LONG READ: Why Nollywood is moving round in circles

If you listen to critics and the journalists who cover the entertainment beat, 2017 was not Nollywood’s best year, wasn’t even the year that it could have been. From the quality of output to returns on investment, it seemed that the year 2017 was some sort of missed opportunity for the film industry to consolidate on solid gains recorded the year before. End of year summary pieces by Pulse.ng and industry website, True Nollywood Stories gave voice to these concerns, while presenting the countless stream of terrible movies churned out during the year as proof.

They have a point.

The year 2017 was a creative bummer for true lovers of film. The year started promisingly enough with faith based drama, King Invincible hitting the big screens but that momentum was hardly matched by the output that followed.

Instead viewers had to contend with dregs like Alakada Reloaded, Lost in London, Deep Fever, Mentally and yet another AY misfire. To make matters worse, director Kunle Afolayan who could in the past be counted on to salvage a cinematic year with just one film, made four (yes four) average ones in quick succession- three with television giants, Africa Magic.

Compare this to 2016 when Izu Ojukwu’s long gestating historical drama, 76 finally bowed in theatres to instant critical acclaim, and 93 Days, the Steve Gukas directed Ebola Virus Disease triumph chronicle hit big screens nationwide.

Apart from winning the hearts of critics, both films were similar in that they were head and shoulders above the competition in terms of production values and technical proficiency. Actually there was no competition. It had been a long time the industry had seen anything on the scale of what both films were offering.

All the award giving bodies rightly fell out of their way to recognize both 76 and 93 Days. If the latter constantly appeared to be drawing the shorter end of the stick in terms of number of trophies claimed, it is only because the draw for a big budget, exquisitely produced major motion picture starring Ramsey Nouah and Rita Dominic was far stronger. The Bolanle Austen-Peters produced film suffered from among other things, time of release. If 93 Days had been put out in 2017, it would easily have been the best film of the year. Maybe it would have made more money too.

It is understandable why nostalgic feelings about 2016 persist. It was after all the year the box-office record for all time highest grossing film would be challenged, twice. First by AY’s dismal A Trip to Jamaica, and then by the romantic comedy juggernaut, The Wedding Party. Films like Wives on Strike, The CEO and 76 recorded impressive wins at the box office and for a spell, it seemed as if the business end of the industry was doing as well as the show.

Films by Mildred Okwo (Surulere), Niyi Akinmolayan (The Arbitration) and Femi Odugbemi (Gidi Blues) were flawed but generally well received by the critics. On the outlier side of town, renegade director Abba T. Makama screened his quirky debut feature length, Green White Green (And All The Beautiful Colors in My Mosaic of Madness) in various festivals around the world and was applauded for his efforts. The film has since been acquired by global streaming giants, Netflix.

Details of Makama’s deal with the American content giant isn’t publicly available but it is widely believed that such deals which Akinmolayan’s The Arbitration also benefitted from, have led to a direct recoup of investment by the producers involved.

2016 was also the year Nollywood took Toronto. Cameron Bailey, director of the Toronto International Film Festival chose Lagos for the now rested City to City spotlight of the festival. Eight Nigerian films were selected to be screened at the festival in what was perhaps the biggest splash Nollywood has yet made in the international film community. Money, talent, exposure. All of these events put together helped to paint a picture that Nollywood was on the ascendancy. Someone in a position to do so even predicted that in 2017, total box office takings for Nollywood films should hit at least 5 billion Naira, a huge improvement on the record breaking 1 billion Naira generated from ticket sales for Nigerian films in 2016.

The year of the comedy

As 2017 progressed, it became clear that Nollywood had taken only one lesson from the success of 2016, and it was the key to commercial acclaim. Instead of being inspired by the technical rigor and remarkable attention to detail that 76 achieved, or the fascinating chronicle of real life events as captured by 93 Days, it was the shiny surface of The Wedding Party and the lure of quick returns that filmmakers flocked to.

