The campaign video was glossy and elaborate: a cast of regal, dignified actors and filmmakers from the continent speaking about the power of using your voice. “Made by Africans, watched by the world,” the tagline pledged.
Welcome to Netflix Naija. In 2020, the streaming giant officially launched its presence in Nigeria, the first from the league of streaming platforms like Hulu and HBO. Genevieve Nnaji, whose directorial debut Lionheart was acquired by Netflix in 2018, led the cast of the video.
‘’Have you heard someone take your voice and replace your face until no one else can see or hear you?’’ she said, referring to the misrepresentation of African stories in western media.
“Africans taking charge of African stories” was the message emphasised by Netflix, which sees Netflix Naija feature more Nigerian movies and TV series. Nollywood – as the industry is more widely known – is vital to this mandate because of its output, producing about 1,000 movies a year, surpassing Hollywood and only second to Bollywood.
Nollywood owes its existence to the entrepreneurial big bang of the early 90s: Kenneth Nnebue, an electronics dealer, realised he could make a profit recording films on the blank videotapes he imported. What came next was the occult horror classic Living in Bondage, the first attempt that would spark the home video boom.
Despite budget constraints, old Nollywood movies engaged with the moral codes of evangelical Christianity, including horror and lo-fi action thrillers. The Nollywood style is low camp: sentimental, exaggerated, frivolous. The cinema revolution brought small shifts that turned comedies into hot products, as seen in the record highest grossing 2018 film The Wedding Party.
On paper, the Netflix-Nollywood partnership was a dream come true – empowering local storytellers to create original content at a time when people were sequestered inside their homes, desperate for new ways to distract themselves. Over the course of the pandemic, many Nollywood titles have already been uploaded onto the platform through this licensing deal, turning Netflix into a post-cinema haven for Nigerian cinema fans.
But things are rarely that simple – not when it comes to a million-dollar streaming business like Netflix or Nollywood, an industry plagued by gatekeeping, segregation and deep-rooted dysfunction.
Most of the films offloaded on Netflix are a long way off from getting the kind of accolades received by the Netflix-made Alfonso Cuarón movie Roma. Think flimsy plots, poor storytelling and a general lack of imagination.
‘’Nollywood seems stuck on three kinds of stories: drama or comedies about relationships, marriages, and businesses on the brink of failure,” film critic Dika Ofuoma says. ‘’I think there’s been a kind of disillusionment with most audiences critical of Nollywood who had thought Netflix entry and the attendant funding of these films – since the usual excuse for shoddy storytelling was lack of funds – would be better films.’’
“We are not doing partnerships with Nollywood, we do partnerships with individual creators,” a Netflix spokesperson clarifies. Not everything Netflix is acquiring is a comedy, they point out, adding that the platform has just announced adaptations of Nobel Prize-winning author Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman and Lola Shonenyin’s bestselling novel The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives.
“If something is a box office hit in Nigeria, it tells you what Nigerians love watching,” they explain. “Also, we are still new in Nigeria and what people will start seeing as we grow is partnerships with more creators to make quality content and that takes time.’’
The homogenisation of Nollywood predates the arrival of Netflix, and it’s a problem rooted in a monopoly and new-wave commercialism that began in 2012 with FilmOne Entertainment, the distribution company that also runs a fleet of cinemas in Nigeria. The still-expanding entertainment outfit has been the bridge between Netflix and Nollywood in procuring licensing deals.
But with a business model that straddles film production, distribution as well as cinema exhibition, which isn’t done elsewhere until recently, FilmOne has had Nollywood in a stranglehold. It maintains a particular brand of content: slapstick comedies, maudlin rom-coms and stilted dramas with a brittle icing of cinematography to please a more high-brow audience.
If Nollywood has made Netflix in its own image, this is it: reproducing movies that are largely unimaginative, with the same actors, directors, power players and seemingly impermeable to other genres like Afro-futurism, sci-fi or horror. To a large degree, FilmOne has arbitrated the kind of Nollywood movies available on Netflix. (FilmOne did not respond to a request for comment.)
But this doesn’t let Netflix off the hook. The streaming platform also appears to be lowballing Nollywood with its licensing fees. ‘’In the Middle East, Netflix is paying as much as $500,000 – $1 million per episode for a series,’’ says an anonymous Nigerian-based entertainment lawyer who has represented content producers in licensing negotiations with Netflix. ‘’If I hear these exact figures from regions like the UK, for example, it will make sense because it has a vibrant film market. But Nollywood movies, after they show in cinemas, are valued between $20,000 to $100,000. For originals or commissioned projects, this is between $100,000 to $400,000.’’
Saudi Arabia awoke in 2018 from a cinema ban that lasted 35 years, and while films from the Middle East have begun to make inroads internationally with Oscar-nominated movies like Capernaum and Of Fathers and Sons, the region doesn’t yet hold the fascination that Nollywood attracts – and it definitely doesn’t have the biggest uptake in Netflix subscriber numbers.
‘’There are 30 million Nigerians in the diaspora and there are non-Nigerians who watch Nollywood. My understanding is that if you put our content on a platform like Netflix, you are serving millions of people, so clearly it must have value,’’ the lawyer continues. ‘’Even if our content is trash, Netflix came into Nigeria because they saw that Nollywood has something to offer. Seeing someone announce that they have a Netflix deal always fills me with joy and horror because I know that person is most likely not being paid what they are worth.’’
‘’We don’t disclose how much we pay but I can tell you that this lowballing of creators is really not true. We pay market rates, if not above,” Netflix’s spokesperson says. “It doesn’t make sense to make comparisons with the Middle East because it’s a different economy.’’
But South African Netflix has already shown a range in content, from originals like the afro-spy thriller Queen Sono to young adult drama Blood and Water which had a pansexual character. Netflix Naija is yet to commission or acquire a LGBTQ film or series and although there’s Nigeria’s homophobic laws to consider, the streamer’s vision of “African stories’’ continues to exclude entire communities.
‘’I worry that stories that centre LGBTIQ persons wouldn’t get that spotlight as a result of lack or limited interest from majority of the Nigerian producers who will be working with Netflix,’’ says Olumide Makanjuola, executive producer on queer advocacy films like We Don’t Live Here Anymore. ‘’It’s my hope that Netflix will bring to Nigeria what it’s has taken to other part of the world, the opportunities to tell diverse stories that cut across politics, sex, gender, sexuality, social class, religion, law and others within our own context and human realities.”