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The Rising Popularity of Direct-to-Streaming Route For Nigerian Filmmakers

The Story⚡

In 2023, the distribution of film/TV projects directly on streaming services by filmmakers is gradually becoming the first route of monetization considered by Nigerian producers. 

This reports looks at the development of movie distribution and the advent of streaming media in Nigeria and its perks for filmmakers.

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Over the years, in the bid to tell stories and get closer to their audiences, filmmakers have tried out different means to distribute their products to reach a diverse set of audiences that will love their work. 

Like every other film industry that has undergone development these past years, the Nigerian film industry has undergone different stages, ranging from production to distribution. Recently, film producers are rapidly considering launching their films directly on streaming services, unlike before where the usual box office route is the first option highly considered. 

To understand how the development has led up to this, it will be insightful to consider some film distribution history as far as the Nigerian film industry is concerned. 

The wake of cinema culture

In Nigeria, the history of storytelling with the use of actors taking roles before an audience and coordinated by a director goes as far back as time immemorial. During this time, the actors performed in an area known in African parlance as the “Arena Stage”, just between the audience.

In taking their theatrical performances to their audiences, performers travelled from place to place. The likes of Hubert Ogunde (who founded the first contemporary professional theatrical company in Nigeria in 1945), Moses Olaiya, and Adeyemi Afolayan (popularly known as Ade Love) were famous managers of such theatrical groups that take theatrical shows from one place to the other.

Notwithstanding, between the late 1960s and 1970, these famous thespians transitioned from stage to screen. Most of the film productions in the country at the time were from Western Nigeria.

In the 70s, the cinema culture in Nigeria was booming, and this has been tied to the Nigerian oil boom between 1973 and 1978 which afforded many Nigerians the luxury of visiting the cinemas. Many of the privileged ones amongst them were also able to get television sets. Papa Ajasco (1984), produced by Wale Adenuga, became the first blockbuster.

Just a year after the success of Papa Ajasco, Moses Olaiya’s Mosebolatan dominated the moment. These titles were made available to their audience through theatrical releases. This implies that viewers had to leave their homes and get tickets to view them at the cinemas.

Television era

The television era was a period when movie releases were done directly on television. This period is traced back to the 1980s when the horror film Evil Encounter (1983), by Jimi Odumosu, was released directly on television. The title was the first Nigerian film to be released directly on television. The implication of this was that the film was not taken to the cinema, unlike titles like Papa Ajasco and Mosebolatan people had to get tickets to go view it at film houses.

Prior to the release of Evil Encounter, it’s reported that the title was massively promoted before it was released on television. The morning after its release on television, copies of the recorded broadcast flooded the streets. It even became a highly-demanded product at Alaba Market, a film distribution hub in Lagos.

Since the release of Jimi Odumosu’s horror title, it became a common occurrence for televised programs to get recorded and monetized. This gave room for pirates to prey on the sweat of filmmakers.

Direct-to-video era

Because the television era wasn’t looking good for film producers since pirates were the ones enjoying the fruit of their labor, there was a need for a solution. This gave rise to the home video era, or rather, to the legal home video era since videos were already being watched at homes before then.

Producers and distributors adopted the home video method that was initiated by pirates to revive the film industry that was dwindling.

In 1988, the first film was properly and legally produced on video. The title of the film was Soso Meji, and it was produced by Ade Ajiboye. Though it was produced on video, it was also screened at a few cinema houses that were in operation at the time.

The same distribution method was adopted for Alade Aromire’s Ekun (1989). It was produced on video and also screened at the National Theatre, Iganmu.

Despite the success of these titles that were produced on video, the impact of the home video era wasn’t felt until Kenneth Nnebue released his Living in Bondage (1992), it was released as a direct-to-video film. It’s reported that Kenneth Nnebue had imported an excess amount of video cassettes which were used to record the film on a video camera.

Since the inception of this distribution method, many producers and distributors have adopted it to get their films to their audiences. From the use of VHS to the use of VCD, to the use of DVD, the direct-to-video era witnessed growth in the Nigerian film industry and it curbed piracy to an extent. But while this was on, home video wasn’t the only route film producers and distributors used to get their films to their audiences.

The renaissance of the cinema culture

This form of film distribution method brought back the culture that saw movies like Papa Ajasco and Mosebolatan from their producers to the audiences. This new cinema culture started in the mid-2000s and it has been on till the present. 

At the onset of its rebirth, the new cinemas were targeted at admitting the middle and upper classes. The first company to launch the new era of cinema culture was The Silverbird Group, which opened cinema houses across major cities in the country. The Silverbird Group started its cinema chains in 2004 with Silverbird Galleria in Victoria Island, Lagos.

During this era, a Yoruba title by Kunle Afolayan, Irapada, was one of the first movies to be shown at the Silverbird Galleria. 

