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Being a Creative Amidst Nigeria’s Economic Turbulence: How Nollywood Filmmakers are Cutting Costs

Being a Creative Amidst Nigeria’s Economic Turbulence: How Nollywood Filmmakers are Cutting Costs

Being a Creative Amidst Nigeria's Economic Turbulence: How Nollywood Filmmakers are Cutting Costs in the inflation - Afrocritik

… It is pertinent to hold on to the fact that the ever-resilient Nollywood spirit that has seen the industry take claim as one of the biggest film industries in the world is not flagging anytime soon, and that artistic passions continue to rove high and strong.

By Victory Hayzard Solum

Since the inception of cinema, filmmaking has attracted the most passionate of dreamers. When one considers the seeming odds to be levelled to make a movie, especially in today’s reality, it would be incredible if they weren’t ardent idealists. From the provision of camera, sound, and lighting equipment, to ensuring willful and enthusiastic performances, as well as a seamless flow of ideas across several departments in pursuit of a singular vision, filmmaking can be a physically and psychologically gruelling task. It must be in appreciation of the magnitude of the undertaking that most film crews will burst into jubilation at the wrap-up of principal photography. Even then, the task is usually far from over for the director and certain other crew members. The post-production phase brings with it a whole new host of demands. And all of it, from conception down to execution, is heavily reliant on funding.

For filmmakers like Ebuka Njoku, these hassles, especially as they pertain to finance, are a necessity if one is to attain the euphoria that comes with the creation of a cinematic piece. In 2022, he directed the suspense thriller, Yahoo+, to critical acclaim. He has since embarked on yet another production, this time, a family drama/romantic comedy, ỤNỌ (The F in Family), set for release this year. But he finds, like everyone else, that the stakes have been raised significantly.

As he shares, the preliminary breakdown of the screenplay hinted at a budget of about 16 million naira — 12 million for shooting and 4 million for marketing. He would realise however that this would barely scratch the surface. For one, the cost of finding a suitable location had doubled in price. “When we shot Yahoo+ in 2021, the cost of an apartment then, was 45 [thousand naira] per day. But for UNO, the original price was 90 or 80. We had to negotiate 70 [thousand naira] per day because we were staying for two weeks.”  As Njoku shared, by the time they were done shooting, the budget had gone up to 19 million naira.

It is important to note that the disparity in costs did not come from the run-of-the-mill surprises one encounters in the course of a film production. Nigeria is, in fact, in the throes of a dastardly economic inflation rate which has seen a 9.79% increase in the past year. This is typified by the surge in fuel prices which in November 2023, rose to N663, increasing 220% from what it was the previous year. There is also the devaluation of the naira to consider since the government’s decision to float the currency, which has seen it plummet to its current conversion rate of N1410 to a dollar when just a year ago, it stood officially at N460. This state of affairs has brought untold hardship to the Nigerian masses, with soaring food prices and higher costs of other basic amenities. And it is this specific set of circumstances which now belies the labours of Nollywood filmmakers.

For example, Njoku, who wanted his second feature to be a horror film had it postponed in favour of UNO, a love letter to his family — a decision that came at a huge cost. Comparing the expenses of his filmmaking endeavours, he says, “For Yahoo+, we spent close to a total of 25M if you include the cost of legal and all. So, after UNO, I started making enquiries about the horror film. The VFX alone for that film, in today’s budget, is going to cost close to 30M. Just VFX. Imagine what the rest of the film would cost.”

Behind the scene of Ebuka Njoku's second Nollywood feature, UNO The F in Family - Afrocritik
Behind the scenes of Ebuka Njoku’s second Nollywood feature, UNO The F in Family

Behind the scene of Ebuka Njoku's second Nollywood feature, UNO The F in Family - Afrocritik

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VFX is only one aspect where this hike has occurred. Everything from set design to costuming, as far as they are reliant on immediate monetary bases, is beginning to suffer from increasing budget cuts. Wingonia Ikpi, former Content Development Producer at FilmOne Entertainment from August 2022 to December 2023, and producer of the 2023 comedy, Bank Alert, clues us in, “As of last year, producers started cutting down feeding. So instead of spending three thousand naira for three square meals, they started cutting it down to two just to keep up with the economy.” Even more economically, others are turning to the hiring of in-house cooks and bulk purchases of foodstuff, as opposed to incurring costs from the purchase of take-out meals per crew member.

