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Fearless entrepreneurs dreaming big in Nigeria
05:39 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

A nation with a $7 billion movie industry has a problem: no one’s going to watch its films on the silver screen. It sounds surreal but it’s true.

At the moment most Nigerian consumers watch films at home, and the country lacks some of the basic infrastructure for a movie industry – such as movie theaters.

Kene Mpkaru hopes to change that. So far his chain Filmhouse Cinemas has opened nine theaters, with plans for 16 more.

Nigeria is a notoriously tough place to do business, but luckily Mpkaru has pedigree. As former general manager of Odeon Cinemas in the UK, the Nigerian was at the helm of a nationwide division of the largest cinema chain in Europe. And when he opened for business in Nigeria, he even brought some of his Nigerian staff who wanted to move back home with him.

Mpkaru acknowledges that his ambitious growth plans are “kind of madness”, but he believes that the potential is there.

“Ramp up 200 cinemas and Hollywood will move to Nigeria. I guarantee that,” he says. “The box office averages we get these days [are] huge.”

Cinema is a volume game, which in Nigeria adds complexity. The country’s overt wealth is very unevenly spread, and around 60 percent of the country’s population lives below the poverty line. However, that low income market is huge, and still wants to go to the movies. The challenge, he says, is to reach all of the country’s different groups.

“There are people that will spend 40 dollars for a ticket and we do have that cinema, where it’s dining cinema, first class, similar to first class on a plane,” Mpkaru says. “And people pay that kind of money for it. Then there’s the regular multiplexes, but then there’s a huge market down there that need the dollar houses.”

Entering the distribution game

Mpkaru’s business interests are widening and he has begun distributing Nigeria’s finest cinematic output. Doing so has seen him collaborate with the nation’s darling and renaissance women Mo Abudu, who took her latest production Fifty to London, premiering in Leicester Square as part of the BFI London Film Festival.

Directed by Biyi Bandele, Fifty is billed as a story of “love and lust, power and rivalry, and seduction and infidelity, set in Africa’s most populous city, Lagos.”

The movie is an opportunity to showcase Lagos at its best, and to expose an international audience to Nigeria’s thriving film scene, says Abudu, an influential talk show host, who has been called the ‘Nigerian Oprah’.

“I don’t want to label it Nollywood or not Nollywood.”

“What we have done is make a brilliant film that can travel globally, and people all over the world should be able to get insight into who is the African woman of today,” she says. “It just puts us on the map.”

Low budgets, big expectations

Nigeria’s film industry is huge and often chaotic, producing hundreds of films every year, almost all of which are filmed on a shoestring budget and distributed on DVD and CD.

But despite the apparently ramshackle nature of the productions, Nollywood is big business. Estimates for its contribution to the Nigerian economy vary wildly, but when the country’s government recalculated its gross domestic product in 2014, they found that the wider media and film industry made up 1.4% of the $509 billion total – more than $7 billion.

The films are widely exported across the entire of Anglophone Africa, into Diasporas in Europe and North America, and even into the Caribbean. Although the plots and production values have often reflected the movies’ budget constraints, the quality is improving as the cost of digital filmmaking drops, and a new cohort of auteurs focuses more on meeting international standards.

Nollywood festivals have been hosted in London, Paris and Berlin, and Nigerian movies are gradually making their way onto the bills at global events.

The growth in scale and the increasing international recognition of Nollywood has prompted a reevaluation of the value of the country’s creative industries. The last government announced a $200 million fund to support directors and producers, and to encourage international co-productions. Nigeria’s Bank of Industry co-financed the 2014 adaptation of Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton, which was also directed by Bandele.

While international exposure brings with it prestige, the domestic market is a powerful one. With a population of 180 million, a large – albeit now stuttering – economy, rising disposable income and increasing connectivity through mobile phones, Nigeria could absorb a lot more investment into its creative industries.

To find out more, watch the video above and Kene Mpkaru’s TEDx talk below: