Genevieve Nnaji: a famous poster girl of Nollywood

Nollywood is increasingly grabbing the attention and financing of global entertainment brands such as French group Vivendi’s Canal+ and Showmax, the video streaming service of South Africa’s Multichoice.

Both seek to harness Nigerian hustle and know-how to extend the lifespan of the traditional pay-TV model, which is bleeding customers in developed markets but still has a future in Africa.

Canal+ and MultiChoice, are using Nigeria as a testing ground for introducing streaming platforms in African markets with poor communications infrastructure and low income levels.

In both cases, it’s local production that’s benefiting.

“Ten years ago Nollywood was very different,” Mary Njoku, whose ROK studios was acquired by Canal+ in July, told Reuters as the film crew worked in an abandoned hotel in Nigeria’s megacity Lagos. “Today we shoot with better cameras… We do things differently.”

A room on the hotel’s top floor was standing in for a college dorm on “What Are Friends For?”, an ROK comedy series that will be among new shows aired by Canal+ in coming months.

The company first dipped its toe into Africa’s most populous country six years ago, buying up local films, dubbing them and airing them on a dedicated channel, Nollywood TV, to viewers in French-speaking Africa.

That success led to the creation of a second channel.

The deal with ROK secures a steady supply of new films and series as the firm eyes a further expansion of African content, said Fabrice Faux, Canal+ International’s chief content officer.

Since it was founded six years ago, ROK has produced more than 540 films and 25 series. Under the Canal+ deal, Njoku says it aims to increase production from next year to around 300 films and 20 series annually.

Canal+’s pivot to Africa – a golden opportunity for ROK – is a business necessity for the French company.

“It is one of the very rare pay-TV markets that is growing and is growing very fast,” Faux told Reuters. “When I joined Canal+ International back in 2014, we had half a million (African subscribers) and now we have 4 million.”

Compare that to mainland France where, as of last year, it had lost some 1.3 million individual subscribers since 2013.

Much of that decline arose from losing broadcasting rights to popular sporting events. But it also reflected stiff competition from streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon. However, Faux believes such rivals pose no threat in Africa due to a widespread lack of 4G coverage or fixed broadband internet on the continent.

To properly develop African markets, however, Canal+ must cater to their diverse audiences, Faux said.

Francophone Africa has no Nollywood equivalent. Producing shows there has been slow and expensive, as Canal+ has been forced to bring in film crews from Europe to shoot on location, Faux said. He now hopes Canal+ can use ROK to clone the Nollywood model.

“The best knowledge and expertise is there in Nigeria. So it is our intention to try to bring some producers, technicians, directors to French-speaking Africa, for us to try to develop new production methods,” Faux said.

TEMPORARY GLITCHES?

If Canal+ sees little threat from streaming services in Africa, MultiChoice – the first major entertainment group to realize Nollywood’s potential – is out to prove it wrong.

In its infancy in the 1990s, Nollywood churned out cheap films ranging from bawdy comedies to morality tales about witchcraft and infidelity.

Low on production quality but high on entertainment value, these movies quickly garnered a fanatical following across Africa and its diaspora. And in 2003, MultiChoice launched Africa Magic – a Nollywood channel that would grow into a subscription package on its DStv satellite network.

In July, Showmax, MultiChoice’s fledgling video-streaming service, launched in Nigeria.

“The Nollywood phenomenon makes it quite interesting from a content development point of view. You have a huge base of very loyal fans,” said Niclas Ekdahl, CEO of MultiChoice’s connected video division.

*Reuters