The Improbable Success of Nollywood

To wander through or these days is to realize that there is a lot of pent-up amateur video talent out there. A lot of the videos are junk, of course. But what’s interesting is how the line between amateurs and professionals is starting to blur. More and more low-budget amateurs and struggling professionals are starting to break through to paying audiences with their films. The Blair Witch Project horror flick was an early example, but more recently we’ve seen grassroots-driven screenings of Robert Greenwald’s Wal-Mart movie. At a recent Cannes film festival, an amateur filmmaker wowed the audience with a film that cost less than $300 to make! Too bad he couldn’t afford the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to clear the rights to the film clips he used.

These examples got me to wondering — what if small, resourceful filmmakers could more regularly break into the market with their quirky, passionate films by breaking Hollywood’s stranglehold on commercial distribution of films? I recently learned that the template for such a cultural revolution just may lie with Nollywood, the Nigerian film industry.

Who would have guessed that Nigeria has the third-largest national film industry in the world, behind the U.S. and India? Every week, about 30-40 new films are released. They are all sold by street vendors, directly to consumers, on videocassettes. (Nigeria doesn’t have any movie theaters.) The videos cost $3 apiece and rent for 50 cents. Although pirates in outlying areas of Nigeria sell illicit copies for $1.50, the industry is still thriving. Indeed, one might argue that sales of pirated videos is whetting the consumer appetite for legitimately purchased films.

Nigerian filmmakers release about 2,000 low-budget films a year, which rack up sales of $200-$300 million. (By comparison, American studios released 611 commercial films in 2005. India released 934.) The Nigerian industry employs about one million people, which makes it the second biggest employer after agriculture. A typical film costs between $30,000 and $100,000 to make, according to The Economist magazine (June 29, 2006).

A lot of Nigerian films deal with witchcraft, murder and other unsavory themes, and production values are often poor. But the stories clearly resonate with the Nigerian consumer. In fact, Nigerian films are so popular that they are watched throughout Africa; on a South African satellite television network; on a British pay-television channel owned by Rupert Murdoch; and on commercial airlines.

The lesson that I draw from Nollywood is that an open, decentralized marketplace with lots of participants is likely to be more creatively robust and competitive than the Hollywood blockbuster culture that we are now saddled with. In fact, doesn’t the Nigerian film biz sound a lot like the Internet itself? It’s a low-cost platform open to newcomers who have the talent to connect with audiences. Word-of-mouth beats out glitzy advertising campaigns. Internet-savvy creative rebels in the industrialized world may find something to emulate in the Nigerian film industry.