Breaking rules: Talking Nigerian showbiz with Nollywood pioneer

“A friend of mine described Nollywood as someone performing heart surgery using forks and knives. But the genius of it is that the patient survives… and that’s what we have done with Nollywood. Impossible things have happened with us.”

"We are not trying to win any Oscars, believe me," says Charles Igwe

“We are not trying to win any Oscars, believe me,” said Charles Igwe, CEO of Nollywood Global.

So says Charles Igwe, the CEO of Nollywood Global Media Group and one of the industry’s early investors. The Nigerian based film industry produces an average of around 2,000 films a year, topping both Hollywood and Bollywood.

Despite production being low-cost, especially when compared with the high budgets of Hollywood, Nollywood films have a strong audience in Nigeria and across the continent. According to Igwe, Nollywood’s success comes from a hunger for African content.

“At the time we started there was nothing in the global spectrum of content that addressed anything African. All the information that came to us was filtered through the big networks like BBC, CNN… It was about famine, corruption – the usual things. And the rest of the space was filled with wildlife from Namibia and Serengeti,” said Igwe.

“So we started telling stories that looked and felt different. It was different because it had never been done before and people had never seen themselves in that light. We didn’t intend for it to become what it became. In Nigeria the consumption was phenomenal, and then the films started travelling.”

In the past 15 years Nollywood has produced about 30,000 films and has built an industry around it. Speaking to an audience at AfricaCom this month, Igwe said it has led to the development of cinemas and disc replication plants in Nigeria that churn out around 600m discs a year. Close to 200 TV stations run Nigerian films globally, with at least 10 being exclusively Nollywood channels.

In Nigeria, the industry makes a strong contribution to the economy and has a massive employment footprint. “Nollywood employs more people than the Nigerian government,” highlighted Igwe.

And while he estimates that over 1m retail points supply Nollywood content across Africa, it is the rise of digital platforms, like iROKOtv, which will drive consumption. For Nollywood to meet demand, Igwe believes it will need to triple its output and expand to other African countries.

“The output in Nigeria is nowhere near what will be required by all of Africa… by my estimation we should be making 6,000 movies a year by 2016.”

No interest in winning Oscars

“We don’t want to win Oscars. Believe me; we are not interested in that stuff… We want an effective product that will make money.”

Igwe has over 20 years’ experience in the Nigerian film business. Prior to entering the Nollywood scene, he was trained as a biochemist before becoming a banker at Citibank. He married the Nollywood film director, Amaka Igwe (who passed away this year) and entered the industry by assisting her with the commercial side of the films. To do this, they had to adapt film making to the realities of the Nigerian economy, and Igwe described how he and his wife would study the western and eastern way of film producing in the early years.

“As my wife always said, we were learning the rules set by the rest of the world – not because we wanted to follow those rules, but because we wanted to break them,” he told How we made it in Africa.

Why? Because Nollywood had to be a completely commercial enterprise in order to survive, as it didn’t have the financial freedom to be purely a creative industry, or bounce back from a failed production. To increase profit margins, Nigerian film producers also had to focus on mass production at low-cost.

“Our entire business model is profit orientated. We don’t get money from any other sources so the movies we are making must be 100% successful or we can’t make any more movies.”

However, Igwe described Nollywood’s film makers as some of the most “inventive” in the world. “We make the technology work for us. We make mistakes work for us, and we are innovative.”

The power of the African audience

Product placement in films is an advertising strategy used by brands to target audiences. For example, Heineken reportedly paid US$45m for James Bond to drink a Heineken in the 2012 film, Skyfall.

With access to millions of Africans, product placement in Nollywood films could be an attractive way for advertisers to successfully target the consumer. And Igwe believes this is the direction the industry will start moving towards.

“It’s the best way to reach African audiences, in a way that they cannot be reached by conventional advertisers. The smart ones will go there first, and it won’t cost them anywhere near what they’d pay to do it elsewhere.”