Hooray for Nollywood: Behind the Scenes of the Nigerian Film Industry

As the Oscars dust settles in Tinseltown, we turn our attention to one of the largest film industries in the world: Nigeria

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Nigerian actress Ebbe Bassey (Image: Ebbesdream.com)

As the dust settles in Tinseltown post-Oscars, we turn our attention to Nigeria’s Nollywood—the third largest film industry in the world behind Hollywood and Bollywood. Nollywood annually produces over 2,000 movies, and brings in profits of approximately $250 million per year. With the help of actresses such as Ebbe Bassey and Osas Ighodaro, and producer Oji Idakwoji, BlackEnterprise.com gets a peek behind the scenes of the popular films at the ways they thrive, and ways they simply survive.

Emerging in the late 1980s, Nollywood depicted stories reflective of everyday life, making them identifiable to its audiences. While still illustrating the crime and anxieties of Nigeria and other African countries, filmmakers nowadays gravitate toward themes that involve moral dilemmas facing modern-day Africans, many of them with overt Christian, Islamic, and evangelical themes, in addition to the depiction of prostitution, romance, a corrupt police force and disease.

Similar to model used by African-American filmmaker Tyler Perry in the states, the films are typically produced at a very modest budget and yield a high return. With an average production rate of $15,000, Nollywood films often yield up to 10 times that amount in return.

Nollywood filmmakers—eager to use Black American talent in order to broaden their international appeal—say that while the actors might not be able to demand the same paycheck as actors like Denzel Washington would for Safe House or Viola Davis would for The Help, the sky’s the limit on the types of stories they can tell.

In other words, says Ebbe Bassey—a Bronx, New York-born, Calabar, Nigerian-raised actress who appeared in the award-winning 2011 Ghanian film, Ties That Bind, starring U.S. actress Kimberly Elise, and in such TV shows as Law & Order: SVU—it wouldn’t be necessary for Davis to dress up as a maid in order to win an award.

“Nollywood films allow Black people to shine,” says Bassey. “[Unlike in Hollywood], we’re not being killed at the end of the first scene. We’re not gangbanging or on drugs,” she says. “We can be doctors, lawyers and whatever else we want to be. Nollywood films allow Black people to choose roles that fully express their humanity.”

It’s for this reason Bassey says that she thinks the industry—although it is largely based in Nigeria—is hugely popular all over the African continent, throughout the Caribbean, and yes, even in the United States. With an estimated 1,000 straight-to-DVD films annually produced by independent companies and businessmen in cities like Abuja, Lagos and even California, customers have an ever widening selection of actors and story lines to choose from.

Even with grand plotlines, Bassey says Nollywood productions are able to maintain their low budgets in part because most Nollywood films are not shot in a traditional studio. Instead, some are filmed in hotels, people’s homes and offices. Plus Nigeria, she says, as well as other parts of Africa, like Ghana—where Nia Long filmed the controversial 2011 film Mooz-lum—offers the kind of bureaucratically streamlined filmmaking process that most American producers only dream of but may be surprised to know.

“You don’t have to worry about filing much paperwork here,” laughs Bassey, who reports that Danny Glover, who co-starred in Mooz-lum, has visited Nigeria several times to discuss potentially developing projects there.  “If you’re [a producer] shooting in the states, you’re using union actors and directors so you have to file with the Screen Actors Guild, and that’s a nightmare,” she says. “As a filmmaker, you also spend far less money on licenses and have a lot less input [from the government] on how to run your company. If you wanted to pull out your camera and start shooting in the street, it’d be okay.”


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  • Dellam

    Tomika, thank you for writing this article and for shedding the light on the industry. As a consumer and addicted viewer of Nollywood films, I was not completely aware of all the challenges. Yes, I will admit that I have complained about the sound quality of the movies and wondered why it had not been improved. So often as Americans, we are accustomed to everything being “perfectly done” and fail to appreciate even the most minute things in life. I wish to see the expansion of Nollywood and all other African film industries and pray that our community continues to support them.

  • Ani O

    As a Nigerian, I will say that Nollywood has come a long way, and I am very proud of what they have become. I am sure that with the right investors, the industry will be taken to a higher level.
    We wish all the actors and actresses best wishes.

  • David Boaz

    Nollywood was a project which has worked out great. The crowning glory will be LANTAWOOD, an industry growing in Atlanta Georgia and focused on taking Nollywood to higher grounds. By the way, Nollywood is the 2nd largest industry not 3rd. Ant it will one day be the #1.

  • Ms Catwalq/ Bani Productions

    The Nigerian film industry is an untapped avenue for investment for all people in the diaspora. The narratives connect with all communities and the projects could be the answer and competition the African Americans have been looking for to make Hollywood take notice. One can start by investing in up and coming filmmakers accessible to you on the internet.
    Instead of buying that hot new gadget, get four of your friends and combine the price of an Ipad as an investment in an independent African/African American filmmaker in your local. Screen the project n your neigbourhood to recoup your investment and you will see that you have your own film-hood industry at your beck and call

  • Naveah

    This is a great write up, thanks Blackenterprise for bringing relevant, quality news. Ebbe Bassey was recently nominated for Best Supporting Actress in a feature for Ties that Bind at the 2012 African Movie Academy Awards.

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