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S&A 2013 Highlights: The 'Why Can't Black Filmmakers In The USA Adopt The Nollywood Model' Question...

Features
by Tambay A. Obenson
January 7, 2014 11:25 AM
31 Comments
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Editor's note: As 2013 ends, and 2014 begins, I'll be reposting some of our highlights published during the last year. Those who've already read each one can obviously skip them, or revisit if you'd like. For those who joined us later in the year, missing many of these posts from earlier in the year, they will probably be new items. Here's the 17th of many to come, originally posted in late April 2013. Happy New Year to you all! 

This is something that comes up in conversations I have from time to time - whether casual conversations, or formal panel discussions on "the state of black cinema" in these United States, broadly speaking. 

I was reminded of it earlier today, while having an online exchange with a filmmaker friend, and thought it was about time I said a few words on the subject.

What can black filmmakers in the USA learn from Nollywood, is a question I'm asked occasionally. Or why can't black filmmakers in America adopt the Nollywood-style of film production - cheap, fast films shot primarily on video, bypassing theaters and released directly to home video formats like DVD.

Whenever I'm asked that question, my response is often, well, black filmmakers in America HAVE indeed embraced that model of film production. Just take a stroll down dvd rental/sale aisles at your local movie rental store, whether brick & mortar or virtual, and you'll find your answer there.

On a weekly basis, there are over 100 new films released on DVD; the vast majority never receive theatrical releases - about 90% of them, if not more. And a percentage of those are films by black filmmakers, with all-black (or primarily black) casts. I don't have exact figures on what that percentage is, but there are enough of them, given the email press releases I get on a weekly basis, alerting me to upcoming straight-to-video/VOD/digital releases that I should be aware of, and that the senders believe would be appreciated by readers of this site.

These are films that, like Nollywood movies, are made relatively cheaply (certainly not Hollywood-size budgets, but I'd say range in costs from a few thousand to a few hundred thousand dollars; occasionally, there might be one or two with budgets of over $1 million, but those are very rare, especially where black cinema is concerned. Those tend to have *names* in them that can help justify those 7-figure budgets, and recoup costs). 

They are also made quickly (it makes sense, when you're working with a low budget - you can't stretch filming over several weeks or months, like a Hollywood studio would). 

And also, like Nollywood, these films are most often shot in some digital format. Not celluloid. 

And lastly, as is the case in Nollywood, these films tend to bypass pricey theatrical releases, and head straight to DVD (VOD, digital download, etc).

There are considerably far more of these black cinema titles released every week than there are black films opening in theaters on a weekly basis, and so you might consider digging through them for any potential gems. 

Also like Nollywood, there's clearly an audience for them. Someone is making money from all these films, otherwise there wouldn't be quite the volume that we've seen, and continue to see produced and released weekly. 

One key difference between making films here in the USA versus Nigeria is that, here in the USA there's that dream factory known as Hollywood, where there seems to be an almost bottomless well of financing available, with production budgets soaring into the hundreds of millions of dollars on the high end. There never has been such a thing in Nigeria, although there is the recently (2010) established N200 billion (or about $1.2 billion) Nigerian Intervention Fund, which was set up by the Nigerian Federal Government to bail out the manufacturing sector from crisis, with some of that money going towards arts and entertainment.

Thus far, a reported 7 projects have received money from the fund, which some say is too low, given how much of a boost the Nigerian entertainment industry is said to need; and there's apparently some confusion about what exactly the fund is, how Nigerian artists can access the money, and frustration over how complicated the application process seems to be.

I should also note that we're seeing more and more Nigerian filmmakers separate themselves from the internationally-known, and often mocked Nollywood brand. 

We've covered a number of those filmmakers here in the past, and continue to do so. 

So for black filmmakers (outside of Hollywood) in the USA, there's something *higher* to aim for, if you will - and that thing being Hollywood. Some opt to go the cheap, fast, straight-to-home entertainment route; Others choose to take the longer road, which can mean years, and lots of money spent trying to get one project made, usually with the end goal being to eventually work within the Hollywood studio system.

