Nigeria, with a huge population and multi-ethnic groupings ought to be a veritable market for the motion picture industry to flourish.
But while countries with similar population and multifarious cultural groupings are using the cinema to project their image to the world, tell their stories, showcase their culture, create employment opportunities and also rake in huge revenue, the Nigerian cinema is in a mishmash, with some stakeholders lamenting the decay in the industry, while government handles issues concerning the cinema with levity.
Brought into the country in 1903 at the instance of Herbert Macaulay, a foremost nationalist who invited Balboa and Company, an outfit that was then doing an exhibition tour of silent films on the West African Coast, past governments have not been able to maximise the gains of the already laid platform.
In August 1903, at the Glover Memorial Hall, Lagos, the Balboa and Company show held, and effectively opened the floodgate for other European film exhibitors to come into the country.
The coming of these exhibitors and their films engendered competition between local concerts and drama shows, which were dominant in the big cities in western Nigeria, and the cinemas.
Seeing the audience pulled by the new medium- the cinema, the colonial government took interest and brought in more films.
Though, the contents of such films were highly censored, they in a way opened a new vista that encouraged local investors to pan their investments towards that direction, and with time cinema houses began to spring up from Lagos, the hub of entertainment, then to other parts.
As society became more urbanised, there was need to establish distribution/ exhibition centres, making branches of the distribution and exhibition companies to spread all over.
However, this changed with the outbreak of World War II in September 1,[tooltip id=”4500c2f113202943ff1ae30d00c9d4ac”] [/tooltip]1939, as the colonial government began to take keen interest in the sector.
It then set up the Colonial Film Unit (CFU), to make films for the colonies.
The objectives of the unit included using films as a weapon of propaganda against the enemies, and to convince the colonies that they and the English had a common enemy in the Germans, and to this end, about a quartre of all the films made by the unit were war-related.
Secondly, their productions were to show to the outside world, the assumed excellent works that the colonial masters were carrying out in the colonies.
Funded through the Colonial Development Welfare Act, the films CFU made helped the spread of British imperialism.
According to Eddie Ugbomah, a notable Nigerian filmmaker, the CFU films production had two main approaches, which included, the affirmation of European culture as better than the African culture, and the negation or relegation of the colonised culture to the background.
He explained that it was part of the colonial policy to keep blacks perpetually in servitude, adding that films like A New Fire Bomb and The British Army reflected the mighty power of the colonialists, while films such as Tarzan Of The Apes showed Africans as inferior people who needed to be colonised.
With the attainment of independence in 1960, the Colonial Film Unit (CFU) metamorphosed into the Federal Film Unit (FFU). This change, however, did not have any effect on the objective of the unit, as it still retained most of its colonial heritage.
One of the good things that happened during this period for the cinema was that private individuals began to produce and exhibit feature films and this shifted the objectives of the unit, from being an appendage of meeting the needs of the colonial masters, to adding local imputs.
Black became beautiful; a thing to be explored and enjoyed, and the colonialists came to be seen as rapists of the rich culture of Nigeria and indeed Africa.
The primary function of the FFU was the production of documentaries, which were funded by the government and sometimes, international organisations like the WHO, UNICEF among others.
Owing to the nature of operation and financing, foreign film distributors and exhibitors succeeded in turning the attention of the documentaries from projecting Nigeria, to projecting themselves.
Their cinema houses were filled to the brim with eager viewers and for a long time, they made a lot of profit showcasing foreign movies.
Ugbomah disclosed that this lasted till the 1970s, when Nigeria broke the ice, by producing the first feature film, Kongi’s Harvest.
The film, though directed by an American, featured more foreigners as crewmembers, and gave Nigerians the encouragement needed to venture out.
With this breakthrough, more Nigerians, including Ugbomah, Ladi Ladebo, Ola Balogun, U.S.A. Galadima, among others, who had been trained during the CFU era and some Yoruba traveling theatres (Alarinjo and Agbegijo) practitioners, motivated by their audiences’ demand to adapt their stage plays to film, became involved in the production of indigenous movies.
All the films produced during this period were on 35mm celluloid reel. These producers were well received and the cinemas, especially in western Nigeria and areas where Yoruba language was spoken came alive, as the films were done in Yoruba.
