“Why fix what is not broken?” This the general attitude Nollywood filmmakers seem to show, especially at this point where they think they have cracked the code to getting massive box office viewership.
For the industry, the comedy button is not broken, so why fix it? The real question is — are audiences not clear enough on the fact that the jinx does not last? Data clearly shows that they are but it seems the filmmakers see only what they want to.
For many, the last decade was great for Nollywood. From the success of movies in the cinema, to better production, Netflix deals and international festival screenings, the world was roused to pay rapt attention to the biggest film industry in Africa and for several years in the decade, ample work was done.
In 2016, something happened that showed filmmakers that the cinema was a goldmine if they tapped correctly. Mo Abudu and her EbonyLife Films made ‘The Wedding Party’, a romantic comedy directed by Kemi Adetiba which caught fans by surprise.
It was a classic rom-com plot with several Nigerian slangs and troupes, funny characters and cute lead actors embedded in it. To cap it off, a large wedding party was shot. The film remains the highest grossing Nigerian film till date, raking in 452 million naira.
From then till date, audiences have been subjected to the ghost of ‘The Wedding Party’ past. It created a new formula for cinema — ensemble star cast, party theme, splattering of comedic scenes and all would be sold during the holiday season, especially Christmas.
The bad news is that the formula only worked once, in 2016 and never again. This is a hard pill for industry stakeholders to swallow. It is even harder when they think they can argue that audiences love the formula and it has made them money back-to-back in the last four years.
The denial is laughable because records clearly show that every year, the total gross for individual film reduces. In 2017, ‘The Wedding Party 2’ had some novelty peel off and it made 435 million naira. By 2018, Abudu and crew released ‘Chief Daddy’ which grossed 387 million naira.
At this time, the faith audiences built in the Nollywood films had dwindled as it was clear that there was no respect whatsoever for their taste. The beauty about audiences is that they communicate in viewership. Adetiba seemed to have taken some notes and she released ‘King of Boys’.
Grossing 242 million naira, it remains the highest grossing non-comedy in Nollywood. It was a great start and a clear proof that audiences wanted diversity of genres, especially in peak periods. But the lesson went unnoticed as filmmakers have remained stuck to the ghost of ‘The Wedding Party’ and the success of Ayo Makun’s comedies. It still was not clear that the formula was fading.
In fact, director, Niyi Akinmolayan (who worked on the second ‘Wedding Party’ film), lists laughter as one of the audience requirements for a good film. He wrote on twitter, “We were all laughing in the hall, we could not predict the movie. If Nigerians are saying either of these two phrases about your Nollywood film, it is most likely going to be a hit. So think about that when you are writing your next blockbuster.”
This statement, targeted at filmmakers, means that more nonsensical comedic troupes will fill the cinema in the new decade. How else can audiences scream that they are tired? If comedies must be made, they should be made well and written better.
Commenting on the box office performances, producer and writer, Naz Onuzo said, “A key challenge for Nollywood is to maintain a strong Nollywood slate all year round. I am hoping for at least 10 100 million naira grosses in 2020 and for ‘The Wedding Party’ record to finally fall.”
The aspirations are high but nothing will change if the approach is not changed. Even Abudu, who invented the formula was bitten by her own bug in 2019 when ‘Your Excellency’ struggled to cross a 100 million naira despite the desperate marketing antics.
What then works? The answer is embedded in the places that filmmakers have refused to look at. Audiences want diversity of genres, better written stories and better production. Cue in ‘Living in Bondage’, released in a season usually characterised by cinema viewership drought but pulled in 160 million naira organically.
If the film was released during the peak holiday period, statistics show that it would have broken box office records. A look at the success of ‘King of Boys’ proves that audiences want to be respected more. True, these movies did not have the best stories but they were visible efforts at changing the course.
It is shameful that as an industry, all Nollywood had to close the decade were three comedies, with visible story and production fails, which made a total of 511, 818, 264 million naira. This is slightly above what ‘The Wedding Party’ singlehandedly pulled in 2016. How does this suggest growth?
Director, Chris Ihidero suggests that stakeholders know what is wrong but do not know how to fix it. He said, “Everybody knows what is wrong with Nollywood but nobody knows how to fix it, and nobody admits that they are part of the problem.”
To fix the problem, start with a good and well-written story. Even Steven Spielberg alludes to this when he said, “The older I get, the more I look at movies as a moving miracle. Audiences are harder to please if you are just giving them special effects but they are easy to please if it is a good story.”
Ihidero argues that Nollywood writers are poorly paid and hence cannot stretch beyond that gag. He said, “Let’s not blame the writers then, especially as they earn the least money and get no respect. You pay peanuts, you get monkeys. Great dialogue is not the problem, Producers willing to pay for the time and expertise is the problem.”
Still, how then can the industry know what works and what does not when audiences are being told what to complain about and what not to? Filmmakers are quick to jump in and defend films when audiences debate them on social media.
In one funny debate in December, 2019, some audience members complained that they were tired of the party/comedy theme and Akinmolayan asked them to list all the movies that contained the theme.
The first reaction is to defend and defend some more, making the audience doubt their choices and reactions. Onuzo also employed the strategy when fans complained about the quality of Nigerian movies on Netflix. According to him, there are over 50 movies and audiences should simply watch the ones they like.
Statements like this silently say — don’t complain, we are doing our best. The irony is that no one argues otherwise as it is clear that no filmmaker sets out to make a bad film. Complaints are there to guide the next and the next till it is gotten right.
Amidst these, there are a crop of filmmakers who have decided to focus on the telling stories properly, away from the noise. These are the future of the industry as more and more people get introduced to their works. For instance, C.J Obasi’s work in the futuristic film, ‘Hello Rain’ and ‘Ojuju’ were well received.
Similarly, Kenneth Gyang showed the importance of a good story with his film, ‘Confusion Na Wa’. However, it was Adekunle ‘Nodash’ Adejuiyigbe’s work as a writer and director in ‘The Delivery Boy’ that cemented the fact that nothing beats a good story.
The film, which has screened across to world, has garnered critical acclaim and success as a story well written, shot and edited. It is a cultural reference point. For an industry flooded with poorly written stories, these filmmakers and more like them provide hope that things can and will get better.
As the new decade unfolds, it is a silent plea that more Nollywood filmmakers and other stakeholders respect the audience more by making better films. Not just films with high production value and large cast but with better stories and attention to detail. At least, the dwindling box office numbers should be enough motivation. 2019 should remain the worst year for Nollywood.