I’ve come searching for the 1992 Nollywood classic Living in Bondage starring Kanayo O. Kanayo and Francis Agu. After voicing my request to Chidi, the attendant, just about every head turns in my direction, responding with variations of, “Wow! What an old film,” or, “That was a great film, I’d forgotten all about it.” Movie shoppers share this camaraderie, engaging vendors and browsers in bits of celebrity gossip while haggling down the price of the movies. Across the highway, jam-packed buses pass by buildings plastered with posters of the same films.

Nollywood poster art reveals the same cost-effective production as the movies they advertise: a no-frills, cut-pasted, and photoshopped effort resulting in surrealist collages of comedy, tragedy, and love. On one tattered poster, lightning bolts shoot across a man in traditional Nigerian clothes holding a machete next to a snake, a distressed looking midget, and a crying woman with palms pressed against her head. Another, for Calabar Girls, features a topless woman cupping her breasts in front of men in singlets and voluptuous bikini-clad girls.

This is Nollywood’s distribution center.

Marketers and Pirates

By volume, Nollywood ranks as the second largest film producer behind Bollywood in India and ahead of Hollywood in America. While even low-level productions in Hollywood start in the tens of millions (USD) and can take years to produce, the average Nollywood film gets churned out in 10 days for roughly USD 15,000. Ingenuity and hyper-efficiency replace the luxuries of time and budgets.

A right-aligned image with a caption.A right-aligned image with a caption.
Directors learn to think on their feet about how to solve problems and get the work done under difficult circumstances. Actors are not always officially trained. Budgets not always clear. And sets often get improvised quickly with whatever materials are available, forcing all crew members to creatively manage limitations. The result is more than 1,000 feature-length films per year.

After a whirlwind few days of shooting and editing, copies generally get distributed through an underground network of pirates who copy and sell the movies to the masses of eager movie-watchers within Nigeria and globally. It is here that the disagreement begins.

“These pirates also happen to be marketers, or so we are told. It’s an open secret,” explains Ego Boyo, a veteran Nollywood actor, producer, and household name. “They sell and reproduce these movies without permission. The legal way would be for a filmmaker or producer to sell the rights of their movie to a marketer for a certain amount of time.

After a period of time, the rights should go back to the owners, but it doesn’t happen that way.”

Movies are copied by the thousands in homemade dubbing facilities and packaged for distribution through the established network of pirates nationally. Some, reports show, produce up to 300,000 copies a year. In an interview with Channels Television Station in Lagos back in July of this year, Paul Obazele, veteran actor and President of the Edo Filmmakers Association, revealed that some government officials are the major sponsors of these pirating operations, including their export to other nations.

With a USD 250 million a year industry on the line, the debate over who has stolen how much money remains a prickly one. On one hand, a massive number of people depend on the copied DVDs to make a living; Nollywood is the country’s second- largest employer after agriculture. On the other, a film industry still struggles to find its feet despite massive international appeal, and a generation of filmmakers and actors often never receive a dime for the reproduction of their work.