These drastic measures, regardless, relief seems nowhere in sight yet, as inflation has also affected the former strategies of funding. Ikpi tells us “If you used to approach brands, and maybe the brands could give you like ten million naira to help reduce your budget, it means that now, they’re probably going to do about five million naira or nothing at all because everybody is trying to protect themselves.”

It is particularly telling how disheartening this reduction of sponsorship opportunities might be for the industry. Consider, for example, Prime Video’s decision to scale back local production of African and Middle Eastern content. The history of film streaming in Nollywood began with IrokoTV, as established by Jason Njoku, which offered a large library of Nollywood films online for a subscription fee. But it was the entry of Netflix in 2016, and its 3.8 million dollar acquisition of the Genevieve Nnaji drama, Lionheart, in 2018 which really categorised streaming as big business and a viable avenue for Nollywood film distribution. Netflix was followed by Showmax in 2019, and Amazon Prime Video in 2021. But barely a year after the release of its first original, the 2023 crime thriller, Gangs of Lagos, Prime Video has announced its principal exit from the Nollywood market, fuelling panic and speculations about what that means for the other streaming platforms and for Nollywood in general.

The Bank of Industry also has a Nollywood fund dedicated to financing filmmakers, with loans for commercially viable films, which should, ideally, bolster the confidence of the industry. Since the institution of this fund by the administration of Former President Goodluck Jonathan in 2015, however, the establishment has been plagued with allegations of fund mismanagement. It is essentially a familiarity with the historical bleakness of the Nollywood business that has actor-director-producer, Belinda Yanga-Agedah feeling a sense of indifference to the current hardships.

Yanga-Agedah wears several hats as a Nollywood filmmaker. Featuring mostly as an actor, she has directed features like Romance is Overrated and Love in a Time of Kekes, with similar credits on episodes of the web series, Little Black Book. Having borne the additional weight of a producer and being abreast with the history of Nollywood, she does not think there is much that is any different. Nigerians have had to suffer a series of ever-increasing economic hardships from successive governments with little respite in between, and it is in the midst of such hardship that Nollywood sprang up with its cheaply produced video cassette films, beginning with the Kenneth Nnebue-produced 1992 movie, Living in Bondage. When piracy threatened to cheat the filmmakers of all possible returns on their investment, they turned to producing these movies even cheaper than usual, and as many as possible, in order to break even.

YouTube has become a popular avenue of distribution for just this sort of Nollywood films in recent times. Not only is it cost-effective for reducing the production demands likely to accompany patronage of streaming platforms, but it is also one which affords them some measure of protection from piracy. With its reliance on views for monetisation, economic viability simply is a matter of producing as much content as possible and cheaply too, in the hopes of amassing a large enough following on nearly as large a library. There also are hearsays that filmmakers are seeking to chop their movie feature up in bits for suitable releases on TikTok, a channel Ikpi admits she finds attractive.

With Nollywood’s continual push to survive against all odds in mind, thus, Yanga-Agedah admits that filmmakers will continue to shoot regardless, and with various budgeting levels, from small to mid-budget to large budgets. “You just turn it into sort of like your 9-5, so you’re shooting two films per month… It’s kind of very separate from the economy – regardless of what happens to the economy, people are still shooting with two million naira.”

Yanga-Agedah’s business-as-usual sentiments over the inflation are shared by Onyinye Odokoro, revelation actress of Africa Magic‘s 2021 soap, Dilemma, who has also gone on to feature in movies like Domitilla: The Reboot and Adire. She says about the Nollywood situation, “It’s not exactly peculiarly different.” Her challenges come not particularly from filmmaking, but from being the average Nigerian citizen, and that means cutting costs and sacrificing specific desires. “As an actor, I am constantly looking to learn new things. For example, I’d wanted to start taking a pole dancing class, alongside going to the gym. But with the way the value of the naira is at an all-time low, I’m just trying to survive and deliberately live below my means.”

