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Hooray for Nollywood? Nigeria isn’t the world’s second-biggest film industry after all

This week Nigeria received a storm of positive publicity as it officially became Africa’s largest economy, with one commentator declaring: “Move over South Africa: here comes Nigeria!” The entrepreneurial…

Glorious though Nigerian cinema may be, it’s not being fairly compared. Michael Rank, CC BY-SA

This week Nigeria received a storm of positive publicity as it officially became Africa’s largest economy, with one commentator declaring: “Move over South Africa: here comes Nigeria!”

The entrepreneurial role played by the nation’s National Bureau of Statistics in carrying out the economy’s “rebasing” is intriguing. It echoes the miraculous crowning of Nollywood as the world’s second-largest film industry in 2009, a feat that has framed the industry to the extent that it has almost become its tag-line. Even the headlines announcing the latest achievement recall the famous New York Times article, “Step Aside LA and Bombay, for Nollywood”.

The event that kicked off the wave of international publicity was the 2009 publication of the UNESCO report analysis of the UIS International Survey on Feature Film Statistics. Journalists picked up two facts: that Nollywood was now the second-largest film industry in the world, and had achieved this feat from the bottom up, without the benefit of state assistance.

The big boost

The sudden increase in interest transformed the industry’s image. It was now an internationally recognised success story, which contributed to an upturn in investor interest and the growth of lucrative international markets. But there are doubts about both the industry’s lofty position in the international rankings and the lack of state involvement in this “success story”.

I recently published research that considered the UNESCO report’s methodology. Crucially, the organisation did not carry out any research itself. It asked each country’s national film classification body to complete a form based on their own surveys. The UNESCO statistics are thus entirely dependent on the figures provided by the national certification boards.

UNESCO did not do its own research Nollywood Forever, CC BY-SA

When it comes to defining what can be counted as a film, the key criterion used by every major film board other than the Nigerian National Film and Video Censors Board (NFVCB) is distribution through cinema exhibition. By adding the proviso that the Nigerian statistics relate only to “video films”, the UNESCO report lost the main basis of comparability with the likes of India, the UK and US.

Cinema exhibition is a crucial threshold for including films in the statistics. Without it, any motion picture on any medium running for over 60 minutes is eligible. If we were to make a consistent comparison, straight-to-video films would have to be included for all countries and possibly made-for-television movies and films created for online distribution. In reality, most film boards either do not collect this information or do not collate it within the national output figures.

The hand of Abuja

Nollywood did not rise to prominence on the world stage despite government involvement, but rather because of its hyperactive involvement in film classification. The industry is the second-largest not by number of films made or released but by number classified.

A taste of recent Nollywood

And this is just one example of how the NFVCB’s expansive approach to classification has produced a space so densely coded that comparisons produce misleading results. Prior to the UNESCO revelation, the board made the claim that Nollywood employs one million people and is therefore the second-largest employer in Nigeria.

The NFVCB gave this figure and comparison to The Economist in July 2006. The resulting article, “Nollywood Dreams” has been highly influential in donor attitudes to the industry, with the World Bank referencing the figures in justification for its $25 million GEMS intervention.

The way that the board counted the employee numbers closely mirrors the story of the film output comparison. It gave classification codes to workers who had previously just been included in the category of “informal economy” without similarly lifting colleagues in other sectors out of it too by giving them equivalent codes.

The point here is not to deny the industry’s achievements or debunk the “Nollywood miracle”. The miracle is real: Nollywood is a precious example of a non-primary industry that exports throughout Africa and beyond.

What I am arguing is that industry narratives are an integral part of this success, and that the NFVCB has been productive in this regard, promoting those narratives with chutzpah. The industry does not measure up in the way often claimed. In spite of this the NFVCB has proved to be a star director, with Nollywood its Oscar-worthy hit.