By Ayodeji Adeyemi*
It was 6.30am and dawn had just spewed like a silky fabric over the neatly tarred streets of Lekki Peninsula, a high-class urban district of Lagos. A convoy of vehicles rattling along Bajji Close came to a halt in front of house number two. Lancelot Imasuen, a movie director and leader of the team, hopped out of a Toyota bus and marched into the sprawling compound nestling a duplex. Minutes later, he shuffled out and started barking orders at his team. At once, his crew, consisting of technicians, engineers and cameramen, sprang to life. As they busied themselves setting up equipment, some of the young actresses and their minders converged beside a bed of shrubs. The little brightness in the sky which had filtered down from the balconies and windowpanes, revealed the apprehension on their faces. Though they were relatively unknown stars, they had big dreams which seemed to weigh heavily on their shoulders. The assistant director, a fair complexioned middle-age lady, clutching the movie manuscript, made a robust attempt at calming their frayed nerves, easing them through their lines. The promise of stardom seemed to have a stranglehold on the starlets.
Eventually, the film site, a luscious sitting room bedecked with paintings, antique flower vases and furnishings, was prepped up for the first shoot. Imasuen, stepping away from the camera, edged towards the artistes, explaining to them his concept of the role. After a string of rehearsals, frequently punctuated by the director’s dissension, shooting began. The three actresses wove their craft, summoning an assortment of expressions to their faces, as they eased into their respective make-believe roles. Sometimes their acting impressed the director who had ascended to the status of a demigod venting his approval from Mount Olympus with a nod. At other times, Imasuen demurred calling for a retake, eliciting muted grimaces from the artistes. Seconds stretched into minutes and minutes soon ran into hours. By the time the scene wrapped up two hours later, the director, turning to this reporter, says, “This scene that took two hours to shoot is just about a minute scene in ‘On Bended Knees’ – the title of the movie.”
From that point, Imasuen led his crew to another location still within the Lekki Peninsula where a similar routine was performed. Again, hours sped by like the speed of light. Soon, it was evening time and the cast and crew had to retire for the day. Imasuen retired into a posh hotel in Lagos Mainland. For directing this movie, he will be smiling to the bank. And he has done several like that in his over 15 years’ career as a film director. As at the last count, Imasuen agreed he had directed over 200 movies and was still having a lot more on his plate. His movies have also been a breakthrough, a launch pad for many stars. For instance, his 2005 smash hit ‘Behind Closed Door’ is credited as the movie that turned Nollywood heartthrob, Desmond Elliot, into an A-list actor. The same thing can be said of Chioma Chukwuka-Akpotha, another A-list actress, as well as several other big names in Nollywood.
Yet, Imasuen is little known to the average film lover. He belongs to that special class of star manufacturers. They are the fingers behind the camera, the unseen forces that can make or mar a star in
Nollywood, the third largest movie industry in the world. Imasuen’s obscurity seems to have been adequately compensated for with tons of cash he has earned for his directorial role. This, perhaps, explains why Imasuen can afford the luxuries of life. When he is not on locations, he shuttles between award shows and film festivals across the globe. Indeed, Imasuen lives a fairy tale life that the average Nigerian would literally kill to have. A recent icing on the cake for him was when the Canadian government, last October, honoured his efforts with a Media Merit Award.
But things have not always been that rosy for him. In his over 15 years sojourn in Nollywood; he has had his fair share of ups and downs. In the early days, he went through lengthy dry spells of not having any movie to direct. His breakthrough however came with ‘Twisted Fate’, a movie he produced in 1995 which earned him critical acclaim. Other movies followed in quick succession. And so was money and growing influence as some of the unseen directing spirits and forces behind Nollywood.
He is not alone. In the same shoes with Imasuen is Teco Benson, one of Nollywood’s top directors and producers who, though relatively unknown, have struck gold in the industry. But while Imasuen teed off as a director, Benson sauntered into the industry as an actor. He recalls that his first pay as an actor was N8,000 for the movie, ‘Forbidden Fruit’, produced in 1995. That might seem small, but Benson observes that it was more than his take-home pay at his former job as a civil servant.
After playing many minor roles in movies, Benson decided to go behind the camera in 1996. He started off as a film producer before easing into directing movies. This transition was seamless for him but he notes that he invested thousands of naira into movie books and attending workshops both within and outside the country. “I bought books on all branches of movie production, producing, directing, cinematography, acting for films and television,” he says.
Benson has so far directed over 50 movies and still has more in the pipeline. And what he missed in fame, he made up for in fortunes. Take for instance ‘State of Emergency’, a movie he directed in 2000. Never mind that it took a month to produce, it still sold over one million copies. “By now I guess the movie should have moved three million copies in sales,” he says. Hence Benson can afford to live a five-star luxury life. Apart from the fact that he lives in the exclusive high-class residential area of Lekki, he also cruises around town in flashy cars in his fleet.
