Box-office Nollywood

By on August 26, 2010
Kajola broke the record on two grounds: as the first sci-fi movie to ever come out of Nollywood and secondly, as the first ever Nollywood movie to be kicked out of the theatres for lack of customer satisfaction. Kajola’s fate, as disappointing as it must have been for the producers and those of us who believed all the hype, is a pivotal moment in the on-going transformation occurring in Nollywood. Nollywood is undergoing an extensive makeover that will eventually weed out the old world of point-and-shoot moviemaking and the crippled distribution system as epitomized in the image of Idumota market. Kajola’s experience at the box office marks this makeover.

At the heart of this transformation is the advent of the cinema. In 2004, the Silverbird Group built a modest 5-screen Cineplex in Lagos, providing cinema experience for a generation who had missed, by two decades or so, the cinema culture that once flourished in Nigeria. Even though Silverbird started with a no-Nollywood policy, it was only a matter of time before it gave in. But of course, the Nollywood movies that made the box office had to be of a certain standard. Little wonder that Ije, a movie that opened around the same time with Kajola but that turned out to be far more successful in the box office, was shot on film with a 35 millimeter camera.

Nevertheless, Kajola, not Ije, is history making for the simple reason that its misfortune proves that the coming of a new Nollywood is at hand. This new Nollywood would consist of a different kind of artistic sensibility on the part of the moviemaker and a different kind of consumer. We would begin to see moviemakers who feel artistically accountable to an audience who is delighted to pay full price as long as it is for a satisfying product.

The purpose of my reflection on the Kajola’s performance at the cinema is not to undercut the artistic integrity of the director, Niyi Akinmolayan. Kajola is a work of staggering artistic courage. If you know anything about Mr. Akinmolayan, then you are most likely aware of the risks and love and creative vision that went into the production of the movie. Kajola will forever be a paradigm maker for its bold attempt at compelling us to think of our country as a context for imagining the futuristic. Mr. Akinmolayan is the first to tell a story about Nigeria that happened in the future. None of our literary greats was able to achieve such a feat. They all preferred the comforting passivity of the past. Kajola’s box office failure is, therefore, instructive to the extent that it demonstrates how the new cinema culture is reshaping the relationship between moviemaker and moviegoer.

To illustrate, a quick trip is well worth it down the dark alleys of Idumota where Nollywood still prowls in blind frustration. The Idumota style of distribution favors the anonymity of both moviemakers and their audience alike, making it possible for moviemakers to get away with just about anything. For all the hustling and jostling that go on in places like Idumota, there is really no contact between the moviemaker and his or her audience. If a consumer likes a movie, piracy ensures that the maker remained financially ignorant of that fact. If a consumer hates a movie, no one really cares. How do you pull the plug on a movie that has just been fed into the market through distribution channels that are as disorderly and labyrinthine as Idumota itself? When an invisible artist meets a faceless audience, the only likely result is artistic laziness.

To the credit of Idumota’s moviemakers, it is also possible that they produce bad movies because they have audiences that seem very easy to please. Few would disagree that most people who frequent Idumota for Nollywood movies do not care too much about a lot of things. If my former landlord’s wife—who is unschooled and fits the image of what Nigerians like to call “local”—if she is representative of the target market of Idumota movies, then it really does not matter whether stories are nonsensical and worn out, whether bedroom scenes are shot in bare hotel rooms, whether the speedometer records 10km per hour in a car that just killed a pedestrian, whether the sound is awful, and whether the movie is chopped up into four long parts in which nothing really takes place.

Because anonymity reigns in Idumota, piracy is also rife. Movies get lost in the void where the already existing glut of movies is further multiplied by its illegal replication. My guess is that all the Idumotas of Nigeria have since lost track of the dividing line between piracy and legal distribution. One tends to collapse into the other producing something that looks like distribution by piracy. We have heard of stakeholders in the entertainment industry taking to the streets, protesting against the theft of their work and demanding a just system where they are treated fairly and rewarded for their work. Little did they know that the end of piracy and the establishment of a system of accountability would also check the proliferation of mediocrity. If the market is accountable to the artist, the artist is compelled to be accountable to the audience.

The point of this quick historical commentary is not to downplay the significance of Nollywood’s pioneers—moviemakers and marketers. After all, there would be no Chineze Anyaene (director of Ije) without Lancelot Imasuen. Rather, the point is that the new cinema culture in Nigeria marks the threshold that separates Idumota, piracy, and artistic laziness from a new world order of professional filmmaking. First of all, the cinema going crowd is different from their vcd-buying counterpart. Whether middle or working class, the cinema audience has a more refined taste for basic movie quality—sound, picture quality, etc. Also, the big screen of the cinema tends not to be friendly to imperfection. How many times have you heard it said that if you did not watch Avatar on the big screen you did not watch it all? Well, the big screen has a way of flattering the charms of a great movie. But when the movie is bad, the imperfections are amplified.

Whenever Nollywood bigwigs complain about piracy and widespread lack of appreciation for their work, one gets the sense that they want to reap where they’ve not sown. The truth is that if Nollywood wants people to pay 1000 naira to see its movies, it has to rethink its sense of what makes a good movie. The cinema provides market accountability. It is the answer to piracy. Box office is open and fair office. There is no mystery about how much you are making as a moviemaker. The downside is that you have to be accountable to your viewers, an act that is not only expensive but also one that requires artistic integrity—a character flaw of many Nigerian moviemakers.

If Kajola had come out in Idumota, you would probably have bought a pirated copy for 150 or so Naira from a street hawker, laughed your head off at the unsuccessful attempt at making CGI but that would have been the end of it. Who would you have complained to? If you insisted on finding someone to complain to, the search would end up costing way more than you spent on the movie. With the cinema, a filmmaker has direct access to market rewards but also to the pulse of the viewership. When moviegoers are happy, the filmmaker gets a fat check. When they are pissed off, your movie is deleted, just like that, from the box office. For the first in the history of Nollywood, both parties are no more estranged from each other. They are so close to each other that the moviemaker can reach across the counter and collect pay before service but then the moviegoer in turn can chase producer out of the market place if he feels cheated. It is this revolution that Kajola marks in its removal from the cinema and one that will bring about a new world order of filmmakers and finally put Nollywood on the map of the world.

Written by Ainehi Edoro Wednesday, 25 August 2010 02:08

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