This week in the USA, as an example, while there'll only be 1 studio film with a black starring cast (and a story centered primarily around a black character) released in theaters across the country, there are several new black films that are being released straight to DVD this week, including 2 that are directed by Cora Anne (I'm not familiar) and executive produced by David Kane Garcia (not familiar with him either): Do You Know Where Your Man Is and Love & Foootball

Heard of either of them? For most of you, the answer will probably be a "no." 

But just take a look at Garcia's IMDB page, and you'll find that he has backed 11 films in the last 2 years alone - none of them released in theaters that I can immediately identify. And looking at the casts for some of them, you'll find names you'd recognize like Glenn Plummer, Robin Givens, Jackée Harry, Bobby V and many others. Not what we'd call, in industry parlance, A-listers, but, again, these are names that many of you would know, and for some, would be enough to encourage them to rent or buy these films, if only out of curiosity.

In a way, you could even call Tyler Perry a glorified Nollywood filmmaker, given that his films are relatively cheap (by Hollywood standards), and are often simplistic and message-driven (delivered heavy-handedly), with religion and morality driving the narratives - common themes in Nollywood cinema.

But I'd be remiss if I didn't say that Nollywood cinema IS NOT the grand total of Nigerian filmmaking. For example, filmmakers in northern Nigeria have really never claimed allegiance to Nollywood, which is in part why Kannywood exists. Also, you have prominent Yoruba filmmakers like Tunde Kelani, setting up themselves and their works as being separate from Nollywood. 

And, as I noted earlier, there are a growing number of Nigerian filmmakers who are making a concerted effort to change the face of Nigerian cinema on the international stage.

So the point is, Nollywood does not translate to the totality of filmmaking in Nigeria, even though Nollywood has come to represent Nigerian cinema on the global stage, just as Hollywood has come to represent American cinema all over the world, even though there are more films being produced and released outside of Hollywood on any given week, than within the studio system. The problem is those films simply don't have the marketing budgets and market dominance to compete, and so many of you will likely never hear of, nor see these non-Hollywood films.

The overall point here is that, again, look to the home video market (DVD, VOD, digital download, etc) here in the USA for a deeper well of black films. You might find whatever you consider a *gem* in the deluge. For example, in addition to the two titles I mentioned above, also released on DVD this week is a documentary on African American jazz pianist Erroll Garner, best-known for his composition of the ballad Misty, which has become a jazz standard.

Directed by Atticus Brady, the new film uses archival materials interwoven with interviews with friends, family, and fellow musicians, and features commentary from Woody AllenAhmad Jamal; Tonight Show host Steve Allen; Erroll's sister, Ruth Garner Moore; pianist and arranger Dick Hyman; Columbia Records executive George Avakian; and others.

The film documents Erroll, from childhood to meteoric rise in popularity. He died in 1977 at 53.

Titled Erroll Garner: No One Can Hear You Read, it played several film festivals, and is now hitting the home video market, bypassing a theatrical release completely.

I ended up writing more than I initially planned to, but consider this the start of a much longer conversation to be had. So feel free to add to what I've written here if you'd like...

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31 Comments

  • Lorraine | April 28, 2014 9:08 AMReply

    Hi Tambay - interesting article! I am researching the US film market and just wondered if there was a source you use to find out the data for the following: 'On a weekly basis, there are over 100 new films released on DVD'. Thanks!

  • bgurrl | January 7, 2014 5:20 PMReply

    There is no black American counterpart to Nollywood, Ghollywood, Ugandawood, Riverwood etc. Because black Americans aren't in control of distribution, greenlighting etc. Look at who owns Maverick, York, Phase 4 Films etc. Then look at who greenlights movies in Nigeria, Ghana, Haiti, Kenya, Uganda etc.