Isoken was the most critically successful of these films spawned by the success of The Wedding Party. And that is because director Jadesola Osiberu, making her big screen debut, was not just looking to make a copycat for a quick buck. As a long time chronicler of the upper class millennial Lagos scene, Osiberu was able to tell a familiar, relatable story with sense and sensibility. In terms of production values and a lavish attention to detail, Isoken is actually an improvement on the box office crushing The Wedding Party.

However there for every Isoken that generated decent laughs and solid romantic pairings, there were a dozen films that failed to rise above the crass cash grab mentality that inspired them. Viewers spent the greater part of the year dealing with titles such as Dance to My Beat, Light Will Come, The In Laws and Hire a Man.

Some of these films hit a nerve and were reported to be hugely profitable, but big box office returns alone has never been the ultimate marker of a movie’s quality. Toyin Abraham breathed new life into her Alakada franchise and gave it a new home on the big screen. AY looked like he was finally on the mend with the at-least-watchable Adze Ugah directed 10 Days in Sun City only to undo all of that effort with the despicable end of year release, The Accidental Spy. And the superstar wattage of Celebrity Marriage was merely a cosmetic cover to hawk a rotten product.

Even films that were not all out comedies went out of the way to incorporate funny elements just because. Apparently someone somewhere decided that all Nigerians want to do in a cinema hall is laugh and promptly fired off a memo to that effect. This made sometimes for uncomfortable viewing.

The Don Omope directed adventure, Tatu for instance, suffered remarkably because the obvious attempts at comedy felt forced and broke rudely away from the film’s established tone. Actors like Toyin Abraham, Odunlade Adekola and Kunle Idowu began to earn a reputation as gimmicky performers, parachuted into projects simply to deliver the comic zinger. This came in handy for Idowu’s starring role in the uplifting, warm hearted goo of Hakkunde. But in tone heavy films like Idahosa Trails, the act had begun to grate.

Empty chairs

Even reliable names failed to attract quality projects to themselves and resorted to work with the available. Plenty of times, audiences responded accordingly. Kunle Afolayan signed up for a three picture deal with Africa Magic. His bank account may be fatter, but his reputation hasn’t quite recovered.

After the career high of 76, Rita Dominic entered a disappointing low last year that had her make three dismal films in a row. There was the reunion with Femi Jacobs that shouldn’t have happened- at least not yet (The Guest), the sequel that no one asked for (Mr and Mrs: Chapter 2,) and the mandatory film with Joseph Benjamin, expected of every top female star (Desecration). Dominic and Jacobs have opened 2018 with the romance drama, The Blind Spot and it seems audiences may have to start looking beyond Ms Dominic for quality entertainment.

There was a huge fuss made about the Ramsey Nouah-Omoni Oboli reunion vehicle, My Wife & I- they both last worked together in the 2009 classic, The Figurine- but the body switch comedy was quickly lost in the shuffle. Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde made a highly publicized return to the big screen with the thriller Alter Ego but even her high profile presence could not cover up the film’s supersize deficiencies.

Jalade-Ekeinde promoted the film every chance she got, as counter programming to the glut of comedies threatening to overwhelm theaters, but the Moses Inwang directed project only proved that a film did not become great simply because it lacked comic elements, or owned up to some social responsibility.

It speaks to a high level of industry dysfunction that the biggest and most trusted box office attractions have to wait five years to find even deeply flawed projects that eventually offer them nothing but visibility. To ensure some form of quality control, Genevieve Nnaji has resorted to producing her own movies. Ditto Stephanie Linus who hasn’t made a film since her 2015 overkill, Dry. Kate Henshaw has had to find contentment over-emoting in Roti or doing nothing at all in Blessing Egbe’s drama, The Women. By the time Jalade-Ekeinde showed up for a supporting turn in The Tribunal, viewers- and critics- had grown mistrustful of Mr Afolayan. And rightly so.

Not just business

Major events like 76 and October 1 are great for the industry but they appear too sporadically to make much of a lasting difference. The magnitude of effort that goes into assembling and promoting films on this scale can only be borne by inspired or unusually determined filmmakers. Only few of those exist in the industry. Most are happy to coast buy on tried and proven formulas. It is a business after all.

