History of Films in Nigeria

In this article, we are going to take a look at the history of films in Nigeria. All the films produced in Nigeria is what is collectively called the Cinema of Nigeria or informally as Nollywood. The history of films in Nigeria dates back to the late 19th century and into the colonial era in the 20th century.

Because of these span of time, the history and development of the Nigerian motion picture industry is generally grouped into four eras. These four eras include the:

  • Colonial era
  • Golden Age era
  • Video film era
  • New Nigerian cinema era

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History of Films in Nigeria
History of Films in Nigeria – Photo Source: https://www.takemetonaija.com

Film has been present in various countries around the world before it came to Nigeria. Film as a medium first arrived to Nigeria in the late 19th century, in the form of peephole viewing of motion picture devices.

These were soon replaced in early 20th century with improved motion picture exhibition devices, with the first set of films screened at the Glover Memorial Hall in Lagos from 12 to 22 August 1903.

The earliest feature film made in Nigeria is the 1926’s Palaver produced by Geoffrey Barkas; the film was also the first film ever to feature Nigerian actors in a speaking role.

As at 1954, mobile cinema vans played to at least 3.5 million people in Nigeria, and films being produced by the Nigerian Film Unit were screened for free at the 44 available cinemas.

The first film entirely copyrighted to the Nigerian Film unit is Fincho (1957) by Sam Zebba; which is also the first Nigerian film to be shot in colour.

The gaining of independence in 1960 influenced the expansion of the Nigerian film industries as was evident by the establishment of many new cinema houses as at that time.

As a result of this, Nigerian content in theatres increased in the late 1960s into the 1970s, especially productions from Western Nigeria, owing to former theatre practitioners such as Hubert Ogunde and Moses Olaiya transitioning into the big screen.

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In 1972, Yakubu Gowon issued the Indigenization Decree, which demanded the transfer of ownership of about a total of 300 film theatres from their foreign owners to Nigerians, which resulted in more Nigerians playing active roles in the cinema and film.

The oil boom of 1973 through 1978 also contributed immensely to the spontaneous boost of the cinema culture in Nigeria, as the increased purchasing power in Nigeria made a wide range of citizens to have disposable income to spend on cinema going and on home television sets.

After several moderate performing films, Papa Ajasco (1984) by Wale Adenuga became the first blockbuster, grossing approximately ₦61,000 (approx. 2015 ₦21,552,673) in three days.

A year later, Mosebolatan (1985) by Moses Olaiya also went ahead to gross ₦107,000 (approx. 2015 ₦44,180,499) in five days.

After the decline of the Golden era, Nigerian film industry experienced a second major boom in the 1990s, the industry peaked in the mid 2000s to become the second largest film industry in the world in terms of the number of annual film productions, placing it ahead of the United States and behind only India and as of 2013, Nigerian cinema was rated as the third most valuable film industry in the world based on its worth and revenues generated.

The Four Eras of Nigerian Film Industries

1. Colonial era (late 19th century – early 1960s)

Colonial filmmakers started producing films for local audiences within Nigeria since the 1920s, mostly employing the mobile cinema as a means of exhibition; the earliest featured film made in Nigeria was the 1926’s Palaver produced by Geoffrey Barkas.

The film was shot amongst the Sura and Angas people of the present day Bauchi and Plateau States in Northern Nigeria, and narrated the rivalry between a British District Officer and a tin miner which led to a war.

The film was also the first film ever to feature Nigerian actors in a speaking role. As of 1921, there were four other halls showing films twice a week in Lagos Mainland and one hall each in Ebute Metta and Oshodi.

By this time, cinema had become popular in Lagos with crowds of young and old people usually waiting at the doors of theatre halls. Religion also aided in the expansion of cinema culture as the Christian missionaries used cinemas for religious propaganda.

As cinemas became a common feature of the social life in the then emerging city of Lagos, the late 1930s through 1940s marked the beginning of the establishment of big commercial cinema houses with branches in strategic parts of the country.

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One of the earliest cinema operators in Lagos was the “West African Pictures Company” owned by Mr. S. Khalil, a member of the Syrian community in Lagos.

