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Archive for the ‘Cinema culture’ Category

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L-R: Ambassador Rick Barton, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, U.S. Department of State; Jeffrey Hawkins, U.S. Consul General in Lagos; Jeta Amata. © 2014 Bic Leu and FindingNollywood.com

It has been five years since the inception of this blog and everything has come full circle. This evening, I went to the U.S. Department of State to attend a screening of Dawn in the Creeks: A Niger Delta Legacy, a reality series directed by Jeta Amata. It was beyond serendipitous to witness this collaboration between my current employer and my past research passion.

Nigeria is important for its promise.” U.S. Consul General Jeffrey Hawkins cited Nigeria’s economic and population supremacy in Africa when he talked about the right time to address the “negative narrative that violence pays.” Dawn in the Creeks follows 21 Niger Delta youths – ranging from okada drivers to ex-militants – selected by Amata to go through filmmaking and leadership training to make movies on non-violent resolution. Per the State Department, “Their films tell true stories of non-violent transformation and challenge the narrative that violence is a predominant legacy for the Niger Delta.” This project was the result of a yearlong collaboration among the Bureau of African Affairs, the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, the U.S. Consulate in Lagos, Amata, and the Niger Delta Legacy Board of Advisors.

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With Jeta Amata. © 2014 Bic Leu and FindingNollywood.com

Amata was emphatic on the power of the film industry to change attitudes and affect lives: “Our problem in Nigeria is that we have no way of expressing ourselves, which builds up a lot of anger. I wanted to give [the youths] a way to tell their own stories and how best to send a message than Nollywood?”

Hawkins mentioned an unprecedented poll of 3,000 households in the Delta is being rolled out to monitor and evaluate the impact of the program in changing communities’ perspectives. However, the biggest measure of sustainability would be if the project could continue without the monetary support of the U.S. government – which brings the discussion back to the twin Nollywood conundrums of funding and distribution. Amata, who has already signed on for the second season, believes that the key to monetization lies in building the series’ brand, which is being strengthened daily by millions of Nigerians viewers across eight national TV channels.  On a personal note, I am impressed by the Department’s creative deployment of “soft diplomacy,” but it is unclear how the project can continue without USG funds.  What do you think – how can Dawn in the Creeks become self-sustainable?

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We are all anxiously awaiting the release of Half of a Yellow Sun, the film adaptation of Chimamanda Adichie‘s acclaimed novel. Last week, Al Jazeera broadcasted a clip from the film and sat down with the executive producer, Yewande Sadiku, and the director, Biyi Bandele, as well as Nollywood Workshop’s own Franco Sacchi, the documentarian who brought us This is Nollywood. You can also find this at Al Jazeera’s website HERE.

 

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Plaza Cinema's two faces: today an RCCG, once the center of modern urban leisure in Lagos. Photo © Connor Ryan

Plaza Cinema’s two faces: today an RCCG, once the center of modern urban leisure in Lagos. Photo © Connor Ryan

The streetscapes of Lagos are packed tight with a jumble of new and old structures, commercial exchanges of every type in any space that can support them, and what one notorious architectural theorist described as the “friction” created by millions of people passing through the city. Most of Lagos’s historical structures get buried as the city rushes to keep pace with and accommodate the needs of its exploding population. The cinemas halls offer one example.

We hear often that Nigeria’s cinema halls, once a center of modern urban leisure, disappeared into oblivion with the crash of the naira (due to foreign pressure for Nigeria to accept economic “structural adjustment” (SAP)) and the rise of home video. As the story goes, when the cinema exhibitors were pressed out of business, the new wave of evangelical churches moved in comfortably with a few renovations. We often forget that Lagos is a remarkably young city, both in terms of built environment and population. Most Lagosians were not around to experience cinema at its height. With time the cinemas have faded from popular memory, even though their physical structures remain as landmarks. The buildings continue to evolve with the neighborhoods they used to serve, but they also still retain a trace of the past. These cinema halls are examples of what Rajeev Patke calls an “archive of involuntary memory” (p. 7). They are somewhat like the Brazillian architecture that spots Lagos Island, immediately recognizable to the eye and indelibly linked to a period of the city’s history. One is struck by a flash of memory walking past the Plaza Cinema near Tafawa Balewa race course (image above), a visual trace of the Post-Civil War/Pre-SAP years, the height of cinema culture in Lagos.