Owing to the success of the new cinema test by Silverbird, more cinema branches were opened by the company. After this time, new cinemas began to join in the race. Cinemas like Genesis Deluxes Cinemas and Ozone Cinemas were also launched. FilmOne would later join in this race.

Since its rebirth, many Nollywood titles have gone to the box office. And the distribution medium has been a lucrative source of income, not just for the industry, but also for the country.

Several Nollywood movies have gone to the box office. Kunle Afolayan’s 2009 movie, The Figurine, is considered to be a game changer due to its commercial success. The thriller which shifted the eyes of the media to the new cinema grossed N30 million. It was also screened at international festivals.

The record of The Figurine was later beaten by Chineze Anyaene’s Ije (2010). It became the new highest-grossing title for four years until Half of A Yellow Sun (2013), directed by Biyi Bandele, was released. In 2016, Kemi Adetiba’s The Wedding Party then took the number one position.

In 2023, the position of the highest-grossing title at the box office is being held by Omo Ghetto: The Saga (2020), produced by Funke Akindele. The title grossed N636.12 million. Another title of hers, Battle on Buka Street (2022) is currently sitting in the number two position.

Almost every weekend, new Nollywood titles get released at the box office. Analysis has shown that out of 10 titles, 8 fail to break even at the box office


The drive to direct-to-streaming

As producers continue to make films, the need for platforms for those films to get distributed increases. Streaming platforms came as a solution to this need. Streaming services that have found their way to Nigeria include Netflix, Amazon Prime, and ShowMax.

As a streamer, Netflix launched in Nigeria in 2016 and this was done as part of its plan to expand into 130 countries. Fifty (2015), an Ebony Life Studios production, directed by Biyi Bandele, was among the first set of movies streamed on the platform.

In 2020 however, the platform launched a Nollywood-inspired variant, Netflix Naija, and an office was set up in Nigeria. In doing that, the streamer made its first post on Instagram, which reads:

“N is for Naija. N is for Nollywood. N is the 14th alphabet. 14 is also how many great talents you’re looking at. N is for Netflix. But most importantly… hello, Nigeria!”

The service acquired Genevieve Nnaji’s Lionheart (2018) which was a global hit and was nominated for the 2020 Best International Movie at the Oscar Awards, although it would later be disqualified. This acquisition move by Netflix was later followed by the commissioning of its original titles.

On the other hand, the direct competition to Netflix, Prime Video, officially launched a localized version of its service in Nigeria on August 4, 2022. It announced key executives into its Nigerian office.

It is germane to mention that the drive to streaming platforms for movie content by viewers began to experience an increase during the COVID-19 lockdown when movement was restricted globally and cinemas had to be shut down. At this point, the box office witnessed a fall while streaming platforms knew an increase.

Since their inception, streaming services have acquired titles from producers. They have also partnered with producers to make original titles. Examples of Netflix Originals include Anikulapo and Elesin Oba, both 2022 titles.

Notwithstanding, aside from streaming services licensing, acquiring, or making Originals, producers now release their films directly to streaming services. Direct-to-streaming movies do not go through the box office for their releases. They go directly on any of the streaming platforms available. Recently, many movies have used the direct-to-streaming method for their releases and this is fast becoming the new normal for movie distribution in Nigeria.

Many titles have used the direct-to-streaming method and here are a few of them:

Anikulapo (2022), The Griot (2021), The Man of God (2022), Chief Daddy 2 (2022), Glamour Girls (2022), A Naija Christmas (2021), Namaste Wahala (2020), Swallow (2021), Gone (2021), Citation (2020), and Oloture (2019).

Producers are beginning to look away from cinema launchings for their titles to gravitate towards direct-to-streaming. For veteran producers like Kunle Afolayan whose four titles appear on the list above, a direct-to-streaming distribution route has become the new normal.

In the case of the box office, many producers often get turned down from having their titles slated for screening. This leads to many movies not getting to mainstream audiences. With direct-to-streaming, producers now can take their products to their audiences without the usual revenue uncertainties and fear of rejection.

The D2S route is also less stressful as marketing is mostly digital and the worry of getting good showtimes or heading to the big screen in competition with other titles is averted.

Revenue recoupment is also faster as fees are paid upon agreement and not a single debt is owed by any parties involved.


The Summary

Like every other entrepreneur, producers are always on the lookout for opportunities that will help them get to as many audiences as possible while also maximizing profit. With direct-to-streaming, as an offshoot of new technologies, the opportunities are massive for producers. Notwithstanding, with new solutions, comes new challenges.

As it was with the television era which was beset by pirates, direct-to-streaming seems like a rebirth of the era of piracy. Movies released directly to streaming platforms can be easily pirated and redistributed on websites. But how do producers hope to solve this imminent problem in the future?

Another worry is that this new cycle may not be as long-term as the D2C distribution model, but so far has yielded a boom in productions from homegrown filmmakers which signals growth for the industry.

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