has a broad and diverse library of original content and licensed rights. Iroko’s hours of content programming doesn’t come close to that. But it doesn’t make much difference, since most of Nollywood’s audience are satisfied with the stories and quality they get. Only a growing sect of young, savvy and foreign based viewers care to see beyond-the-usual Nigerian blockbusters, but it is still a very tiny demographic to guarantee the big spenders returns.
Internet penetration is still too weak and expensive to guarantee easy adoption, so if ever there’s going to be a streaming war, it will only come when there are millions of Nigerians actively using the internet.
I won’t be too quick to draw a conclusion that Iroko should roll up its sleeves––they better do––but one thing is for sure; Netflix’s entry will push the Iroko, as well as other local content engines in the country to produce more quality content, and go big on marketing. Netflix is here to play to the long game, and they have lots of cash to burn.
An active presence means wooing the industry’s best with weightier commissions, grabbing the hottest new content and establishing dominance in the sector. Netflix could have better chances in penetrating the country’s elite market, as richer people in Nigeria and across Africa have easier access to reliable power supply and internet. It may also be targeting Nollywood’s diaspora market which is way larger and profitable.
In South Africa, where Netflix already infiltrated as far back as 2015, Multichoice, the continent’s biggest Nollywood distributor has expressed fears over Netflix’s increased interest in African markets, and is pleading with authorities to regulate the platform’s operations.
Whether Iroko is able to trump Netflix in the nearer future shouldn’t be the bone of contention. We should leave that for venture capitalists to decipher in the board meetings. Is this a win for Nollywood? Or is this just going to be another industry takeover facilitated by cash injections but only very minimal change? Only time can tell.