Everyone wants to move to the next level.
For Moses ‘Baba Sala’ Olaiya, it was only natural to try to move his art from the live stage to a more sustainable format: film. It was the early 1980s and there were only a few Nigerian films showing at the cinema. Although pioneer filmmakers like Late Hubert Ogunde and Adeyemi ‘Ade Love’ Afolayan had some films released – it wasn’t as if Baba Sala was doing something completely new – the entire business was risky. The comedian was investing almost everything he had. He was producing the film with a loan procured from National Bank (now defunct) with his houses and a friend’s house up as collateral.
The film, Orun Moru, eventually came out in 1982 on 35mm celluloid. But in order to move it around cinemas faster, Baba Sala decided to make it into smaller formats. It was the worst business move he ever made. The smaller format fell into the wrong hands. It was mass reproduced by pirates and the original owner never recouped his profit. Pirates took the lion’s share.
The industry now generates about US$5.1 billion. Sadly though, that doesn’t add up to profit for filmmakers: piracy takes more than half that sum.
Baba Sala’s case was arguably the first major instance of piracy in the Nigerian movie industry. Unfortunately, while Baba Sala never fully recovered from the loss, the ‘piracy industry’ has grown pari pasu with the Nigerian movie industry, otherwise known as Nollywood.
Nollywood is the second largest film industry in the world in terms of the number of films produced each year, placing it ahead of Hollywood and behind only Bollywood. According to current estimates, the industry now generates about US$5.1 billion. Sadly though, that doesn’t add up to profit for filmmakers: piracy takes more than half that sum. The World Bank estimates that for every legitimate copy of a film that is sold, nine others are pirated.
Some Nollywood pioneers have battled it and won a measure of victory. Ogunde – a contemporary of Baba Sala – in a business move primarily aimed at cutting costs, stuck with his 35mm format and trained two of his wives to handle his cinema equipment. Family can’t pirate the works because they are stakeholders too. Finally, according to his close associates, before Ogunde’s demise in 1990, he placed a curse on whoever pirated his films. To date, nobody ever did.
Thereafter, many filmmakers in Nigeria confined their work to cinemas, showing only during festive periods and looking after the tapes themselves or entrusting them to family or other loyal associates. Piracy laid low for a while.
Legit filmmakers were distributing their films on vanishing VHS, while pirates had fast-forwarded to the CD, which had just started gaining popularity.
Fast-forward to 1992 when Nollywood’s evolution was massively boosted by the film Living in Bondage, which first appeared not in the cinema but on VHS home video format. The development was profitable but it also awoke the sleeping beast of piracy. Since then, it has never slept again. Why is that?
For one thing, technology has made it easier. Pirates no longer have to get into any sophisticated safe; all they have to do is to wait until the film are released, buy one copy and reproduce it en masse. Given they have the same packaging, and even the same address on them, the buying public has no way of knowing which is the original and which is the fake. Sadly, the profit always goes to the pirate who has only invested in unlawful reproduction.
The perpetrators are not unknown, but a combination of poor legislation and law enforcement and a lack of properly regulated distribution channels have always proved the bane of fighting piracy. For example, Alaba International market in Lagos, where most of the pirates operate, is where some of the biggest film distributors have their offices. Many film producers resort to selling to the pirates both the films and the right to reproduce them. At this point, the pirates become the sole distributors.
Ironically, pirates have always been a step ahead in Nollywood because of their dexterity with technology. It gave them a head start on other people’s work when the CD and DVD technology came onto the scene in the early 2000s. Legit filmmakers were distributing their films on vanishing VHS, while pirates had fast-forwarded to the CD, which had just started gaining popularity. Filmmakers were forced to add to their adverts that ‘this film has not yet been released on CD’. Around the same time, film producers started putting holograms on the package of their films, to help buyers identify the original. That didn’t work either. By the time filmmakers caught up with the CD trend, pirates were already using DVDs. And with the proliferation of compact mass DVD writers, pirates could put more films on one DVD and sell them for the price of one.
‘When you sell one original DVD for N1,500 (about US$6) and somebody’s whole wage for the day is N800 (about US$3), how do you expect the person to buy your film?’