Benson is not the only one living his dreams from behind the cameras. There is also Tunde Kelani, top movie director and British-trained cinematographer. Unarguably one of the most celebrated filmmakers in Nigeria, Kelani only last week just returned from a trip to São Paulo, Brazil, where he hosted a successful film festival. The festival, which spanned three weeks, had the top brass of Brazilian cultural and movie industry in attendance. Nine of his previous works (in Yoruba language) were screened, including the smash hits ‘Saworoide’ and ‘Agogo Eewo’ while his new movie ‘Maami’ also premiered to an appreciative crowd.
He is however not new to such successful outings. Kelani’s career in the movie industry has been nothing short of a five star. Even though his movies are shot using Yoruba as the dialogue language, they have been smash hits with the audience both at home and abroad. Little wonder Kelani globetrots from one film festival to another exhibiting and promoting his works. In the process, he also makes stars like Kunle Afolayan, who is now also a prominent producer in his own right, Sunkanmi Omobolanle, and Peju Ogunmola among many others who now adorn the Nollywood landscape.
Just like Kelani, there is also Tade Ogidan, ace movie director. In addition to making chart bursting movies and creating stars in Nollywood, Ogidan has also found fortune simply being behind the scenes. A former producer with the Nigerian Television Authority, NTA, Ogidan left the television station to start OGD Pictures Limited in 1990. He has since gone ahead to produce a string of jackpots as a number of his films have been screened in international film festivals. These include films like ‘Hostage’ (parts 1, 2 & 3), ‘Owo-Blow’ (parts 1, 2 & 3), ‘Out of Bounds’, ‘Saving Alero’ and ‘Dangerous Twins’ (parts 1,2 & 3). In the process, he also literally created a number of stars like Femi Adebayo and Stella Damasus while catapulting the likes of Richard Mofe-Damijo, Lanre Balogun, Yemi Solade, Bimbo Akintola and Bimbo Manuel amongst others into A-list actors. Ogidan’s latest film, ‘Family on Fire’, recently premiered in London to much applause.
The former continuity announcer with NTA Channel 5 equally has plans to screen the movie in many international film festivals. The edge this affords is that it opens more doors for the movie to be shown in many cinemas across the world. This, of course, is a jackpot for any film-maker worth his onions. Also in the same ilk with Ogidan is Amaka Igwe, a renowned film-maker. Apart from the fact that her movies were also screened abroad, she actually organises her own film festival which has become a melting pot for both local and international filmmakers and stakeholders. Her film festivals have since become prime market for sourcing Nollywood movies and television programmes. They are also a veritable cash cow that guarantees her a comfortable life.
Imasuen, Benson, Kelani, Ogidan, and Igwe however represent a small breed of directors who have found fortune by being behind the scenes in Nollywood. Though the Nigerian movie industry reeks of gold from afar, in between the glittering lines and the razzmatazz lies an industry that is tottering. Save for a few stars and even fewer directors, many in the industry are barely managing. If in doubt, one just needs to ask Dickson Iroegbu, an award-winning movie director whose current state aptly captures the unseen truth of the industry. Today Iroegbu, in spite of being one of the top directors and producers in the industry, struggles to make ends meet.
Pause and rewind to 2003 when Iroegbu was on top of the world. His lifestyle then was red carpet. His movie ‘Romantic Attraction’, which cost N3.5 million, grossed over N9 million, making a healthy profit of N5.5 million. In 2005 his movie, ‘The Mayor’, apart from being a box office hit, garnered four awards at the maiden edition of the African Movie Academy Awards, AMAA. It scooped up gongs in Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor. In 2006, ‘Women’s Cot’, which he also directed, notched three AMAA. The categories were Best Cinematography, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress.
At that time, Iroegbu’s life rotated around award shows, corporate events, movie locations and film festivals. But before anyone could say Jack Robinson, Iroegbu found himself at the bottom rung of the ladder. His movies that once sold millions of copies could not even sell 1,000 copies anymore. He thus became prone to poverty, which swiftly swooped on him like an ill-tempered eagle. This was the technical knockout that literally turned Iroegbu’s world upside down.
He is not alone. Tragically there are many film-makers like Iroegbu who in the past had been accustomed to seeing their movies sell millions of copies, but suddenly woke up in another world where their movies could no longer sell a paltry 3,000 copies. Hence their livelihood and lifesavings went down the drain. “In those days, making movie was like narcotics. You invested a million naira in a movie and you’re sure to make over N10 million, but suddenly an earthquake came and movies hardly sell up to 10,000 copies,” says Imasuen.
