It all started in 1992, when an electronics dealer in Lagos, Nigeria, named Kenneth Nnebue needed to unload a shipment of blank VHS cassettes. He figured the tapes would be easier to sell if they had something on them, so he made Living in Bondage, a film about a down-and-out businessman who used witchcraft to get ahead. It had rock-bottom production values, but it told a story about magic, money, and the dark forces at work in the world—things Nigerians knew from their own lives but had never seen onscreen. Living in Bondage was a massive success.
Soon, other films with similar themes followed, and a homegrown industry emerged: low-budget films made by Nigerians for Nigerians. Nollywood, as the genre was named, quickly became the second-most prolific film market in the world, behind only India in terms of the number of movies produced, according to a UNESCO report.
Most Nollywood directors made movies quickly (often shooting all the scenes in one take) and cheaply (some for as little as $10,000). Imports such as Rambo and Predator—which had never really resonated with Africans—were shunted off screens and replaced by these Nollywood originals. Cinematically, Nigeria led the continent.
A couple of years ago, though, something changed. Africans grew tired of the now predictable stories. DVD sales dropped and funding dried up. The industry was ripe for change.
Several auteurs, including Kunle Afolayan, decided it was time to raise the bar on Nollywood movies. The actor and director studied at the New York Film Academy in London, and his first film, Redemption, about a young building contractor called to perform an ancient ritual, was a critical success. For his second film, The Figurine, Afolayan aimed higher. He got a bank loan of $130,000, bought a top of-the-line digital camera, flew in a makeup artist from the U.K., and hired Nigeria’s best costume, lighting, and sound people. The movie swept the Africa Movie Academy Awards in 2010, winning a host of laurels, including Best Picture.
Whereas the old Nollywood was fast and cheap, Afolayan’s new Nollywood is slow and crafted. The old Nollywood was about quantity; the new Nollywood is about quality. If the old Nollywood represented formulaic stories that baffled outsiders and started to bore Nigerians, the new Nollywood is looking like something else entirely.