The Nigerian film industry, known as Nollywood or New Nigerian Cinema, is a global powerhouse that releases hundreds of movies yearly. Learn about its rich history and notable filmmakers.
What Is Nollywood?
Nollywood is a popular epithet for the Nigerian film industry, the second-largest film industry after India’s Bollywood. “Nollywood” is a derivation of both “Bollywood,” a nickname for the Indian film industry, and “Hollywood,” the former center of production for movies in the United States.
Nollywood encompasses Nigerian movies made on the African continent and film sub-industries in the African diaspora. These smaller sectors include industries that focus on Yoruba, Igbo, and Hausa-language films (the city of Kano inspired the “Kannywood” moniker). English-language films made in the neighboring West African country of Ghana and Nigerian movies made in the United States and other countries also fall under the Nollywood umbrella.
A Brief History of Nollywood
Here is a brief overview of the history and evolution of Nollywood:
- Origins: Though Nigeria’s film industry dates back to the turn of the twentieth century, white colonial and foreign filmmakers oversaw these film productions. The Nigerian movie industry first began producing films shot on celluloid by Nigerian filmmakers after the country declared independence in 1960. Movies became a popular pastime with Nigerians, who had more disposable income in the 1970s thanks to an economic boom spurred by oil and other foreign investments. Movie theaters sprung up in Lagos, the country’s largest city, showing a mix of international and homegrown films.
- Pivot to video: Nigerian cinema declined in the 1980s due to various factors, including the devaluation of Nigeria’s currency, the naira, and lack of production equipment. Audiences flocked to a growing Nigerian video film industry, which released films shot on home video directly to television and sold VHS copies in local markets. “Video films”—full movies shot on video—became industry-standard after home video sales turned director Chris Obi Rapu’s 1992 film, Living in Bondage, into a blockbuster.
- The rise of Nollywood: The success of video films transformed the Nigerian film industry into “Nollywood,” a global movie powerhouse and one of the largest employers in the country. Nigerian film companies turned out four to five films a day for an estimated audience of fifteen million in Nigeria and five million in other African countries.
- New Nigerian Cinema: Though profitable, Nollywood video films were low-budget productions. Government investment in Nigerian cinema and a wave of modern movie theaters that refused to show video films led to industry-wide changes in the 2000s. The result was the New Nigerian Cinema, which showcased professional production values, talented Nigerian actors, and complex stories. Audiences flocked to hit movies like Kunle Afolayan’s Irapada (2006) and Kemi Adetiba’s The Wedding Party (2016), which set box office records and drew invitations from international film festivals.
- Today: The New Nigerian Cinema made the Nigerian film industry the second-largest film sector globally, surpassing even the United States and the third most profitable, with a $5.1 billion valuation in 2013. Nigeria cinema accounted for five percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). The latest Nigerian Nollywood movies and TV shows have gained global viewers thanks to distribution deals with Western streaming services.
Origins of the Term “Nollywood”
The origins of the term “Nollywood” are unclear but may lie with two separate articles from the New York Times, which appeared in print in 2002 and concern Nigerian filmmaking. In both articles, the authors—Matt Steinglass and Norimitsu Onishi—use the term to describe the country’s motion-picture industry. The US media still uses “Nollywood” as a catch-all word for the Nigerian movie industry, African movies from neighboring countries, and African cinema made in a perceived “Nollywood style.”
Controversy Around the Term “Nollywood”
The term “Nollywood” has courted controversy for several reasons. Detractors say that the term, which originated with people outside of Nigeria, has a connotation with the country’s past as a colony of imperialist nations. Others note that “Nollywood” suggests that the Nigerian film industry is a carbon of “Bollywood” and Hollywood and negates its achievements and cultural identity.
Several filmmakers, including Kunle Afolayan and Tunde Kelani, have stated that the term ignores a prolific period in Nigerian film history before the phrase appeared in Western media in the 2000s.
4 Notable Nigerian Films
There are several notable films from Nigeria. Some of the most popular and acclaimed are:
- Living in Bondage (1992): This two-part drama/supernatural thriller from director Chris Obi Rapu helped launch the film video craze that dominated Nigerian cinema for much of the 1980s and 1990s. The film, about a man’s battle with a Satanic cult, was a huge success upon its release in 1992 and inspired countless other filmmakers to take up home video equipment to make feature films.
- The Figurine (2009): Kunle Afolayan’s 2009 supernatural thriller, about a statue that brings bad luck to two friends, was a critical and commercial success and won Best Picture at the Sixth Africa Movie Academy Awards. Afolayan—who also acted and performed stunts in the film—created the film to challenge the notion that Nollywood films lacked production value and courted sponsorship from companies and organizations to assist with its budget. Media observers cite The Figurine as the opening salvo in New Nigerian Cinema.
- Ijé (2010): Chineze Anyaene’s film Ijé: The Journey concerns a Nigerian woman (played by actress Genevieve Nnaji) who fights murder charges levied against her sister in the United States. Praised for its bitter humor and unflinching look at prejudice, Ijé won major awards at international film festivals. It was the highest-grossing Nigerian film for four years until Biyi Bandele’s 2014 film, Half of a Yellow Sun, took its place.
- The Wedding Party (2016): Kemi Adetiba’s crowd-pleasing romantic comedy The Wedding Party became the highest-grossing film in Nigerian film history. An unabashed feel-good film with comic charm and touches of family drama, Niyi Akinmolayan’s The Wedding Party 2: Destination Dubai surpassed its box office take the following year.
5 Notable Nigerian Filmmakers
There are many notable Nigerian filmmakers in the country’s long cinematic history, including:
- Dolapo “LowlaDee” Adeleke: Self-taught filmmaker Dolapo Lola Adeleke emerged from Nigeria’s Covenant University in 2011 and launched her film career with a series of short films and television productions. A string of well-regarded projects for the streaming platform IrokoTV, among others, preceded nominations for directorial efforts from the Nigerian Entertainment Awards in 2016, among others. Leading Ladies Africa named Adeleke one of the 100 most inspiring women in Nigeria in 2018.
- Jadesola Osiberu: Writer-director Jadesola Osiberu made history with her feature film debut, the 2016 romantic comedy Isoken, the third highest-grossing Nigerian film of 2017. Her diverse CV includes the popular Ndani TV cultural series The Juice and the high-octane crime drama Nigerian Trade, which saw release in 2017. Osiberu founded her own production company, Tribe 85, that same year.
- Kemi Adetiba: Former radio presenter Kemi Adetiba studied film production at the New York Film Academy before launching her directorial career with one of the biggest Nigerian hits of the twenty-first century, the 2016 rom-com The Wedding Party. She took a hard turn toward gritty crime dramas with her second film, The King of Boys, which became a hit in 2018.
- Kunle Afolayan: The son of Nigerian film and theater director Ade Love, Kunle Afolayan began his career as an actor before devoting his attention to directing. His credits include the hit thriller The Figurine (2009), Irapada (2006), and Phone Swap (2012). Afolayan also produces many of his films through his company, Golden Effects Pictures.
- Tunde Kelani: Filmmaker Tunde Kelani—also known as TK—was a BBC and Reuters correspondent before embarking on his four-decade career as a filmmaker, photographer, and producer. He has specialized in literary adaptations, including 2011’s Maami and 2014’s Dazzling Mirage. The life of Nigerian musician Ayinla Omowura inspired his 2021 film, Ayinla.
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