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September 04, 2009

Lights! Camera! Piracy!


My visit to Nigeria wouldn't have been complete without a foray into Nollywood, the prolific Nigerian film industry. After several phone calls to producers to find a film that was shooting on my last day in Lagos, director Ikechukwu Onyeka graciously invited me to hang out on the set of his new movie. (Read the story and watch a narrated slideshow.)

There was one thing every Nollywood player wanted to talk about, however: Pirates. And not those pirates.

Like its big brothers in Hollywood, Nigeria's straight-to-video movie industry is being cannibalized by DVD piracy. There's no box office and few cineplexes; Nigerian movies are burned straight to disc, and sell for about $2 a DVD on street corners.

It was only a matter of time before pirates with blank discs and laptop DVD-writing software began producing half-price knockoffs by the hundreds and thousands. Producers now say that most of the Nollywood films that are sold are unlicensed copies. (For an overview of the problem, read Will Connors' recent piece in the Wall Street Journal.)

Piracy was a scourge on Hollywood that prompted an industry-wide fight, but filmmakers there always had massive box-office receipts and law enforcement on their side. The only revenue source in Nollywood is DVD sales, and producers say that they get no support from Nigerian authorities. Police are supposed to crack down on unlicensed movie vendors, but bribery is commonplace.

"Piracy is the main problem we face now," Emeka Duru, one of the busiest producers in Lagos, told me as we drove out to Onyeka's movie set one afternoon. It's not like you can blame Nollywood fans. The quality of pirated discs is the same. The illegal sellers usually print their own disc jackets, so the copies look real. And producers have no way of knowing how many copies are being bought out there.

"If they sold 10,000 copies of your movie" -- which is pretty good -- "you have no way of knowing," Duru said.

Most Nollywood films are financed on shoestring budgets, from $20,000 and up. The financiers, often friends of the filmmakers, need to recoup their investment on one project before fronting cash for another. Increasingly, Duru said, films are losing money or just breaking even, and he believes that fewer films are being made this year than in previous years. (He knew of only one movie being shot in Lagos while I was in town last week; normally, he said, there would have been three or four.)

So what's Nollywood to do? Well, one way that producers have always hedged their bets with a fickle public is to release movies in multiple parts. So you have "Fatal Seduction" and, shortly afterward, "Fatal Seduction 2" comes out. It's the same movie, just cut in half with the second part billed as the "sequel." Duru thinks that more filmmakers will go to releasing three- and four-part movies. I have a feeling that could increase profits for the pirates more than the producers, however.

Duru also believes that more production will move to television, where African satellite networks would be willing to pay up-front for air rights, and to Ghana, which has a budding film industry of its own, nicknamed (naturally) Ghollywood. Ghana is better governed than Nigeria, and law enforcement takes a dimmer view of piracy.

But Nigeria, with 140 million people and counting, is by far the biggest market for these movies -- and until piracy there is brought under control, Nollywood will suffer.


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Somewhere in Africa was written by McClatchy correspondent Shashank Bengali, who covered sub-Saharan Africa from 2005 to 2009. He's now based in Washington, D.C., as a national correspondent.

Read Shashank's stories at news.mcclatchy.com or send him a story idea.


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