Why you should care
In 2004, a studio power play changed Nigeria’s film industry forever.
As the 92nd Academy Awards are handed out in Los Angeles tomorrow night, lovers of Nigerian films worldwide will be mourning what could have been. Three months ago, Nigeria’s first-ever official entry to the foreign film category — Lionheart, which is also the nation’s first Netflix original — was ruled ineligible because it’s predominantly in English.
Even though Lionheart’s road didn’t end in Oscar gold, its journey to the screen was an epic one. And it begins, curiously, 15 years before the film was even released — with a blacklist that rocked Nigeria’s film industry, aka Nollywood. That upheaval may have helped it become the second most prolific film-producing community after India’s Bollywood, and its indie filmmakers are increasingly getting a moment in the spotlight.
Back in 2004, a powerful cabal of film studios and distributors controlled Nigeria’s film industry, which was laser-focused on DVDs and videos rather than the cinematic culture common elsewhere. But even on DVD, superstars emerged, and their power threatened to overtake the era’s producers. So the studios made a bold move: They banned eight A-list actors from working for a year. Known as the G8, the actors were put on blast for charging what studios considered to be exorbitant fees for their work and for demanding upfront payments. At the time, Nigerian film was running on a shoestring, and with piracy eating into their profits, studios were willing to take desperate measures to keep budgets low.
“It was a silly and needless exercise of power by them … an exercise in futility,” reminisces Richard Mofe-Damijo, one of the eight. “It’s like some people coming together tomorrow to say visual artists cannot sell their work beyond a certain amount. That was how ridiculous it was.”
“It was a petty move to bring down some people to size,” agrees Nigerian film critic Wilfred Okiche. “The DVD distribution system was broken. [The] ban was just the last stand of marketers trying to make it work by keeping costs low.”
But from the ashes of a scorched-earth strategy bloomed what is now one of the world’s most important film industries. The G8, after all, had power of their own. And, unable to keep acting, they turned to other things. Some initially turned to music; others — like Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde, named to Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People list in 2013 — to activism. But most ended up on the other side of the camera, directing and producing as they changed their broken industry from within.
Genevieve Nnaji, who rose to stardom as a child actor, continued acting after her ban was ended but also branched out into music and advertising. But it’s behind the camera of her first feature, Lionheart, that Nnaji became an international sensation. When Netflix acquired the film, the deal was reportedly worth $3.8 million. The cabal, meanwhile, has largely gone underground, making way for a Nollywood industry transformation from video to cinema.
During the ban, more Nollywood actors was hired to replace the talent lost, allowing a new crop of A-listers to arise. But the consensus for those looking back is that the ban was ineffective when it came to controlling the superstars who were demanding a place at the table — and in fact led to them taking the reins.
Some disagree: “The ban didn’t do anything for the industry … maybe individually it made [actors] say we may not be doing work for hire and we need to think about producing our own films, but even in 2004, 2005 and 2006, none of them produced any film,” says Shaibu Husseini, a member of the committee that selected Nigeria’s Oscar submission and head of the Africa Movie Academy Awards jury. “Still, it made other people think that the control these producers had is that they are prolific producers, so why don’t we up our game?”
Another thing that happened in 2004: The first Silverbird Cinema opened in Lagos. Today a chain that crisscrosses Nigeria and Ghana, Silverbird reintroduced a cinema culture that had been displaced by Nollywood’s flood of home videos and DVDs, by showing foreign films and, eventually, Nigerian movies as well. That outlet encouraged indie filmmakers to try new distribution channels and effectively opened the floodgates for movies like Lionheart.
“Silverbird didn’t come up with the intention of showing Nollywood films,” says Husseini. “Producers didn’t want to rely on just DVDs for sources of revenue, and, at the time, there weren’t any direct-to-home services, so the only way of making money … was to go to the cinema.” As Nollywood has matured, the film and DVD business has fallen out of favor, giving way to an internationally recognized cinema culture.
As one of the banned actors, Jim Iyke, said in a 2018 interview: “It made me begin to look for other opportunities, do things that I didn’t think were conceivable, meet people that I didn’t know knew me and wanted to do business with me, travel the world, broaden my horizon. It was the greatest blessing of my life.”
Perhaps being shut out of the Oscars, as she was once shut out of the film industry, will encourage Nnaji to fly to even greater heights.