  • yoruii | February 22, 2014 1:20 PM

    so true, the people who have power also are a factor in this

  • Art Thomas | September 25, 2013 3:36 PMReply

    Thank you! Interesting article and great comments. Nollywood, like other film markets have their challenges and opportunities. I am currently in development on my third feature; the 1st was distributed by Lionsgate, the 2nd was shot in the UK and our current project is being shot in Colorado. On the TV side, I was fortunate to produce a 13 episode 'culinary-variety' show in Japan which starred an Africa-American host. I would be willing to share what I have learned, if interested. To facilitate your understanding of my background, feel free to review a partial listing of my credits on IMDB listed under the name, Arthur O. Thomas. I have had many people help me over the years and if my experience can benefit others, let me know

    Art Thomas
    Main Man Films
    P.O. Box 3773
    Englewood, CO 80155 USA

  • Anthony | June 23, 2013 2:52 PMReply

    To be honest no matter how they say about these Bohemian movies .I think 75% of these movies are fun to watch than big budget theater movies.

  • BCC | April 11, 2013 5:20 PMReply

    Interesting article. Whilst I get where the writer appears to be coming from, it's frightening to observe a tone that's reminicent within most of what we do as people of colour. That thing we tend to default to, which is to compete amongst ourselves as seperate entities rather than support from the strength of a common objective.

    Nollywood may be slighlty over a decade in growth with less than half that time being in transition for more international appeal. Hollywood or US film making has had over 90 years headstart in Caucasian film making and over 50 years black filmaking (Oscar Micheaux et al). Nollywood in its infancy is being nurtured on financial rations compared to the fat cat honey pot of Hollywood. Why can't filmmakers of colour and those involved in the industry just work together in supporting an industry that everyone can eventually benefit from? Oooops sorry co-operative working, swear word within the black community isn't it.

    Black filmakers in the United States of America have the opportunity to stop looking at the industry giant that loathes, ignores, uses and riddicules filmakers of colour and audience of colour. Those filmakers could work with Africa's capital of filmaking and assist in re-engineering the drive in supporting the growth of black narrative, film imagary and industry earning potential.

    Perhaps i've misconstrude the tones of the piece, but the whole "we can do better than them" or "we, churn out as much as them", sounds very much as if there's a real lack of constructive support for a filmaking outfit that's sticking its middle finger up to Hollywood and creating for people of colour.

  • AAC | April 10, 2013 6:46 AMReply

    This is a truly great article. And we love it. you make a lot of sense, however you you forgot to mention that unlike the USA situation, the Nigerian market is in competition with foreign movies even when it goes straight to DVD or VCD and this cannot be said for these low budget american movies.

    Also the trend in Nigeria is that you can get Nigerian made movies in cinemas something that wasn't happening some years back. you can visit this link to see what I mean Home

    Things can only get better is what I ll say in conclusion for both Nigeria's Nollywood and AfricanAmerica Cinema, but also note that Ghanaian stars feature so prominently in Nollywood's industry that we sometimes like to think of Ghana as being part of that bigger umbrella, but thats debate for another day maybe one that we could write.

  • Guy | April 9, 2013 11:20 PMReply

    I think we should write better stories and follow sound production procedure to create Good watchable product.

  • Walter Harris Gavin | April 9, 2013 11:10 PMReply

    We're American, whether black or white. We want to do what (and why shouldn't we) what "white" filmmakers get to to with big budgets and big stars. Why not? Hollywood is a world-wide industry and why shouldn't we be a part of it. One can always make small, independent films, but I say shoot for the stars. What "black" filmmakers have to say is no less viable in the world market than what "white" filmmakers have tio say. We are not less than. We are mare than!!!!

  • urbanauteur | April 10, 2013 6:32 PM

    Oh? and don't let me leave out experimental playwright; Adrienne Kennedy's Funny House of a Negro or Jane Cortez Blood Suckers..;-0

  • urbanauteur | April 10, 2013 6:27 PM

    @HENSON, you make good points...as for Model Expansion?...August Strindberg/Anton Chekhov/Ed Bullins/Amiri Baraka//Richard Wagner/Bertoit Brecht/George C.Wolfe/Lars Von Trier/Suzann Lori Parks/Orsen Welles...All Auteurs who took it from the virgin page to the experimental stage.