He established the Rex Cinema in Ebute Metta, Regal Cinema and Royal Cinema. In 1937, the colonial government set up a Board of Censorship to handle matters relating to the establishment and operations of cinema houses in the colony.

Nigerian content in films made and shown in Nigerian cinemas during this period were however virtually non-existent as the production and distribution were controlled by foreigners.

Motion picture entertainment was as a result complemented by the Yoruba travel theatre groups, which emerged in the 1930s through 1940s; One of the most prominent were the Agbegijo and Alarinjo theatre groups, which featured theatre actors such as Duro Ladipo, Ishola Ogunmola, Lere Paimo, Oyin Adejobi, amongst others.

In 1949 through 1950, the state of affairs changed a bit, with more Nigerian contents being exhibited in cinemas; with a purported drive to “Africanize” film production, the Nigerian Film Unit was established in order to decentralize colonial film production.

The Colonial Film Unit, throughout the decade, exhibited health and educational films to local audiences through its mobile cinema vans. It also produced newsreels and short documentaries, depicting celebrations and colonial achievements to domestic and overseas audiences.

2. Golden Age (late 1950s – late 1980s)

After Nigeria’s independence in 1960, the cinema business rapidly expanded, with new cinema houses being established. However, there came a significant influx of American, Indian, Chinese and Japanese films; posters of films from these countries were all over theatre halls and actors from these industries became very popular in Nigeria.

Towards the late 1960s and into the 1970s Nigerian productions in movie houses increased gradually, especially productions from Western Nigeria, owing to former theatre practitioners such as Hubert Ogunde , Ola Balogun , Moses Olaiya , Jab Adu, Isola Ogunsola, Ladi Ladebo, Sanya Dosumu and Sadiq Balewa amongst others, transitioning into the big screen. The first fully commercial Nigerian films, shot on celluloid, were also made by these filmmakers in the 1960s.

In 1972, concerned about the influx of foreign culture into Nigeria, the Indigenization Decree was issued by the then head of state Yakubu Gowon; which demanded the transfer of ownership of about a total of 300 film theatres in the country from their foreign owners to Nigerians.

Also, more Nigerians started playing active roles in cinema establishment as a result of this policy. This transfer also resulted in the emergence of Nigerian playwrights, screenwriters and film producers; popular literature and theatre works were adapted into motion picture.

In 1976, the 5000-capacity National Arts Theatre, Iganmu was constructed in Lagos. The theatre was incorporated with two cinemas, each having a capacity of over 700 people.

At this time cinema business had become a notable employer of many people and also served as an important social function, as Nigerians visited cinemas for relaxation and entertainment purposes.

As of late 1980s, the cinema culture was beginning to face a major decline, and most Nigerian film producers had transitioned to television productions.

The gradual decline of the Golden era of Nigerian cinema has been attributed to several factors, including the reduction in the value of Naira, lack of finance and marketing support, lack of standard film studios and production equipment, frequent Government structural adjustment programmes due to military dictatorships, as well as inexperience on the part of practitioners.

The drastic decline in cinema culture resulted in some of the existing cinema houses being acquired by religious bodies and turned to churches; others were simply just closed down. In the early 1990s, only a few of the once vibrant cinema houses were still in operation, and all had collapsed before 1999.

3. Home Video Boom (late 1980s – mid 2010s)

The emergence of the video film market in Nigeria is traced back to the 1980s when television productions thrived. Jimi Odumosu’s Evil Encounter, a 1980 horror film released directly on television, was the first production to be a pointer to how lucrative making film directly on video can be.

The film was extensively promoted before being aired on the television, and as a result, had streets flooded in the following morning with video copies of the recorded broadcast.

This method was adopted and built on by producers and distributors at Alaba Market to reinvent the film industry, since the Nigerian cinema culture was facing a major decline. The first film produced on video in Nigeria was 1988’s Soso Meji, produced by Ade Ajiboye. However, the boom experienced in this era is generally believed to have been kick started by Kenneth Nnebue’s Living in Bondage (1992).

