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Netflix meets Nollywood

Nigeria’s film industry, nicknamed Nollywood, is flourishing as both a source of economic prosperity and an outlet for cultural creative curiosity. As many Nollywood films have increased in quality and global circulation, they have achieved an increased permanence in global film markets. However, considering the essential cultural and economic benefits Nollywood films reap, their ascension into global film markets should be carefully mediated due to both symbolic and material consequences.

Nollywood is the second largest film industry in terms of volume, producing about 2,000 productions annually and grossing about US$590 million each year. The industry’s role in the Nigerian economy is so significant that in 2014, former President Goodluck Jonathan included Nollywood production into the Nigerian GDP calculation, allowing Nigeria to take the place as the largest economy on the African continent.

Nollywood has also been important culturally for Nigerians, both in the country and in diaspora, for its various entertainment purposes, representations, and often didactic messages. Nollywood, as an economic and cultural powerhouse, has attracted investment from players in international film markets, including global streaming services such as Netflix. Nollywood films debuted on Netflix in 2015 with the streaming service’s purchase to the rights of major films like Kunle Afolayan’s October 1st and Biyi Bandele’s Fifty, films that were already distributed in Nigerian cinemas.

Symbolically, the presence of these films on international streaming services, such as Netflix, importantly promulgates nuanced and dynamic portrayals of Nigeria on a global platform. Often times in Western media sources, African societies, and other non-Western societies, are represented with strife, poverty, and underdevelopment. There is something inherently powerful about portraying a society and its people for their general quotidian-ness; in this regard, the society is not exceptionalized or seen in an overly dramatized light, but their way of living and being is normalized and valued for its intrinsic nature. For example, films such as The Wedding Party, housed on Netflix, explores themes that are specific to Nigerian society yet remain accessible to global audiences due to the aspects of Nigerian culture portrayed in the films that are found across societies and cultures globally.

The Wedding Party humorously explored the materialization of differences between two families, of two different Nigerian ethnic groups, as their children prepare to get married. While global audiences can resonate with the concept of a family not approving of a marriage between their children, the concept of ethnic division is something that is inherently prominent in Nigerian society, dating back to both colonialism and the Nigerian civil war called the Biafran War.

Netflix plays an important role in promoting a nuanced portrayal of Nigeria by providing the platform on which these films can be housed and disseminated to global audiences. Netflix watchers can view these films and actively reformulate their conceptions of Nigeria, and perhaps of other non-Western societies, that are often flatly portrayed in Western media sources.

While Netflix’s accommodation of Nollywood films on its platform plays a significant symbolic role in promoting nuanced and dynamic representations of Nigeria globally, it also implicates important material ramifications, both in terms of royalties and the role of Nigerians in the film making process.

On January 4th of this year, Netflix released its first original film to be produced in Nigeria, titled Lionheart. Despite the fact that the film was a Netflix original film, it powerfully remained rooted in Nigerian realities due to the significant role Nigerians played throughout the filmmaking process. The film was written and directed by two Nigerian filmmakers, Chinny Onwugbenu and Genevieve Nnaji, who also doubles as the star of the film.

As both actors and directors, Nigerians can symbolically continue to produce accurate portrayals of Nigeria, and materially, they can remain as players in international film markets as Nigerian films increasingly circulate nationwide. Nigerians as directors and as actors in internationally circulated Nollywood films are then able to collect the money produced from their films because they were involved in the film making process, as either producers, directors, or actors.

As a Netflix original film, Lionheart also importantly injected US$ 8 billion into the production budget for the film. Nigeria, as the largest economy on the African continent, benefits economically from Nollywood film production which totals to be about 1.4 percent of the nations GDP, about US$7.2 billion. However, according to Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics, less than 1 percent of revenue from Nollywood films is captured through “official sales and royalties, largely due to DVD pirating.” Consequently, filmmakers and actors only capture a fraction of Nollywood’s economic value.

Supplemented financial investments could benefit Nollywood by allowing for larger budgets for film production teams, as Nigerian producer Kunle Afolayan posited. The revenue for Nollywood movies is already present, however, it is not properly captured. Investments from companies such as Netflix could produce positive economic yields and potentially overcome the problem of capturing revenue for Nigerian films. For example, other Netflix original productions in Nigeria could inject money into the Nigerian economy through film production budgets. These increased budgets, as Afolayan stipulated, could also allow for better content and quality in Nollywood productions, which may, in turn, serve to attract more investment in Nigerian films. Investment from companies like Netflix could also combat the issue of capturing royalties, by directing audiences to pay a subscription fee to watch Nollywood films, especially if the film is a Netflix original that can only be viewed on Netflix.

However, while Netflix could play a significant role in overcoming revenue capture issues, it is important that it does not financially consume the Nigerian film industry. For example, if Netflix’s investment in Nollywood productions is contingent on the productions being Netflix original films that can only be viewed on the streaming service’s platform, it may effectively block other investors and audiences from accessing the film. In this regard, Netflix’s investment in the Nigerian film industry, despite its potentially positive economic benefits, should not become monopolistic and crowd out other investors and spectators.

In addition to producing economic changes, Netflix has attempted to ameliorate some infrastructural challenges to the use of the streaming-service by partnering with Spectranet, a local internet provider in Nigeria, to improve internet service connection. However, as a private company investing in a public service, Nexflix’s interest in Nigerian infrastructure could have unwarranted consequences, such as limiting the access to other streaming competitors, such as iROKOtv, that have already had a significant impact in Nigerian film and TV streaming markets.

As it stands, Netflix could be instrumental in the Nigerian film industry by providing better-managed channels of Nollywood film distribution and revenue capture and by increasing positive and nuanced representations of Nigerians on an international platform. However, Netflix and other international film industry investors should encourage investments in Nollywood films that simultaneously buttress the already booming film industry and ensure that the content remains rooted in Nigerian realities. These investors should also ensure that their contributions to the Nigerian film industry do not displace investments from other companies, both those that are nationally and internationally sourced, and that they do not reduplicate exploitive and monopolistic foreign investment strategies in Nigeria.

Photo: “Nollywood