So what have the cinema halls become today? Of the 13 I managed to track down only two had be demolished outright, whereas the majority now serve several purposes at once: church, market, warehouse, residence, viewing center. The Plaza Cinema, for example, is occupied by Redeemed Christian Church of God, as well as a restaurant, travel agency, and petty traders. Ajegunle neighborhood’s God Dey Cinema, constructed in 1978, once accommodated up to 2000 viewers. Today the stage, screen, and the 400-capacity “reserve seating” balcony remain in good condition. It continued showing films until 2008 when the cost of operating the hall exceeded what the exhibitor could recuperate from tickets sold at N100 a piece. Today, the grounds outside the cinema function as a warehouse for tires, refrigerators, and cars imported and unloaded at nearby Apapa Wharf. Also in Ajegunle, Onishowo Cinema has become a school where the old seating has been arranged into five classes under one roof. The balcony, where big screen TVs have been rolled in, still serves as a viewing center of 30-40 seats. On the other side of Lagos in Agege one will find Pen Cinema, converted now to a fast food restaurant, and Danjuma Cinema, the only facility I visited that still operates as a cinema. Unfortunately, the site has in effect been surrendered to area boys and the risk of theft or assault makes the spot a no-go for all but the young men who enjoy pirated Hollywood and Bollywood films there at N80-100.

The buildings left are material structures, but in their heyday these cinema halls supported an “immaterial urbanism” (Larkin), which is to say an intangible but immanent experience of the city. It is increasingly difficult to find Lagosians who frequented cinemas in the 1970-80s and can recall the experience in detail. Perhaps there are some readers out there who could fill in the history a bit.

*Patke, Rajeev S. “Benjamin’s Archades Project and the Postcolonial City.” Diacritics 30.4 (winter 2000), 3-14.

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Kunle Afolayan, Gov. Babatunde Raji Fashola, Tunde Kelani (L-R) at the National Film Development Corporation of India in Mumbai.

Nigerians and Nollywood producers alike are outrageously underserved by the nation’s existing cinemas. A quick glance at the industry’s Indian cousin, Bollywood, proves my point. In Nigeria today, there are just over 50 screens for a population of some 150 million. That makes the ratio of screens per capita something like 1 screen per 3 million Nigerians. As Tunde Kelani discovered on his recent trip to Mumbai, Indian has nearly 13,000 theater screens serving its 1.2 billion citizens, or 1 screen per 100,000 viewers. When I spoke to Kelani upon his return, he was clearly struck by India’s love for cinema. He heard it rumored that 15 million people visit the cinema in India every day. To put that in perspective, that would be like every Lagosian from Ojo to Ikorodu to Ajah visiting the cinema every day.

Why is this important for Nollywood producers to know? The answer is simple. When Kelani and Kunle Afolayan met with India’s National Film Development Corporation, the director informed them that they no longer permit a film to stay in cinemas for 25 days as was once the custom. This is because a film in India can make its cost-of-production investment back in a single weekend. With nearly every major producer in the Nigerian industry struggling today to recuperate their cost of production and, having secured that, find financing for a follow project, Nollywood should be asking itself what it can learn from Bollywood.

A note of caution is in order, however. To premier one’s film at any of the six cinemas around Lagos does not ensure a film financial success. At best, a producer will supplement the bulk of their earnings, which still come from DVD/VCD sales within Nigeria. At worst, one’s investment in publicity and premier will exceed ticket sales.