But was it really sudden? Hadn’t there been tectonic plate movement within the bowels of the industry to which many had failed to pay attention? So what is responsible for this seismic shift in the industry that is regarded as the third biggest in the world, just behind Hollywood of the United States and Bollywood of India? While many are wont to blame piracy, the real culprit is actually a combination of self-inflicted injuries, which came together to create a perfect storm. In essence, Nollywood became a victim of its own success.
Indeed Nollywood became a huge success almost overnight in what some have described as a freak accident. It was said that Kenneth Nnebue, proprietor, Net Video Links, who had excess capacity of blank videocassettes was at a loss over the surplus. His desire to unload the tonnes of imported videocassettes, monopolising precious space in his warehouse, berthed the idea of producing the movie ‘Living in Bondage’. The film which hit the stores in 1992 became a runaway success selling millions of copies. This soon became an eye-opener to many about the lurking goldmine in the local movie industry.
Learning from his experience, many hopped into the Nollywood bandwagon, especially those who knew nothing about the industry. Still, they all struck gold. This good fortune was due to the insatiable appetite of the audience for locally produced movies, which had themes that resonated with daily experiences. In fact, so unshakeable was the honeymoon between the audience and the moviemakers that the former gladly forgave the latter for the many mistakes and shoddiness embedded in some of the films they churned out.
As a result, film-makers smiled all the way to the banks as movies with production budget of N2 million raked in more than three times what was invested. Benson observes that those were the golden days of the film-makers’ influence, when they were regarded and treated like the kings of the industry. At that time, he said, the power balance between the film-makers and the artistes was tilted towards the former, as the early set of actors and actresses had not yet gained the limelight and the accompanying clout. “In those early days the artiste did everything to impress the movie directors. Even if you told them that a scene involved jumping from the bridge, they were willing to do so just to impress you,” says Benson who has directed over 50 movies.
But as the rat race within the industry intensified, with many more entrants joining the fray, something happened which many in the industry neither accorded the appropriate attention nor adopted the right strategy for. Technology improved and the VHS videocassettes, which had been the building block of Nollywood, became supplanted by VCD and later DVD. “Many of us in the industry were neck deep in the chain line of producing movies that we did not even stop to consider how the change would affect the industry,” says Iroegbu.
At first, the migration appeared seamless, as the film-makers opted for the new technology, which brought on board several advantages over the old videocassettes. What they however failed to take cognizance of is the fact that they had lost a chief advantage of the videocassettes, which was the difficulty it posed for the unscrupulous business of piracy. While pirated videocassettes content were of abysmal quality, pirated VCD content displayed the same crisp and sharp quality of the original discs. The reality was slow in hitting the local film-makers. At the beginning, they thought that the good news was that the pirates had not yet dipped their treacherous fingers into the pie of the local film-makers. “It was only Western movies that were pirated in those days,” says Iroegbu.
On the surface, everything appeared to be going on well as film-makers were still making big money, even though movie standards had started declining. They however failed to plough a decent part of the proceeds back into the industry to develop the appropriate structures. One of the neglected structures that would later come back to bite the industry was the distribution channel. Distribution of films was centred in three streets across three cities, which were mostly a sloppy assemblage of stalls and shops. They are Nnamdi Azikiwe Street, Idumota, Lagos State; Iweka Road, Onitsha, Anambra State; and Pound Road, Aba, Abia State. Consequently the three centres – Lagos, Aba and Onitsha – were oversaturated with movies, while many of the inner parts of the country were not serviced. Pirates would later come to fill that gap. “We soon discovered that six months after our movies were released they had not yet reached other cities because the marketers were not keen about investing outside these three zones. How do you expect three places to serve an entire nation?” Imasuen queries while adding that, “we told the marketers to expand to other cities but they refused.” The result was that while the pirates brought the films closer to more fans, thus increasing the exposure of artistes, their actions robbed the film-makers lots of revenue.
Equally glaring was the industry’s brazen failure to invest in movie studios thereby breaching one of the ground rules of movie production. In the movie kingdom, studio production enhances the quality of movies as they serve as a sort of laboratory in which the director can create any scene he imagines. The absence of this vital structure greatly curtailed the creativity in Nollywood. As a result, the country became inundated with films, which had almost identical locations, similar scenes and, in some cases – because of the lack of expertise of some budding directors – similar story lines. It was almost easier to predict a Nollywood movie after watching the first three scenes than crossing a highway.
