• Film

Nigerian Representation on Big Screen is Culturally Important

Indigenous Nollywood films have landed in mainstream movie theaters in the United States. The start was encouraging, and the organizers, Regal Cinemas, FilmOne Entertainment and Part Two Media with Amplify Africa promise new Nigerian movies in theaters every four to six weeks.

When film industry veterans Moses Babatope and Craig Shurn started to bring Hollywood movies to Nigeria eight years ago another idea crossed their minds. What about distributing Nigerian movies to the United States? It was a long process that in the end happened very fast, in a few weeks. Timing was finally right. There is a demand for international content. 2022 was also a record-breaking year at the Nigerian box office, and the Nigerian population had grown in the United States.

“A record number of Nigerians have moved to North America in recent years because of economic reasons or studies. There’s approximately 2.5 million Nigerians in the United States,” Moses Babatope said over Google Meet.

They partnered with Part Two Media, Amplify Africa Inc. and Regal Cinemas, which became the first mainstream cinema chain to play Indigenous Nollywood films (Nigerian Cinema) in movie theaters in the US outside of film festivals. Their first release was a family friendly Battle on Buka Street at the end of December. Drama Ijakumo: The Born-Again Stripper was released in mid-January.

“We were seeking entertaining movies with star power,” Babatope explains about the criteria how films were selected.

Battle on Buka Street, tells the story of two women confronting each other in a food challenge in order to win the best local food seller title. It was directed by Tobi Makinde and Nigerian icon Funke Akindele, who is also executive producer, producer and lead actor. She has over 15 million Instagram followers, and she is currently running for Lagos State PDP Deputy Gubernatorial.

Thriller Ijakumo: The Born-Again Stripper tells a story of Asabi, a powerful spiritualist’s daughter who is hell-bent on ending the life of her ex-lover who is a famous mega preacher in Lagos and who betrayed her and left her for dead. It is co-produced by Toyin Abraham Production, directed by Steve Sodiya and Adebayo Tijani, and has Toyin Abraham-Ajeyemi as executive producer, producer and lead actor. She has eight and a half million followers on Instagram.

“The right kind of films can attract the Nigerian diaspora. Our goal is to get the best of Nigerian and African content to the world. We want to show it on the largest scale possible. We want representation of real Africa on the big screen, big sound, with people experiencing it. African culture is communal, it is shared experiences. We also want friends of Africa and those that want to be educated about Africa, to see us in the most authentic form possible. And the cinema experience is the way to see us in that light”, Babatope says.

Babatope and Shurn are excited about current experiences. They studied diligently when they should bring Nigerian films to the US market, what kind of films, what period of the year, what kind of marketing budget, what kind of cinema chain amongst other issues. The plan crystalized when their colleague and friend, Andrew Turner got a job at Regal as Vice President, and Head of Film. His wife, Katja Turner, who has worked as head of marketing at Fox in Finland as well as local productions and exhibitions before moving to the United States a few months ago, took over marketing.

“We knew Regal was looking for alternative content. When Andrew was working at Cineworld in the UK he was a big supporter of Bollywood movies. Now he was willing to take a risk again with another foreign movie territory. We wouldn’t been able to do this without Regal support and commitment,” Shurn explains.

He is the CEO of American company Part Two Media and a board director of Nigerian FilmOne Entertainment, a production and distributing company that is co-founded and managing directed by Babatope. 

“I worked in Odeon Cinemas in the UK for 11 years before going back to Nigeria to set up a cinema distribution company. I’d been releasing Nigerian films in the UK, before,” Babatope reflects.

He says that the Nigerian film industry has changed progressively in the last five years.

“You can see the change in quality of the stories and quality of the film making.”

The term ‘Nollywood’ was used for the first time referring to the Nigerian film industry in early 2000s in a New York Times article. It had its golden age from the late 1950s to the late 1980s. After Nigeria’s independence in 1960 the film industry grew fast. But in the late 1980s, there was a downturn, connected with a drop in the value of the Nigerian currency.

Since the mid 2000s the Nigerian film industry has been growing again and now, the country that has a population of over 200 million people, is the world’s second-largest film industry, right behind India’s Bollywood. It produces over 2000 films yearly in English, the official language of film in Nigeria, although over 500 languages are spoken in Nigeria including Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo, Fulfulde, Ibibio, Kanuri, Tiv and broken English (pidgin).

“We are going to be very careful what we choose to distribute. It’ll just be the best of the best,” Shurn promises.

Babatope agrees.

“We want the stories to be authentic, but on a very big scale we want Nollywood to be well represented. And we as a company, we have a corporate objective to showcase the best of Africa. For us to say we are a bona fide film industry without having some kind of global regard or respect, the story wouldn’t be complete. That’s why the cinema releases in the US are so important.”

Battle on Buka Street and Ijakumo: The Born-Again Stripper was originally scheduled to be shown in Atlanta, New York, Long Island City, North Brunswick, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Oakland, Baltimore, Washington DC and Chicago but it was expanded to other cities like Denver and Miami. Social media visibility became important for local marketing. Movie goers were making short reals on their Instagram accounts. Word of mouth brought more awareness and bigger audiences.

“There were Instagram videos where the audience filmed themselves walking to the theater or at the cinema and shot five seconds of the movie to show that they were at the cinema and then they tagged the cinema onto it. It became a big, shared experience for people. We got a lot of positive feedback on how important it was to see Nigerian movies in a theater, watching a movie together and a movie Nigerians could relate to. This was historical as well for the culture. For some, it was the first time they saw a movie in a movie theatre, so these films brought totally new customers to Regal,” Shurn said.

He was also following social media and got influenced by that. 

“I certainly paid too much attention to some of the comments. I was like, “Oh, we need to go wider”. Because of that we tried some places, and they didn’t work. Only a few people showed up.”

Another thing they learned in the process was scheduling.

“Going forward I wouldn’t release movies two weeks apart because money is tight at the moment. How would we expect people to go and watch these two films in one month where we don’t expect them to see two Marvel films in one month? In the future we are hoping to release one movie every four to six weeks.”

But overall, it was a success. In some theaters Battle on Buka Street was the second most watched film after Avatar: The Way of Water.

“Culturally it was powerful”, said Babatope. “It is a validation that the content is good quality enough to show in mainstream US cinema. It is also a demonstration that we are mindful of our diaspora, and we want to share the experience. It’s also a big poster or postcard to lovers of the world cinema, that the Nigerian cinema is an option to see in a mainstream cinema.”

Commercially, it was also a win. 

“I think that Battle on Buka Street is going to do approximately $130,000 and Born-Again Stripper close to $45,000. We weren’t expecting to get these figures and I think it’s just the peak of the iceberg. There will be bigger films. We consider 100 million naira to be a blockbuster in Nigeria. And these films in the US have made 100 million naira. So, you know, they are blockbusters,” Shurn says.

Amplify Africa, Regal, FilmOne Entertainment and Part Two Media plan to continue releasing Nollywood movies and showcasing Nigerian talent in the United States.

“We started phenomenally well, and the prospects are very good. But of course, as with every venture, you always need financing because we want to be able to target our marketing properly. We want to find the right kind of brand partnerships. For example, an airline partner would help a lot to get the stars here and move them from state to state to do state premieres,” said Babatope.

“We want a situation where the top films that make it here generate a good return and people can start fitting it into their business plans for their films. So, they commit a lot of money into making top quality films, but also put aside some money for marketing the films not just locally but for the US market and the international markets. You want the releases to work and as they work you then attract more funding to make better films,” said Shurn.

Babatope and Shurn hope that the next Nigerian film will premiere in the US in April.