How piracy created and maintained Nollywood’s success

Jeffery Uzoukwu writes that piracy was actually good for Nigeria’s movie industry
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY SOPHIE BOUILLON A man cycles past a billboard promoting the premier of Nollywood film “93 Days” in Lagos, on September 9, 2016. – Hollywood plague movies are usually about a fictional viral outbreak, unleashing chaos and anarchy that can only be stopped by heroes who transcend the panic. That’s not true for “93 Days”, a Nollywood film premiering on September 13, 2016, which dramatises the story of Nigeria’s response to the very real Ebola epidemic in 2014 that killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

If you ask anyone involved in the film business in Nigeria what the biggest challenges they face in the industry are, the answer would be a resounding word: piracy.

Several studies into the prevalence of piracy in the Nigerian movie industry have been reported, so much so that Nollywood has become synonymous with the dreaded P word. But, while piracy remains an issue in the industry that generates between $250 and $500 million per year, it is also a factor that contributed to not only the establishment of Nollywood, but also the maintenance of its success.

A brief history

It is no news that majority of Nigerians have been disenfranchised from formal networks of survival, a network which links them to the official world economy. Consequently, Nigerians have worked hard in creating a means of survival through the creation of informal networks. Simply put, formal networks refer to the extent to which industries are regulated, maintained and ruled by government and corporate bodies. Informal networks are industries that operate outside this sphere.

The disruption of formality to informality in the Nigerian film industry can be traced to the colonial days, where the British Colonial Film Unit created a marketing infrastructure in Africa. When the British government eventually left Nigeria in 1960, most infrastructures, including the film unit gradually collapsed because they did not maintain any link with Nigerian film industry, unlike their French counterparts in the Francophone African film industry.

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The newly independent state created the national Nigerian Film Corporation. This struggled to stay afloat, thanks to the advent of technology – video cameras, DVDs, neo-liberal privatisation of the media landscape. The previously regulated media freed up to private bodies; government demonstrated a lack of interest in media, paving the way for piracy and unauthorised distribution network.

In a normal situation borne out of a functioning infrastructure, piracy is a criminal act, the unauthorised replication of an intellectual property. But in the case of Nollywood, it is a major factor that led to its success. What happens in a case of infrastructure’s failed promises of arranging and regulating? Piracy in this case, is an attempt at rearranging and reconfiguring these failed promises, because, as Nigerians say, ‘man must survive’. Piracy becomes a means of survival in a country where infrastructural irregularities is the norm.

Breaking the financial bondage

Kenneth Nnebue is a man famous for the classic Living in Bondage that pioneered Nollywood. Before venturing into filmmaking, Nnebue imported blank cassettes, which he used to pirate foreign films. He produced and distributed them locally through a system of mini shops and rental clubs. This informal networks of distribution of pirated films not only ensured that power and control were maintained by marketers, but it also sparked an idea in Nnebue.

After coming up with the story for Living in Bondage, he teamed up with fellow screenwriter Okechukwu Ogunjiofor and they presented the finished product to the director Chris Obi Rapu. Rapu was an ambitious filmmaker who wanted to shoot his own films. But this desire was crippled by the lack of funding and functioning film industry, because shooting on celluloid was, at the time, expensive.

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Using the same business model as his pirated films, Nnebue set sail to Taiwan, where he purchased thousands of blank VHS tapes, which was used in making the film. It is true that a film made cheaply lacks in the quality of the finished product, but this did not impede Rapu’s desire to make his own film, nor did it restrict Nnebue’s commercial venture, his desire to get rich quick. It comes as no surprise then, that the film itself presents these themes, themes that explore the idea of quick fortune, of grass to grace, of the consequences attached to these fortunes. It is ultimately a film about the extent to which humans are willing to go for the acquisition of wealth and societal status. The plot is simple: wretched Andy uses his wife for money ritual, whereupon he is made to face the consequences.

Living in Bondage was popular amongst Nigerians not only because of its escapist themes, but also because it was the first film to offer an alternative to cinema culture with its ‘direct to VHS’ model. At a time of political and financial uncertainties in Nigeria, cinemas and cinema going culture died, permitting a retreat into the private sphere – the home. Nigerians had little choice but to embrace the only form of film entertainment available to them.

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In this light, Living in Bondage became a bestseller when it was released in VHS. Even though it was shot entirely in Igbo language, it sold over 500,000 copies, kick-starting Kenneth Nnebue’s successful film career. He would go on to write and produce Glamour Girls, another best seller which was also shot in VHS. This form of filmmaking, release, marketing and distribution would inspire other budding filmmakers, or so to speak, business women and men, who saw filmmaking as a means of making quick money. It would carry on to the 21st century, building a name for itself, so that Nollywood would rank amongst the three biggest film industry in the world, including Bollywood and Hollywood.

Another idea:

If you’re looking for artistic African films, Nollywood is not the place for you. Look to Francophone African films.

The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect News Central’s editorial stance.

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