This is something that comes up in conversations I have from time to time – whether casual conversations, or formal panel discussions on “the state of black cinema” in these United States, broadly speaking.
“What can black filmmakers in the USA learn from Nollywood,” is a question I’m asked occasionally. Or “why can’t black filmmakers in America adopt the Nollywood-style of film production” – cheap, fast films shot primarily on video, bypassing theaters and released directly on home video formats like DVD.
Whenever I’m asked that question, my response is that black filmmakers in America have indeed embraced that model of film production. Just take a stroll down any DVD rental/sale aisle at your local movie rental store, whether brick & mortar or online, and you’ll find your answer there.
On a weekly basis, there are dozens of new films released on DVD or digitally; the vast majority never receive theatrical releases – about 95% of them, I would say. And a percentage of those are films by black filmmakers, with all-black (or primarily black) casts. I don’t have exact figures on what that percentage is, but there are enough of them, given the email press releases I get on a frequent basis, alerting me to upcoming straight-to-video/VOD/digital releases that I should be aware of, and that the senders believe would be appreciated by readers of this site.
These are films that, like Nollywood movies, are made relatively cheaply; certainly not Hollywood-size budgets, but I’d say they range in costs from a mere few thousand, to a few hundred thousand dollars; occasionally, there might be one or two with budgets of over $1 million, but those are very rare, especially where black cinema is concerned. Those tend to have *names* in them that can help justify those 7-figure budgets, and recoup costs.
They are also made quickly (it makes sense, when you’re working with a low budget – you can’t stretch filming over several weeks or months, like a Hollywood studio would).
And also like Nollywood, these films are most often shot on some digital video format. Not celluloid.
And as is the case in Nollywood, these are films that tend to bypass pricey theatrical releases altogether (although there are more options for theatrical runs than there were let’s say a decade ago), and head straight to DVD, VOD, digital download, etc.
There are considerably far more of these black cinema titles released every week than there are black films opening in theaters on a weekly basis, and I actually recommend digging through them for any potential gems.
And also like Nollywood, there’s clearly an audience for them. Someone is making money from all these films – it could be a case of quantity over quality – otherwise there wouldn’t be quite the volume that we’ve seen, and continue to see produced and released on a regular basis.
One key difference between making films here in the USA versus Nigeria is that, here in the USA there’s that dream factory known as Hollywood, where there seems to be an almost bottomless well of financing available, with production budgets soaring into the hundreds of millions of dollars on the high end. There never has been such a thing in Nigeria, although there was the recently (2010) established N200 billion (or about $1.2 billion) Nigerian Intervention Fund, which was set up by the Nigerian Federal Government to bail out the manufacturing sector from crisis, with some of that money going towards arts and entertainment.
Thus far, a reported 7+ projects have received money from the fund, which some say is too low, given how much of a boost the Nigerian entertainment industry is said to need; and there’s apparently some confusion about what exactly the fund is, how Nigerian artists can access the money, and frustration over how complicated the application process seems to be.
I should also note that we’re seeing more and more Nigerian filmmakers separate themselves from the internationally-known, and often mocked Nollywood brand, or who are attempting to improve on how the industry is perceived. We’ve covered a number of those filmmakers here in the past, and continue to do so.
So for black filmmakers (outside of Hollywood) in the USA, there’s something *higher* to aim for, if you will – Hollywood. Some opt to go the cheap, fast, straight-to-home entertainment route; others choose to take the longer road, which can mean years, and lots of money spent trying to get one project made, usually with the end goal being to eventually work within the Hollywood studio system.
In a way, you could even call Tyler Perry a glorified Nollywood filmmaker, given that his films are relatively cheap (by Hollywood standards), and are often simplistic and message-driven (delivered heavy-handedly), with issues of religion and morality central to each narrative – also common themes in Nollywood cinema.
But I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that Nollywood cinema is not the grand total of Nigerian filmmaking. For example, filmmakers in northern Nigeria have never really claimed allegiance to Nollywood, which is in part why Kannywood exists. Also, you have prominent Yoruba filmmakers like Tunde Kelani, setting up themselves and their works as being separate from Nollywood. There are also Nigerian filmmakers working outside of Nigeria (in the USA and across Europe notably, as well as in South Africa) who are telling stories about Nigerians in other parts of the world.
And, as I noted earlier, there are a growing number of Nigerian filmmakers who are making a concerted effort to change the face of Nigerian cinema on the international stage.
So the point is, Nollywood does not translate to the totality of filmmaking in Nigeria, even though Nollywood has come to represent Nigerian cinema on the global stage, just as Hollywood has come to represent American cinema all over the world, even though there are more films being produced and released outside of Hollywood on any given week, than within the studio system. The problem is those films simply don’t have the marketing budgets and market dominance to compete, and so many of you will likely never hear of, nor see these non-Hollywood-produced films. But they’re out there in large numbers.
The overall point here is that, again, look to the home video market (DVD, VOD, digital download, etc) here in the USA for a deeper well of black films. You might find whatever you consider a *gem* in the deluge; you might find the kind of work you’re looking for that you’re not getting from the Hollywood studios. We cover many indie films by and/or about black people on this blog, across all budget ranges, styles, genres, from all over the world, and hopefully you’re giving some of them a look.
Consider this the start of a much longer conversation to be had, so feel free to add to what I’ve written here if you’d like…