This is by no means an indictment on anyone save the very nature of the industry that forces deep thinkers away and lets in profit minded persons by the numbers. The business of filmmaking, like many other businesses, has become a jungle where only the strongest survive. Hence the films that will ultimately provide a snapshot of 2017 twenty years from now will be made by the AYs and the Omoni Obolis, with finance and logistics deployed by Rokstudios or FilmOne or Silverbird distribution. Everyone else will find it increasingly harder to compete. Every Nollywood filmmaker is ultimately independent but some are less independent than the others.

The environment as is presently obtainable isn’t a fertile ground for the blossoming of talent. Investors have called for a revisit of the profit sharing models between producers and theatre owners/distributors. More cinemas have not automatically solved the question of better revenues for filmmakers.

There is also the issue of regulation to be considered. The line has been obliterated between the duties and responsibilities of producers, exhibitors and distributors. Entities like FilmOne have their hands in all the pies of filmmaking and it has become more difficult to ensure that a level playing ground exists for filmmakers.

It comes as a fitting end to the calendar year then that The Wedding Party 2: Destination Dubai, the myopic but aesthetically appealing sequel to last year’s super performer mops up all of the cash left to spare. This after benefitting from lavish promotion and airtime real estate worth millions of Naira.

Same difference

In many ways 2017 was 2016. Just like 2015 before it. Every year, after all is said and done, there are usually only two or three Nollywood films that qualify as excellent. Five could be considered very good. Most end of year best films list assembled by journalists and film critics do some fabulous stretching to accommodate the required 10 films.

For 2017, the Dare Olaitan crime caper, Ojukokoro and the romantic comedy, Isoken are easily the standouts in terms of quality. Following closely are Asurf Oluseyi’s feel good drama, Hakkunde, Walter Taylaur’s whodunit, CaTCH.eR, and BB Sasore’s stylish Banana Island Ghost. Films like Picture Perfect directed by Tope Alake and Eric Aghimien’s Slow Country are memorable primarily because of near transformative performances from the lead actors.

At the level of the film festivals where fresh and offbeat projects tend to be discovered, last year was a bit of a downer. The sole major discovery at the Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF) was the quaint, The Lost Café, Kenneth Gyang’s long awaited follow up to Confusion Na Wa. Lights! Camera! Africa brought the experimental Akin Omotoso-Ego Boyo collaboration, A Hotel Called Memory.

In 2016, it was the duo of 76 and 93 Days that represented the best of the year. Makama’s Green White Green, Akinmolayan’s The Arbitration and The CEO may be added for completeness sake. Going as far back as 2012, Okwo’s The Meeting was the obvious choice, with Tunde Kelani’s Maami and Leila Djansi’s Nollywood/Hollywood/Ghollywood cross breed, Ties that Bind serving as runners up. At the end of the day, it is easier to line up titles to make up a worst films list than it is to do a best of list. In this regard Nollywood has neither evolved nor devolved. The industry has simply remained stagnated.

Stuck in reverse

This year, as usual there are anticipated titles expected to goose up the box office. Izu Ojukwu is set to (hopefully) return with Amina, another historical epic and 2018 may be the year he lets it out. Knowing his track record though, it isn’t a sure bet. Genevieve Nnaji’s star studded Lion Heart, detailing the triumphs and failures of an Igbo business family seems like a sure thing. Nnaji also reunites with Ego Boyo for The Ghost and the House of Truth. Biola Alabi will try once again in April with Lara and the Beat and the EbonyLife Films is all revved up for the February release of The Royal Hibiscus Hotel.

Mary Remmy Njoku’s Roktv will of course continue putting out moderately priced entertainment with the hope that one, or two, or three will stick, and veterans, Tade Ogidan and Tunde Kelani have high profile projects in the works.

There’s plenty to look forwards to as always and while an air of optimism is justified, maybe even expected, such enthusiasm is best managed accordingly. Some of these projects will thrive, some of them will surprise, some will be rewarding, some will be downright disappointing.

At the end of the year, until industry practitioners begin to commit to bold reforms and frank dialogue, the noisiest will have their say, viewers will vote with their money, pretenders will follow the money and critics will still struggle to pick out ten exceptional projects.

Just another cold day in Nollywoodland.

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