A lesson Nollywood producers might learn from Bollywood: cinema is a numbers game. With the six cinemas in Lagos, and the six or seven cinemas across the South that premier or screen Nollywood films, a producer can never make significant box office revenue. Cinema remains an unreliable distribution platform that cannot yet supplant the marketplace-based distribution of home video. For Bollywood, however, the sheer number of screens and spectators has made cinemas the foundation grounding its industry.

Nigeria needs screens. Not every cinema needs to be a Silverbird or a Genesis cinemaplex. As I will post tomorrow, one screen per theater was the norm for the old cinema halls that have largely been converted to churches but still spot Lagos’s cityscape. Is it possible that Nigerian investors could explore the potential of innumerable, low-cost one- and two-screen theaters across Nigeria?

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Yinka Olatunbosun’s article “Searchlight on Intellectual Property” in This Day newspaper (Oct 14, 2012) describes a recent meeting on the issue of intellectual property rights held by the Nigerian Copyright Commission, academics, and apparently filmmakers (not questioned or quoted, but pictured on the website). Distinguished Professor of intellectual property law Adebamo Adewopo “observed that the effort of NCC in ridding the industry of piracy at Alaba, Onitsha and other parts of the country has invariably giving way to the new digital market online where indiscriminate downloads of songs, videos, pictures and other creative works now thrive. This development, he said,’requires a sound copyright law and a well focused enforcement strategy to reflect the current dynamics that rely on copyright system.’”

The challenge of re-writing the law to reflect the needs of Nigerian filmmakers and that of enforcing the law is a monumental one. What this article fails to note is that enforcement of copyright protection can aslo stifle Nollywood professionals. Does anyone remember the Censors Board’s hologram solution by which every video sold would require a hologram stamp from the Censors Board verifying its authenticity. Of course, each stamp costs the producers a fee.

Changing the law is one matter, but changing the delivery systems for Nigerian films is another promising path to follow. Filmmakers I have recently been speaking with seem more interested in the development of small-scale cinemas within Lagos. The solution is localized to Lagos State, but having the infrastructure in place could benefit all filmmakers seeking to recuperate their production costs.

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The recent NYTimes piece, “Of Nigeria, but Casting a Wider Net” (below), suggests that Nollywood producers are exploring binational co-productions as a means of reaching international audiences, which is true. But is it a misnomer to describe Tony Abulu’s forthcoming film, Doctor Bello, as a Nollywood production? Stephanie Okereke and Genevieve Nnaji are listed as cast on the Doctor Bello website, though Zack Orji and Desmond Elliot, who are also purported to appear, are not. Is it significant that the three lead roles are filled by American-based actors (Washington, Fox, and Jean-Louis)? Can the film claim the title of Nollywood by virtue of shooting a portion of the narrative on Nigerian soil? If the Nigerian government sponsors the production from its entertainment fund, does that make it more Nollywood or less, considering the notable financial independence of Nollywood in the past? Is a film still Nollywood if, before production begins, the filmmaker knows he wants to shoot a film for an international audience? I think in Abulu’s case there is an important distinction to be made between Nollywood and Diasporic Nigerian Cinema. However, I want to open the question up for comments by others. What today makes a production “Nollywood?”

Of Nigeria, but Casting a Wider Net

Nollywood Seeks a Hit With ‘Doctor Bello’

Kirk Semple
Published: September 21, 2012

ON the surface the production that commandeered a few dormant rooms at the Coler-Goldwater Specialty Hospital on Roosevelt Island this year resembled many other low-budget film projects in New York City. Crew members were each handling multiple jobs. Those from out of town were spending their short nights on friends’ couches. The catering consisted of a box of Dunkin’ Donuts and a carton of coffee, both empty by late morning.

