Dear Nigerian audience, the power is yours

In the current Hollywood era of remakes, reboots, and comic books’ movies grossing billions of dollars, there is a lot of reminiscing on the golden age of Hollywood, and the time the 60s and 70s when films were daring, innovative, refreshing and surprising. Leading many to declare that the films of those days were much better. Paul Schrader, scribe of Taxi Driver, American Gigolo, Raging Bull and a key player in the American New Wave which revolutionized Hollywood and American cinema in the 70’s, said this:

“It wasn’t that the films were better or the filmmakers were better, it was the audiences that were better. It was a time of social stress and audiences turned to the artists for answers. What do you think about women’s rights? What do you think about the war? The moment that a society turns to artists for answers, great art will emerge. It’s just that simple.

We hear similar about Nollywood’s early days being far superior in storytelling. Recent years have seen an overwhelming emphasis on comedy in our cinemas. Producers explanation for this? The audience wants to laugh; Nigeria is hard; comedy sells. But these are the same audience making statements like “I don’t watch Nollywood films in the cinema.”

There are those who call back to the earliest days of Nollywood, declaring the writing, directing and acting of that period to be much better than the present, despite the improved technology, production value and skillset. Whether this is fact or nostalgia, is a story for another day.

The earliest days of Nollywood were under the reign of the late General Sani Abacha; a time of uncertainty, fear and tension. Yet, that was probably the most genre diverse period in its history. With titles like, Living in Bondage, Die Wretched, Glamour Girls, Onome, Rattlesnake, Mortal Inheritance, Battle of Musanga, Domitilla, Silent Night and many others, decidedly, not comedies. These films, tackled societal issues, ills, and held a mirror up to society.

So what happened? Was Nigeria not hard during that time? Was there no need to laugh and escape our harsh realities through those films? If the current climate is the reason comedies thrive what is the reason for the success of other genres from 94 to 98, which many consider Nollywood classics; in a much harder time economically and psychologically for the country? Are today’s audiences demanding less, expecting less? Does Schrader’s theory also apply to the Nigerian situation?

Cited comedy successes are outliers; The Wedding Party had the combined marketing power of media mogul Mo Abudu and FilmHouse cinemas. The AY films had built audience from a decade of sold out comedy shows. Using the box office returns of those films to categorically certify comedy as what Nigerians want to watch doesn’t paint the full picture; It ignores those who bypass local films because they don’t explore the genres they want to see and give their money to Hollywood films which do.

In 2017 there were solid non-comedy films; Ojukokoro (a crime caper), (detective), What lies within (thriller), Slow Country (action) and others which audiences failed to support en masse.

Similarly, in 2016, with 76 and 93 days; two serious pieces about Nigerian history, yet the turnout was not encouraging, especially for films that did what Nollywood had been accused of not doing for years. The suspicion for such low turnout is, those who watch Hollywood films are uninterested, jaded from past failures, or sceptical if Nollywood could pull off these genres. These were good films, not supported by many of those who would come out to declare that Nollywood doesn’t make good films. Is it a matter of marketing, awareness or nonchalance?

One thing is certain, the films massively supported by audiences will be the films which keep getting made. Those are the films which exhibitors will pick up and investors will look at numbers and choose to put money behind. Anomalies like The Lost Café (Kenneth Gyang) and Green White Green will be the exception, which, despite critical acclaim and numerous wins at film festivals, didn’t get nationwide distribution deals.

Film critic, Oris Aigbokhaevbolo in the last weeks of 2017 wrote a piece, “Why Nollywood Hates Good Things,” pondering why films which took risks and did different things weren’t successful at the box office like the generic comedies. Maybe the question is, “Why do Nigerians hate Good Films?”

Dear Nigerians, If you want genre diversity, want to see compelling, and complex stories, which don’t exhibit the traits you have accused Nollywood of, when you see the ones that stand out, have in-depth discussions about the films’ themes, subtext and what it had to say. But if entertainment is all you demand from a film, that’s also fine. If you however expect more- like Schrader said, “the moment society turns to artists for answers, great art will emerge, ” the power is yours.

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