As at 2004, at least four to five films were produced every day in Nigeria. Nigerian movies now already dominate television screens across the African continent and by extension, the diaspora. The film actors also became household names across the continent, and the movies have significantly influenced cultures in many African nations; from way of dressing to speech and usage of Nigerian slangs.

This was attributed to the fact that Nigerian films told “relatable” stories, which made foreign films to “gather dusts” on the shelves of video stores, even though they cost much less.

At the peak of the video era at around 2008, the industry had become the second largest producer of films, releasing approximately 200 video films monthly. However at this point, the Nigerian film industry had practically degenerated into a “visionless” industry, with the invasion of several people who do not know a thing about filmmaking, and piracy was at its peak.

Dealing with the menace of piracy, amongst other problems, became a hard nut to crack; as a result of this, most investors of the “Alaba cartel “, who controlled almost 90 percent stakes in the video industry, began to channel their money into other business ventures instead.

The decline of the Home video era has been attributed to several factors, such as the refusal of the Government to provide support and funding, the lack of a formal and effective indigenous film distribution infrastructure and the increase in the cost of production in Nigeria.

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4. New Nigerian Cinema (mid 2000s – present)

This is an emerging phase in Nigerian cinema, in which there became a major shift in the method of film production, from the video format, back to the cinema method, which constituted the films produced in the Golden era.

Few years into the 21st century, Nigeria began to experience the growth of cinemas, which was initially structured for the middle and upper class.

The Silverbird Group is the first company to launch a series of modern Cinema houses across major cities in Nigeria, mostly situated in affluent areas and districts. It launched its cinema chains in 2004, starting with the Silverbird Galleria in Victoria Island, Lagos.

Silverbird cinemas upon establishment started screening Nigerian films with high production quality, as a result discouraging poor film production.

The first New wave film to be shown at a cinema was the Yoruba-language film Irapada (2006) by Kunle Afolayan, which was screened at the Silverbird Galleria in Lagos.

The Silverbird experiment became very successful, and as a result, the group launched few more cinema branches in Lagos and other cities in the country.

Not long after the establishment of Silverbird cinemas, Genesis Deluxe Cinemas and Ozone Cinemas were also launched creating a competition in the cinema business.

Much later, in the 2010s, FilmHouse cinemas also came into the picture, leading to the availability of more cinemas in the country, especially outside the affluent neighbourhoods.

Several grants have been launched by the Nigerian Government, in order to support quality content in Nigerian films. In 2006, “Project Nollywood” was launched by the Nigerian Government, in conjunction with Ecobank. Also in 2015, Bank of Industry launched another “NollyFund” program for the purpose of giving financial support in form of loans to film producers.

The popular 2009 thriller film The Figurine is generally considered the game changer, which heightened the media attention towards “New Nigerian Cinema “revolution.

The film was a critical and commercial success in Nigeria, and it was also screened in international film festivals. The 2010 film Ijé by Chineze Anyaene, overtook The Figurine to become the highest grossing Nigerian film; a record it held for four years, until it was overtaken in 2014 by Half of a Yellow Sun (2013).

By 2016, this record was held by The Wedding Party, a film by Kemi Adetiba.

By the end of 2013, the film industry reportedly hit a record breaking revenue of ₦1.72 trillion (US$11 billion). As of 2014, the industry was worth ₦853.9 billion (US$ 5.1 billion) making it the third most valuable film industry in the world, behind the United States and India.

It contributed about 1.4% to Nigeria’s economy; this was attributed to the increase in the number of quality films produced and more formal distribution methods.

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Unlike the home video era, films in the new wave are generally of much improved quality, with considerably bigger budgets; averaging between ₦40 million (US$250,000) and ₦120 million ($750,000). These films’ production periods take months and even span into years, a far cry from the films in video format which are usually shot in a matter of days or weeks.

Other notable improvements in the New Nollywood include: more subtle performances from actors; different from the overt melodrama which constituted the video era, more practical, more logical and generally better stories. Themes explored in these films are often characterized by consciously cosmopolitan themes, as most of the filmmakers are relatively young.

A proper copyright and distribution system still remains one of the major challenges in the New Nigerian Cinema.

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