Also, apart from the challenge of weaning the viewing public from foreign films indigenous filmmakers had problems in the procurement of equipment, manpower, managerial ability, piracy, marketing among others.
These problems discouraged many, even as some of them went bankrupt and the cinema culture that was catching up suddenly waned.
To salvage the situation the Nigerian Film Corporation (NFC) was in 1979 set up to provide the necessary infrastructure, and a few years later, a National Film Policy was put in motion.
But neither of these was able to rescue the cinema from its problems. Consequently, by mid 1980s, it was nearly impossible for films to be made on celluloid because of the introduction of videotapes.
Film stocks were expensive to import, and celluloid was also expensive to process. Rushes had to be taken abroad for development and other processing.
This situation, coupled with the harsh economy made many local filmmakers to use videotapes, as it was less expensive and easily accessible.
Apart from this, it was easier editing works on it than on celluloid.
Recalling the cinema experience of that era, Benson Tomoloju, an art and culture activist, disclosed that by the end of the 1980s, video films had become the strongest technological medium of popular culture and entertainment in western Nigeria, adding that first to realise its immense social and economic potentials were the popular musicians and later some television stations.
According to him, owing to the fact that video cameras were relatively cheap and easy to carry and control, would-be filmmakers found a ready medium to work with.
“With this, stage actors could be called together to act out a story in imitation, in the manner of the vanishing theatre tradition and thus everybody was back in business,” he noted.
While this technology flourished, it had a telling effect on cinemas. Cinema enthusiasts, at that point found a new love ofwatching movies in videotapes in the comfort of their homes.
This thus starved cinemas of their fledgling audiences, as many, if not all, closed shops, while filmmakers look for new ways to tell their stories.
Casting a further look at the past, Ugbomah revealed that home video films were inspired by Yoruba travelling theatres, as actualised by Ade Ajiboye (Big Abass), who produced Soso Meji, in 1988, which happened to be the first Nigerian video film.
He noted that subsequently, Alade Aromire produced Ekun in 1989, and the success of these movies became an eye opener for other producers, and many movie actors and enthusiasts, mostly sought assistance from film promoters like Kenneth Nnebue of Nek Video Link, Lagos, and Sulaimon Aweda, who were both important film distributors and exhibitors.
Nnebue, capitalising on the gains of the industry, invested in a lot of low budget video films, including Aje Ni Iya Mi, Ija Eleye, Osa Eleye.
The development did not go down well with the new school of video filmmakers who termed his investments as peanuts. They left and formed their own production firms.
The Igbo language video films were silent until mid 1992, when Kenneth Nnebue produced, Living In Bondage.
This opened up the way for a new crop of professional filmmakers, especially from the East, to come into the industry.
While little or nothing was known of these new comers in stage acting, a few of them, including Zeb Ejiro, Kenneth Okonkwo and Amaka Igwe-Isaac, were known to have produced or acted in serials for television.
Their coming, however, had a positive impact on the motion picture industry, as there were more productions, even though some of them were below standard, in terms of storytelling, sound and editing.
With the entry of Igbo and English video films into the market, producers of Yoruba home videos, who before now monopolised the exposed to stiff competition.
After Living In Bondage, other Igbo video films that followed were either in Igbo or English languages or in Igbo and subtitled in English language. The films were well accepted among the Igbo and the non-Igbo audiences.
Home videos in Hausa language later followed.
While this shift favoured the home video producers and marketers, it drained the cinemas of funds and following.
Few years into the 2000s, the home video film fad began to wane with a return of cinema houses in major cities.
In 2004, the Silverbird Group launched its first series of modern cinema house with the Silverbird Galleria in Victoria Island, Lagos.
The company later opened branches across major cities. The cinemas were elitist in nature and also situated in highbrow areas of the cities.
Not long after this, Genesis Deluxe Cinemas and Ozone Cinemas came on board, and later Filmhouse Cinemas, Viva Cinemas and others came into the business.
The coming of the latter cinemas gave the business a boost, expanding the market to accommodate other classes. This made more people to begin to embrace the cinema culture.
The coming of the new generation of cinemas reignited the cinema culture, and reduced the hold of home video culture, because the new idea gave room for outdoor recreation, around shopping malls and other fun centres.
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