But despite the production’s humble appearance there was a lot riding on it. Its director and producer, Tony Abulu, and his financial backers say the film, “Doctor Bello,” has the potential to chart a new direction for the booming Nigerian film industry half a world away. That industry, known as Nollywood, is perhaps the world’s third-largest filmmaking industry in revenues, producing more than 1,000 titles every year. But the industry is known for churning out slapdash films with feeble story lines, amateurish acting and sloppy production values. Nearly all go straight to video and are soon forgotten.

In an effort to improve the quality, the country’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, pledged in 2010 to create a $200 million loan fund to help finance film projects. This past spring Mr. Abulu, a Nigerian who lives in Harlem, was chosen to receive the fund’s first loan, $250,000. His film’s premiere is scheduled for Thursday at the Kennedy Center in Washington. “The Nigerian government is saying, ‘Can somebody make a movie that will go to global mainstream theaters?’ ” Mr. Abulu said. “ ‘Can you make a film where someone in New York will go watch it and not walk out disgusted?’ ” He added, “They say I’m the one who can do it.”

Set in Nigeria and New York City, the film is about an African-American cancer specialist in New York, Dr. Michael Durant, who tries to save a young patient by seeking the help of an uncertified Nigerian doctor — Dr. Bello — an immigrant living in Brooklyn. Under the cover of night Bello slips the patient a secret African potion, helping him recover. But Durant’s solution is discovered, and he is suspended by his hospital while Bello is imprisoned for medical malpractice.

Soon, however, Bello himself falls critically ill, and it falls to Durant to save him by locating the secret elixir, which is found only in the “Garden of Life” on a mountain range in Nigeria. Hoping to steer his film away from the straight-to-oblivion route of most Nollywood films, Mr. Abulu has set his sights high by the industry’s standards.

“My aim is to introduce Africa to America and to Americans and to introduce Americans to Africans,” he said. He cast A-list Nollywood stars, including Genevieve Nnaji and Stephanie Okereke. And with an eye to attracting an international mainstream audience, he brought in several Hollywood actors, including Isaiah Washington, best known for “Grey’s Anatomy”; Vivica A. Fox (“Kill Bill” and “Independence Day,” among many others); and Jimmy Jean-Louis (the NBC series “Heroes”).

During a break in filming in Brooklyn last spring Mr. Washington, who plays Durant (opposite Ms. Fox as his wife and Mr. Jean-Louis in the title role), said he signed on in part because he was drawn to the opportunity to “cross-pollinate” Hollywood and Nollywood. He also hoped his involvement might, in a way, help Nigeria, he said. “How can I bring value to destigmatize Nigeria and destigmatize Nollywood?” he said.

Mr. Abulu planned an ambitious filming schedule that straddled Nigeria and the United States, and he hired Americans for key creative positions, including his director of photography, Scott St. John. “This isn’t a Nollywood film where they edit it in two weeks, and it looks like it was cut by a 7-year-old,” Mr. St. John said.

While the budget was $1 million “on paper,” Mr. Abulu said, actual expenditures will likely top out around $500,000 — minuscule by Hollywood standards but enormous for Nollywood. He was able to cut costs, in part, by persuading many of the cast members, including the stars, to defer at least some of their payment on the promise of a share of profits, he said. The staff of his media company, Black Ivory Communications, agreed to forgo payment altogether for a percentage of profits. Mr. Abulu even took out a loan using his mother’s house as collateral. “And my mother’s 80,” he said. “I’m telling you, this is not a joke.”

In an interview the day after he wrapped principal photography in New York in May he revealed that he had exhausted his cash reserves. “It’s all gone, not a dime left,” he said. “I’ve got to go raise some more money.” Within days he was in Nigeria trying to attract more sponsorship from corporations there. “It’s one thing to get the film in the can,” he said by telephone. “It’s another thing to do postproduction.” He also needed money for marketing and was hustling to find a distributor for Europe and the United States. Since then he has taken several more trips to Nigeria, including this month, to try to raise financial support for the film.

