By Noah Tsika, author of Cinematic Independence: Constructing the Big Screen in Nigeria
2019 was a peak year for moviegoing in Nigeria. Never before had there been so many theater screens in the country. Individual films, both locally produced and imported from Hollywood, broke box-office records. Everyone who could, it seemed, was suddenly going to the movies in Nigeria, a country that, just two decades earlier, had practically no movie theaters. The big screen’s future looked bright.
Then the pandemic struck. For over seven months—from March until October 2020—all of Nigeria’s movie theaters were shut down. Going to the movies was, once again, impossible—an unwelcome reminder, for many Nigerians, of a time, not that long ago, when urban crime, military dictatorship, and general economic disaster helped strip the country of the silver screen. No sooner had movie theaters reopened in the fall of 2020 than COVID-19 experienced a resurgence in Nigeria. If the cinemas shut down a second time, many feared, they would never open again, and Nigeria would find itself back in an unenviable position—a populous country without a single significant movie theater.
For postcolonial Nigeria, direct participation in the world economy has always involved the pursuit and development of cinematic infrastructure. Shortly after the country achieved independence from Britain in 1960, it magnetized movie companies from around the world. By 1962, six of the biggest Hollywood studios, including MGM and Twentieth Century-Fox, had permanent offices in Lagos. American companies both large and small were committed to the construction and refurbishing of Nigerian movie theaters, at least until the Biafran Civil War (1967 – 1970) devastated the country and led to the abandonment of Hollywood’s many outposts there. During the next three decades of mostly military rule, virtually all of Nigeria’s major movie theaters were shuttered. Several were transformed into Pentecostal churches. Still others became retail outlets. A few were simply bulldozed. “Nollywood,” the eventual name of one of many direct-to-video film industries in Africa, emerged to fill the gap.
In 1999, democratic rule was ostensibly restored, and Hollywood, after a long period of estrangement, returned to Nigeria with a new determination to tap the national market. Today, the industry competes for screen time and audience attention with a growing number of lavish local productions, some of which have even outperformed films in the Star Wars franchise. Omoni Oboli’s Wives on Strike: The Revolution (2017), for instance, accomplished this feat in early 2017, eclipsing Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson, 2017) at all of the major Nigerian multiplexes as well as at LightHouse Cinemas, a 4-screen theater located in a shopping mall in Warri, in Nigeria’s Delta State. None of these venues would exist had it not been for the ingenuity of a number of Nigerian businessmen. Armed with much-needed government support, they oversaw the construction of multiplexes beginning in 2004. In the years since, they have had to strike a delicate balance between Hollywood and Nollywood—between importing screen fare and offering much-needed space for Nigeria’s own auteurs.
A particular, and in many ways peculiar, national context, Nigeria nevertheless offers key insights into how the future of theatrical film might be secured around the world—even in the United States, and even in the wake of Omicron. Through the movie theater, Nigeria has entered a global economic space. The very vulnerability of this venue has inspired heightened efforts to guard against its obsolescence. Since at least the middle of the twentieth century, moviegoing’s demise has seemed imminent, and not merely to the most pessimistic observers. In the United States in the 1950s, the twinned threats of television and suburbanization coincided, somewhat fortuitously for imperiled Hollywood capital, with a decolonization movement that, many observers believed, could be directed to establish new (and expand old) outlets for such capital in Nigeria, one of Africa’s largest and most promising markets. If the decade began with “gloomy predictions that the [film] industry [was] withering on the vine,” as the journalist Stanley Frank put it in 1952, it would end with “soaring flights of fancy as to the future of the movie theater”—flights inspired, in part, by the appeal of political independence in places like Nigeria.
The country’s emergence from Imperial Preference and other forms of colonial protectionism facilitated its targeting by American capitalism. By the mid-1950s, nearly one-quarter of the world’s cocoa, one-sixth of its tin supplies, and most of its columbite (a mineral used to form weldable steel) came from Nigeria. Gold, lead, and zinc were being mined regularly, and oil was soon to be discovered in the Niger Delta. Yet the country was also, as it remains, a source of another natural resource: Nigerians themselves. Home to a massive population of potential moviegoers, the country would seem to require only that cinemas stay safely open—and that they show more than just Marvel movies.
In Nigeria, federal, state, and local governments have long been involved, to varying degrees, in efforts to cultivate the silver screen. The same has been true in the United States. While accepted wisdom suggests otherwise, Hollywood’s global dominance is very much a function of extensive government support, rather than, say, “free-market efficiency” or high production values. Yet Nigeria demonstrates that such support must extend beyond the production sector if large-screen cinema is to survive. It must include assistance for movie theaters that struggle to stay open amid threats that range from the climatic to the pathogenic.
Like the country itself, Nigeria’s cinemas are disproportionately affected by climate change. Perpetual power problems require multiplexes to buy or rent massive commercial generators, as well as pay for the huge quantities of fuel required to run them. Flash-flooding and sea-level rise increasingly threaten the delta city of Lagos, where the vast majority of multiplexes are located. These low-lying establishments—built around a lagoon, like everything else in the city—are especially vulnerable to climate change, which invariably drives up operating costs and places a considerable burden on low-wage, short-term workers who must do what they can to counteract the effects of flooding and storm surges. Even the fanciest multiplexes are hardly protected by the city’s infrastructure; the streets around them are prone to flooding, which poses its own threats to theater attendance. Climate change, then, must be taken into account in efforts to map the future of film exhibition, both in Nigeria and around the world. The hopes currently being pinned on coastal multiplexes are plainly imperiled by rising seas; they will almost certainly be dashed by global, federal, state, and municipal inaction.
When Nigerian movie theaters reopened in the fall of 2020, audiences flocked to them. Omo Ghetto: The Saga, a comedic crime film co-directed by Nigerian superstar spouses JJC Skillz and Funke Akindele, smashed box-office records when it opened on Christmas, amid yet another COVID spike. But the cinemas needed more than ticket sales to stay alive. They needed—and, thanks to the lobbying efforts of the Cinema Exhibitors Association of Nigeria, they eventually received—robust government support in the form of tax breaks and other subsidies. They have flourished ever since.