The resilience of these actors, notwithstanding, there is one aspect in which the film industry does feel the pinch, and that is in cinema admissions. Nollywood closed out 2023 with the gargantuan blockbuster success of A Tribe Called Judah, with its record-setting gross of 1.4 billion naira. The year’s total cinema gross at 7.24 billion naira saw a 4.32% increase from 2022’s 6.94 billion naira, with 2021 bringing the rear at 4.74 billion naira. However, when one considers the fact that 2021 had an average of 30,895 cinema admissions weekly, against 2023’s 19,733, one realises there’s very little cause for celebration, and more for alarm. As a matter of fact, 2023 saw a 16.6% decrease from 2022’s total cinema admissions. The seeming rise in cinema gross is thus accounted for by increased ticket prices which went up by about 27% in 2023.

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The cinema operators’ increase in ticket prices becomes even more heartrending when one considers just what that means for the average Nigerian. In January 2024, the Jason Statham starring Hollywood release, The Beekeeper, had an average ticket price of 6000 naira. That put it at 20% of the minimum wage in Nigeria, 30,000 naira, one of the highest ticket prices in the world. Is it any wonder the drop in attendance? What this means is Nigerians might turn to cheaper ways of acquiring these products, as they continue to consume films. Already, the signs are in the air. Actor-Producer, Toyin Abraham, reportedly burst into tears upon sighting illegal copies of her December 2023 film, Malaika, on social media.

These are the sort of realities and hassles that filmmakers must cushion themselves against if they are to go on surviving in Nollywood, and a lot of these voices are leaning towards collaboration. Ikpi says, “I feel like we’re currently in a jungle. At the same time, it kind of means that filmmakers will need to step up their filmmaking game… We will need to make the calculations; is it better to partner with another filmmaker and collaborate on a very strong film as opposed to three smaller films? And not even smaller in terms of budget, but like the story, or the advertising.”

Njoku, too, is experimenting with collaboration. For UNO he had to strike cost-sharing deals with the company which provided his cameras, as well as with media coverage personnel and others. He tells us, “I’m trying to experiment… a situation [where] you get things cheaper. I find a way to pay either through credits, or through stakes, or through brand collaboration. That’s the easiest way we can actually grow fast.”

On that count, Yanga-Agedah is just as much in agreement, especially as regards the industry’s development. She says, “It’s too young to not focus on collaboration. It’s too poor to choose competition over collaboration.”

While the push towards collaborative measures is ongoing, there appears also to be the option of tech democratisation. A much-cherished story in the history of Nigeria’s biggest music export, Afrobeats, tells how the earliest songs were produced on cheap DAWs like Fruity Loops, now known since 2003 as FL Studio. All that was required to get to work was a laptop and a decent mic. Might Nollywood not require similar innovations?

There are lots of tutorials on the internet on how to make movies off an iPhone. Not relegated to the iPhone, festivals now exist dedicated to the celebration and exhibition of films made via such a medium, one of them being the African Smartphone International Film Festival. 2022 saw the smartphone company, Tecno, releasing Road to Spotlight and Roles Reversed, shot on their Camon 19 Pro phone model. It is foreseeable in the not-too-distant future, thus, that some Nollywood features may be made on a smartphone or a similar device.

Road to Spotlight (2022) - Afrocritik
2022 Road to Spotlight was filmed using a Tecno Canon 19 Pro
The short film Roles Reversed was entirely filmed using a Tecno Camon 19 Pro - Afrocritik
The short film Roles Reversed was entirely filmed using a Tecno Camon 19 Pro

As the filmmakers continue to find more wiggle room in their bid to make movies, a few more doors appear to be opening. 2023 saw the release of streaming sensation, The Black Book, a chart-topping action thriller directed by Editi Effiong. But even more remarkable about this film was its list of investors which was dominated by the front-liners of Nigeria’s booming tech industry. This along with the recent launch of more Nigerian film production companies, like Labari Africa in 2022 with its 3 million dollar start-up, gives one cause to believe better days hover on the horizon. But until they are here, it is pertinent to hold on to the fact that the ever-resilient Nollywood spirit that has seen the industry take claim as one of the biggest film industries in the world is not flagging anytime soon, and that artistic passions continue to rove high and strong.

Victory Hayzard Solum is a freelance writer with an irrepressible passion for the cinematic arts. Here he explores the sights, sounds, and magic of the shadow-making medium and their enrichment of the human experience. A longstanding ghostwriter, he may have authored the last bestselling novel you read.

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