His soaring ambitions are part of what helped to persuade the Nigerian government to back him with the inaugural loan from the new entertainment fund. Hope Yongo, an executive at the government-owned Nigerian Export-Import Bank, which is managing the fund, said the bank was impressed by Mr. Abulu’s conviction that his film would find an audience not only in Nigeria but also abroad.

“That gives us comfort that he will repay the loan,” Mr. Yongo said by telephone from Lagos. “His plan was very good.”

Mr. Abulu was born and raised in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, and immigrated to the United States in the early 1980s. In New York he worked as a cultural impresario, organizing African music and dance performances and tours, then he ran a business magazine focusing on Africa.

In 1997 he released his first feature film, “Back to Africa,” which he made for about $100,000 and peddled door to door around the country, he said, selling it directly to video stores that specialized in African films. Two other films followed: “American Dream” in 2007 and “Crazy Like a Fox” in 2008.

Mr. Abulu, who has also collaborated with the American authorities in cracking down on the illegal trade in African films, is the most prominent member of a small, low-profile group of African filmmakers in New York City.

“What Tony is doing now is definitely like a new level of budget,” said Oliver Mbamara, a Nigerian-American filmmaker who is also a New York State administrative judge in Brooklyn. “We never get that kind of money for movies.”

Though Mr. Abulu sought to elevate “Doctor Bello” above other Nollywood fare, he still shot on a blindingly fast schedule, typical of Nigerian productions. He started filming in late April in Lagos. Within two weeks the production had shifted back to New York City, and principle photography was finished by mid-May.

The production moved quickly, wrapping scenes in no more than a few takes. It changed locations every day, sometimes several times a day, from a borrowed suite in the Ritz-Carlton on Central Park South to the Coler- Goldwater Hospital to Wall Street to the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn.

One afternoon it filmed at Buka, a Nigerian restaurant on Fulton Street in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. But Mr. Abulu could not afford the cost of renting out the whole place, so he shot around paying customers, weathering the usual cacophony of a restaurant in full swing.

Some customers were asked to stop talking during takes. “Oh my God,” mumbled one diner to her companions as they picked gingerly at food, trying not to make noise with their forks. “The wrong day to come here.”

Mr. Abulu did not seem troubled by the imperfect conditions. He plowed through the shoot, remaining cool and issuing directions in a calm voice, and in short order he hustled his cast and crew to another location in Brooklyn. Filming would continue well into the night.

He said he was driven by the conviction that his project transcended moviemaking and had the potential to buoy his home country.“I don’t look at it as entertainment,” he said. “I look at it as a means of survival for Africans.”

A version of this article appeared in print on September 23, 2012, on page AR14 of the New York edition with the headline: Of Nigeria, but Casting a Wider Net.

Accessed 9/25/12

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I am thrilled to revive FindingNollywood.com by introducing the blog’s new contributor: Connor Ryan. Connor will continue the blog’s fine tradition of Fulbright scholarship by exploring the burgeoning Yoruba film industry through documenting the impact of Tunde Kelani‘s Mainframe Productions studio has made upon Nollywood, giving special attention to its mobile cinema project. From October 2012 to August 2013, Connor will conduct research at The University of Ibadan’s National Archives and the Nollywood Studies Center (NSC) at the Pan-African University in Lagos.

Connor’s work in African literature and film originated at Michigan State University where he was awarded a FLAS fellowship in 2009 to study Yoruba. In 2010, he spent two months studying Yoruba at Obafemi Awolowo University – Ile-Ife with the Fulbright-Hays Yoruba Group Project Abroad. He had the good fortune to return to Nigeria in the summer of 2011 to build the NSC’s start-up website. It was during this period that he met Kelani, me, and developed the basis for this research project.

I cannot think of anyone more uniquely qualified to link people and resources in this continuing online inititative to broaden Nollywood research and scholarship.

Much love from Burma/Myanmar,
Bic

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