  • Henson | April 10, 2013 11:34 AM

    Can we get Walter Harris Gavin some mare education? Why continue to compare yourself to them? Don't you realize that inclusion in Hollywood social circles is not some guaranteed right? Like any industry, you may have to schmooze and kiss arse to make things happen. It's not about trying to get them to see and understand our visions, because they won't. They really don't give AF about a black story-- unless it will make them richer.

    Look at all these ignorant black MFers who get budgets to record their silly rap songs. Do you think the white-run record company heads really listen to all of that shit? No. But they know they can get that money back, plus a little more.

    Don't you know there are plenty of white filmmakers who can't get their films made either? Because major studios don't think it will make money. That's all we have to focus on; coming up with the moneymaking ideas for films that will get their attention.

    See how TP did it? He showed them with the stage-play format, and they bought into it. The question is, "Why hasn't any other filmmaker improved on his model?" TP is obviously in a rut, but people still pay to watch his BS. We know what they want, and we know what they want will get major-studio backing; why not give it to them? Let's just do it better.

    Anyway, great post, Tambay

  • ScriptTease | April 9, 2013 8:25 PMReply

    It's nothing wrong with "Some" movies going straight to DVD, but every now and again, I want to go to the cinema with my peeps and enjoy a dramatic movie starring someone who favors me. Are these Writers, Directors, Producers, and actors misjudging their people by assuming the only thing we enjoy and or relate to is buffoonery and coonery style movies? Do not get me wrong, I love a good comedy (I love to laugh), but we can do better. As some others mentioned, it starts with us. If we stop supporting those types of movies when they do somehow make it to the theaters, than maybe the writers, directors..... will step up their game. I feel we need more Screenplay Competitions strictly for people of color. The scripts out there, writers just like "ME", whose looking for a big break. #wanted:agent

  • Darryl | April 9, 2013 6:04 PMReply

    The problem with black low budget films that go to the home dvd market is too many of them are just trying to be low budget hollywood clones that want to be hollywood thinking this is going to get them notice or get them in the door but it just rehashes stereotypes of black people that we see over again. Almost all those films are hood dramas, gangster stories, or romantic comedies, stuff that hollywood has fed us forever in their monolithic fashion. If we really want to build an industry outside hollywood we have to have more filmmakers that tell their own stories and offer an alternative to hollywood and also the audience has to support these films when we see these different stories instead of buying into the propaganda that black people don't tell certain stories or star in these stories unless it's a white writer and director behind it, for some reason too many of us will give these types of films a chance then, the white person co-sign syndrome instead of just judging it like you will do for any non black film which is the film going to entertain you, you like the story, or you like the actor or director. That type of thinking has to stop when it comes to how we look at black films. If we want to build an industry outside hollywood, start telling stories that hollywood is not telling and the audience has to start supporting these stories when writers and filmmakers make them. The first time a couple of home dvd or vod films make big money on a small budget, then you going to have change because the filmmakers will start believing they can be sucessful telling different stories, the investors will be lining up to invest in these films and then you will see a variety of films, and the audience will start supporting these films because it becomes the norm and those stereotypes don't apply no more on what stories we can tell and make money. This is why it doesn't matter if we have all these films going to the home dvd or the vod market because unless you have a variety of different stories you are not going to have a sucessful industry that is sustainable and that is able to thrive. The model we have to adopt is diverse stories if we want to change things.