Boredom soon crept in for the audience who wanted more excitement. The home video no longer had the allure that swept them off their feet in its early days. To worsen an already bad situation, pirates also suddenly saw the goldmine in Nollywood. The newer DVD technology and the faulty distribution chain proved just the right incentives for them to hop into the market. Hence they employed the successful formula they had used in wooing the audience into buying pirated Western movies. Pronto! They came out with 24 movies in one DVD for a cheap price of N150! The movie audience which had been questioning the rationality of parting with N250 for a Nollywood movie, with similar storylines and scenes, gleefully became the pirates’ bedmates.
The advent of African magic, a cable channel on popular subscription based Digital Satellite Television, DSTV, also added a twist to the Nollywood tale. Initially it was hailed because it made global stars out of the local stars. However this new outlet for viewing Nollywood movies greatly reduced the reliance of the audience on new movies in the stores. “What the heck! We could watch them for free,” many said. By the time the industry realised that the development was a double-edged sword, many had sold their broadcasting rights to the television station for pittance. Many other channels also came up adopting the African Magic template. Internet sites like ‘Naija Pals’ also sprang up offering Nollywood films for free on the Internet. The prices of Nollywood movies had to be reduced to compete with the vastly advantaged pirated ones and the free ones on cable channels.
With all these factors combining, moviemakers woke up only to find out that their movies, which before could push a million copies within a few days, could not even push 10,000 copies in a whole year. This happened at a time when the power balance between the film-makers and the artistes had shifted in favour of the artistes. Thanks to several cable channels dedicated to Nollywood movies, the artistes were now global stars. Hence they could now command higher fees at a time the fortune of moviemakers was nose-diving.
The marketers who had become the major sponsors in the industry however tried unsuccessfully to persuade the A-list stars to cut their pay. When this failed, a one-year ban was clamped on their careers. The unintended price of the ban was that it created division in the industry while it miserably failed to produce the desired result. Not surprising, the artistes came out of the ban unscathed while some even commanded higher fees. “The marketers did not inform the film-makers before taking such actions, so many of us did not support the ban which only helped divide the industry,” says Iroegbu.
Caught in a Catch-22 situation in which the movies would not sell without the superstars, while having them on set also rendered the project unprofitable, the marketers decided to cut the dispensable cost. They stopped patronising top movie film-makers, relying on those who would collect a fraction of the cost. These led to a proliferation of sloppy movies, which only reinforced the vicious cycle leading to more viewers’ apathy.
In no time, the industry could no longer attract the funds it once attracted. “It became difficult to source funds from the corporate world because we could not allay their fears on recouping their money,” says Imasuen. Many filmmakers and sponsors lost out, as Nollywood became the victim of its on success because of its lack of foresight.
But where was the government in all of these? It largely acted like a spectator in a football match. In the heyday when the industry was booming and churning out thousands of jobs with each movie, top brass of the movie industry insisted that the government was indifferent. Except for a weak attempt at reform, which was when the Nigerian Films and Video Censors Board, NFVCB, came out with a framework stipulating the minimum capitalisation for national distributor, nothing concrete was done.
And where attempts were made, they failed to hit the right target. For instance, Tinapa Studio was built by Cross River State government in partnership with the private sector and aimed at helping the local film industry. But the studio has turned out to be a white elephant project. The movie industry would not touch it with the longest poles. Why? They claim that the cost of shooting a movie in the studio would create a massive hole in their shoestring budgets. “I have a movie budget of N3.5 million and Tinapa is asking for N1 million to use their facility. How on earth will I go there?” Imasuen and Iroegbu query.
Another attempt to help the film industry, this time coming from the federal government, appears to have also failed. In the run up to the 2011 general elections, President Goodluck Jonathan, in what was described as a thunderstorm manoeuvre, promised to set up a $200 million intervention fund for the movie industry but this has so far remained only in the realm of promises. “The government is no longer talking about the funds again,” Imasuen said. Practitioners in the industry did not help matters. They became divided over who disburses the fund that is yet to be put on the table.
Given this scenario, can one then conclude that the death knell has been sounded on the make-believe industry and the careers of moviemakers? Imasuen says this is far from the truth. The industry’s ground zero experience appears to have forced the moviemakers back to the drawing board.
Imasuen argues that directors and producers now appear to have finally come to terms with the stark reality that the movie-to-video template, which the industry was built upon, is no longer sustainable. Their response, the magazine gathered, is to create a framework where movies now first go to the cinemas before they are printed on DVD. This of course requires that Nollywood movies attain higher standards suitable for cinema viewing.
Imasuen contends that the industry is poised for such, noting that movies are already being shot using the new HD technology. “We are already at the next phase which is shooting movies that can fit cinema standard. In other climes, film-makers make the bulk of their money from the cinema, and Nollywood is ready to cash in on that,” he says. Whether this approach will bring back the good old days of money and influence for the likes of Iroegbu remains a question only time can answer.
*Culled from Tell Magazine Nigeria. Illustrations by PAV