One filmmaker who was badly affected by this trend is Tunde Kelani of Mainframe. Kelani is known to invest heavily in his films, making them hits whenever they come out. Many of his productions, such as Ti Oluwa ni Ile, Saworoide, Thunderbolt Magun and Oleku – are evergreen. But is Kelani sitting on billions of naira from his many hits? No. Instead, pirates now reproduce all his works on one single DVD. He gets short-changed.
Consequently, Kelani and other Nollywood film producers have resorted to raiding the shops of pirated film retailers to seize and destroy pirated copies of their works. But without the help of the government there’s only so much they can seize and destroy.
Ideally, releasing movies at the cinemas first should mean that the filmmaker recoups his or her investment before pirates ever get their hands on the work. Unfortunately, this is not the case. There are agents everywhere, who collaborate with the pirate kingpins. Films that get pirated soon after being released at the cinema are a result of unscrupulous people working in the cinema. They literally steal copies of the yet-to-be released films and sell them to the pirates.
Technology is a double-edged sword. Although it has played a huge role in facilitating piracy, it can also help to curb it.
Recently, when Nigerian stand-up comedian Ayo ‘AY’ Makun released his 30 Days in Atlanta at the cinema, pirates had it on CD just a few days later.
‘As we speak, the master copy has been sold to Alaba International market movie pirates for an undisclosed amount of money,’ the comedian told journalists. The matter is still dragging on before the country’s copyrights commission.
The same thing happened with Kunle Afolayan’s October 1. Before the award-winning film was officially released on DVD, pirates had already started selling it on the streets. Afolayan had to announce on social media that he had not released the film on DVD.
Movie pirates go about recruiting cinema operators and moles in the post-production studios. A young entrepreneur who runs a cinema on the outskirts of Lagos said: ‘I have been pressured and threatened in many ways to reproduce copies of films I am showing for them [pirates]. That was why I left the cinema hall I was using before.’
The young cinema owner had to move to a smaller facility where he could handle his materials by himself. He mentioned that there is a limit to the pressure an average human can withstand, confessing that he had leaked one film some time ago and he still regrets it deeply.
Uche, a street hawker who sells pirated DVDs, blames poverty for piracy.
‘When you sell one original DVD for N1,500 (about US$6) and somebody’s whole wage for the day is N800 (about US$3), how do you expect the person to buy your film?’ Uche rationalised. ‘And people want to see the movies, so they go for the cheaper one.’
Pirated DVDs can sell as low as N200 (less than US$1).
The internet is not helping matters too, though it’s not a big issue in Nollywood yet; only a few people can afford to spend money on a relatively dear internet subscription and ‘waste’ it on downloading movies that can easily be purchased anywhere.
Apart from seriously sensitising fans about where to get the original DVDs, in order for the industry to achieve its full economic potential, filmmakers need to be more organised in the way they handle post-production and cinema businesses. The legal framework should be improved and the cinema releases should be concretely planned such that any leaks can be easily pinned on the culprit.
Muhammadu Buhari directed law enforcement agents in the country to step up their efforts to curb piracy in the industry ‘so that artistes can enjoy the fruits of their labour.’
Instead of just raiding street hawkers of the pirated DVDs, a proper surveillance should be carried out by law-enforcement agents: proxies would lead to their kingpins and the menace can thus be tackled from the root.
Technology is a double-edged sword. Although it has played a huge role in facilitating piracy, it can also help to curb it. With the rising acceptance of smart TVs, digital distribution of Nollywood films may hold the best solution. For example, DStv’s Explora decoder offers movies to rent from the comfort of one’s home, meaning users can rest assured that the money won’t end up in the pockets of pirates, but in the hands of the intellectual property’s owners. Platforms like IrokoTv and ReelAfrican are touting such solutions too.
It has been a long battle, but Nollywood is surviving, and victory is likely too. Nigeria’s new president, Muhammadu Buhari recently directed law-enforcement agents in the country to step up their efforts to curb piracy in the industry ‘so that artistes can enjoy the fruits of their labour’.
‘They have built an industry with their own sweat. It is therefore incumbent on us to give them the necessary support,’ Buhari said.
It is a good sign. If the president follows through with the commitment, then very soon Nollywood may shake off the shackles of piracy.