  • Mtume Gant | April 9, 2013 5:44 PMReply

    Films being made cheap I think thats something that should not be frowned upon. I think the film business has become way too much about how many dollars rather than the artistic merit of it. I can name plenty of amazing film makers with small budgets who have had tremendous impact on Cinema (John Cassavetes being a prime example). The problem is they are being cheaply made from a perspective of making cheap product rather than trying to make pieces of artistic worth and vibrancy. Right now the straight to DVD market is all about making a quick dollar. You don't need a lot of money to make a great film. Look at films like Aronofsky's "Pi" or Haile Gerima's "Bush Mama" but what we can't sacrifice artistic quality and integrity. Black cinema needs to raise its artistic standards and stop trying to make "our" version of Hollywood. Take primer from the Harlem Renaissance or The Black Arts Movement of the 60's and make our own system thats primarily focused on the Art of Cinema from a Black perspective.

  • Vince Smetana | April 9, 2013 5:25 PMReply

    Ironically, Fruitvale, Twelve Years a Slave, and Black Nativity are all scheduled to open this year. (You also have Mandela: A Long Walk Home and 42, both directed by white males.) Perhaps this is just a fluke of a year. Does it mark some kind of improvement, or no?

  • Clayton | April 11, 2013 12:51 PM

    Compared to the many black films being released in the 90's? Far from an improvement.

  • jasmine | April 9, 2013 5:13 PMReply

    Yes that's what we need! Cheap, fast, films shot primarily on video, bypassing theaters and released directly to home video formats like DVD. Just like our white counterparts! I mean we don't have any good stories to tell that need to be seen in theaters!

  • Clayton | April 11, 2013 12:50 PM

    Sounds good, but such productivity requires a community of people willing to work together, putting aside their egos for the greater good--the movie. I just don't know if we're there yet.

  • mekeva | April 9, 2013 4:46 PMReply

    Let us not forget the blaxploitation era. Many black movies were cheaply made. Grant it, there was much controversy surrounding the representation of black folks in the films, but that is part of our genealogy in america's black cinema.

  • monkeysuit | April 9, 2013 5:02 PM

    True dat.

  • getthesenets | April 9, 2013 4:43 PMReply

    i like the concept of nollywood....love some of the films...(Baby Police is one funny movie and the star has GREAT timing )

    the american counterpart to nollywood has some of the same shortcomings, though

    whether it's a director's first film or his 30th....you can't tell.

    no progression or growth....if you saw visible boom mic in his/her first film.....you'll see it in the 5th film that he or she directs

  • Sheree | April 9, 2013 4:39 PMReply

    Can you please explain where the term Nollywood came from...

  • monkeysuit | April 9, 2013 5:01 PM

    Nigeria + Hollywood= Nollywood.

    Like Bombay + Hollywood = Bollywood or Ghana + Hollywood = Ghollywood.

  • turner | April 9, 2013 4:34 PMReply

    I've yet to see one good film from Nollywood.

  • bgurrl | January 7, 2014 5:15 PM

    There are bad films in any industry. But I've seen good to great movies coming out of Nollywood, Ghollywood from low bud to higher budget fair. I've seen some pretty good Haitian movies as well. The thing is that Nigerians, Ghanaians, Haitians, Kenyans, etc. have something to improve upon. What do black Americans have? And I mean that we own and control?

  • Nollywood REinvented | April 11, 2013 10:46 PM

    You're not searching hard enough

  • getthesenets | April 9, 2013 4:46 PM

    check out the doc. "Nollywood Babylon" about origin and some of the key players...

  • Lvflg | April 9, 2013 4:23 PMReply

    agreed. like 1000%

  • FilmGuy | April 9, 2013 4:20 PMReply

    A lot of people want to be famous. And Hollywood offers you that instant fame. They want to be in front of the cameras. Sit across from talk show hosts. Walk the red carpet. But all of that, is just a sideshow for promoting your hard work. I think if we got in the mindset of aiming to be filmmakers that didn't need hollywood, there would be a lot more craftsmen, and a lot less fame whores.

  • Clayton | April 11, 2013 12:47 PM

    Not needing Hollywood also comes with a humility that most of us are not union and we should be able to work together for a compromise that will make everyone happy, compromises that do not consist of big pay-days and such.

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