S&A 2013 Highlights: The ‘Why Can’t Black Filmmakers In The USA Adopt The Nollywood Model’ Question…
By Tambay A. Obenson
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 Allen; Ahmad 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…