Nollywood has come a long way and so much sweat, tears and blood have gone into it. The tottering wobbles of the pacesetters have led to the conflagration of talent, will and structure that is currently enjoyed today. But the question always arises: Where did all this begin?

In the beginning

What is regarded as the Nigerian Film Industry today traces its roots to the early years of the formative period of the development of Nigeria as an independent country (after colonialism) as well as the period of new-found wealth of ‘oil-boom’ (when oil was discovered in Nigeria), till what it is now. But it must be noted that prior to the early 90’s, there was never a conscious structure by the government for the development of the film industry. Prior to this time, the Colonial Film Unit (CFU) of the British colonial masters was primarily meant as propaganda machinery for the propagation of the ‘ideals’ of the colonial masters over the ‘ruled’. Nothing more! Thus, films supplied by the Home Office in Britain to these areas of British domination or rule were primarily films, or rather, documentaries laced with themes of developmental initiatives (like giving the people water, health facilities, etc) in an attempt to give colonialism a ‘human face’; to make the ‘ruled’ understand their (the British) humanitarian and humane purposes behind colonization. It was a sort of ‘pacifier’ for the people.

Though a few silent films and ‘spaghetti Westerns’ were also shown at open squares and town halls in several communities, that was the long and short of it. A more conscious approach at film and the making of film was soon energized not so long after Nigeria’s Independence in 1960. Several attempts were made in the late 60’s, but our major step was not to come till the 70’s. This was the period of what is usually referred to as the ‘Oil Boom’ in Nigeria. The country just discovered oil and was making so much money from the sales of the commodity. This new empowerment, as I would call it, went on to galvanize people at doing things. Creativity too blossomed. A lot of Nigerians who had gone abroad to study and train in several fields soon came back home to show what they could do. With film budgets costing between $300,000-$600,000, depending on the international involvement in terms of cast and crew, the 35mm camera that was also in vogue then also was brought in from London or America. But, it was worth the investment for these filmmakers.

Though some of their stories were influenced by the Westerns and such films coming from Hollywood, Kung-fu films from China and Indian films, they also were conscious of their environment. They made films with socio-cultural as well as political themes (“Death of a Black President”, “Dr Oyenusi”, “Aiye”, “Taxi Driver”, etc). It was a boom for all. Films were being made and cinema halls were in return being filled by the thronging crowd who wanted to see the new works from these Nigerian filmmakers.

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Gradually, the audiences that used to throng several cinema houses dotted across the states in the country soon thinned down till they (audience) finally ‘died out’. The reason was not far-fetched. Major cinema houses closed shop, a lot due to the government reforms on businesses by foreigners called the Indigenization Policy of 1974. A lot of these cinemas were owned by Lebanese and Indian businessmen. Hard as some tried to cope with this new decree, they could not and the local ‘managers’ of these cinemas were not experienced enough to carry on.

The economy also took a nosedive. This downturn of the country with the ‘oil boom’ turning to an ‘oil doom’ and the weakness of our local currency to the dollar, which was traded at 60kobo to $1 then, but was now going for $1 to about 1 naira, then 10 naira, 25 naira, and by the mid-80’s, was well over 50 naira to $1 (now it’s over 1,500 naira to $1). All these were to act as impediments for the festering of any creativity. Filmmakers were now unable to buy film stock, get equipment and even if they did manage to shoot, they could not afford the exorbitant price of post-production. They (filmmakers) could not make films with budget as low as $30,000 (considerably small compared to what they were spending before) because such films could not recoup the investment on them. Shooting on celluloid soon became a no-go zone and no one dared venture into it.

To worsen matters, the incursion of the military into the government was the final nail on the coffin for film. They were not interested in any way in such ‘trivialities’. And the people (audience) were faced with a much bigger task of ‘survival’ within the ambit of military rule and harsh economic reforms and downturn. This led to a decline in the social lifestyle of the people with less money to spend on leisure and entertainment. Filmmakers were now on their own.

Though in the 80’s, the Yoruba traveling drama group (they were the progenitors of modern drama in Nigeria) “attempted to arrest this downward trend”, according to Ladi Ladebo, “by putting their popular stage plays on 16mm celluloid counting on patronage from their established loyal audiences in the urban center. But, this did not last for very long as the expected profit failed to materialize.”

Television soon became the only form of leisure. But this too had its limitations because they were merely ‘shells’ for the relay of films and sitcoms produced elsewhere. Despite the fact that these television houses were ill-equipped and some didn’t even have the necessary production capability and money to function, some of them still tried to fashion indigenous programmes for the local audience, like “Play of the Week”, “Tele-Drama”, “Hotel De Jordan”, “Assizes”, “Icheoku”, “New Masquerade”, etc. But the audience wanted more.