Copyright wars II: What “pirates” of Hollywood (read “American film-making pioneers”) share with Nollywood marketers

While Hollywood continues searching for an effective way to fight the onslaught of piracy in the developing world (See Copyright wars I: Consequences of illegal downloading for local media industries, international media investment and global cultural trade), a retrospect look at the US film industry presents a thought-provoking parallel with what film marketers come up with in today’s Nigeria.

Following are the excerpts from “A Scorsese in Lagos The Making of Nigeria’s Film Industry”, an article by Andrew Rice.

The first American movies were disdained by respectable society, but the price of admission — 5

At Alaba Market, Prospective Buyers - Peter Essick

cents, hence the term “nickelodeon” — made them popular with working-class audiences. One day in 1906, an unemployed clothing merchant named Carl Laemmle, who was thinking about starting a five-and-dime, happened to walk into a packed Chicago nickelodeon. “It was evident that the basic idea of motion pictures and Mr. Woolworth’s innovation were identical,” Laemmle later wrote, “small-price commodity in tremendous quantities.” Laemmle started his own theater, and eventually expanded into producing content, founding Universal Pictures.

The businessmen behind Nollywood have followed a similar path from upstart to mogul. In the absence of strong legal institutions, Nigeria’s movie marketers formed a guild [Film and Video Producers and Marketers Association of Nigeria (FVPMAN)] to govern their industry, colluding to regulate supply and production costs. The guild has resisted all attempts by actors and producers to push for a larger share of revenue.

Nollywood marketers had built an entertainment enterprise without precedent in Africa, and yet they felt unappreciated and besieged. The government was trying to crack down with increased fees and oversight.

When stars become too demanding, marketers deal with them ruthlessly. A few years ago, they put several prominent actors on a blacklist, and none were allowed to work, according to a guild official, until they begged forgiveness. The marketers say they can’t afford the extravagances of talent. The production budget for a typical Nollywood movie ranges between $25,000 and $50,000.

The marketers contend that spending more would be foolish, because the low price of Nollywood movies is part of their appeal. “You must first identify who your primary market is,” said producer Emmanuel Isikaku. “If your primary audience is the elites and the middle class, the people that can go to the cinema, fine, well and good. But there are some programs that are meant for the people on the street.”

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h3rAItM0lMw]

Richmond Ezihe, FVPMAN boss at Alaba market [reportedly Africa’s largest electronics market founded in 1978. Buyers travel to this Lagos-based market from as far as Ghana, Niger, Chad, Togo, Benin and even East Africa to make their purchases], tried to explain Nollywood economics to Andrew Rice. Ezihe has a number of ways to monetize his product: there’s a satellite television station, an overseas DVD market catering to the African diaspora and even a Netflix-inspired Web site called Nollywood Love.

"Famutsa Film Productions" shop keeper Victor Edwin, 25 years old, in Lagos, on August 13, 2009 (courtesy of Nigeriaplus.com)

But most revenues still come from physical sales. It costs less than 20 cents to burn a blank VCD and package it, but the wholesale price for movies is so cheap that a marketer might need to sell 100,000 copies just to make a decent return. The average Nollywood movie has a shelf life of about two weeks before the pirates get hold of it. In Nigeria, an estimated 5 to 10 illegal VCDs are sold for every legitimate one, and the police make no serious effort to deter the trade.

“It really has eaten deep into our finances,” Ezihe said, claiming — as did every other marketer I met — to be mystified about the identity of the troublesome scofflaws. “They’re hiding,” he said. In fact, clues as to the pirates’ whereabouts were strewed all around Alaba, where American movies and TV series, rap music and video games of doubtful provenance were selling next to the latest Nollywood hits.

Many of the movie marketers originally got into the business by pirating Hollywood movies, a practice that continues to flourish. “Piracy is not a problem with the system,” said Jade Miller, an academic at Tulane University who has researched Nollywood’s economics. “It is the system, essentially.” Miller’s academic interest is in media policy and the development of creative industries.

Alaba market in Lagos (courtesy of ewasteguide.info)

The legal and illegal industries continue to operate in parallel, within an opaque system of relationships and rules set by the Alaba cartel, said Emeka Mba, head of National Film and Video Censors Board (see NFVCB website for an extensive list of film organizations of Nigeria). “The pirates, they know them — it’s part of them,” he said. The marketers seldom use lawyers, accountants or written contracts; when they make a film, it is often unclear who even holds the copyright. When Mba’s agency tried to impose some legal order, for instance mandating that marketers register under a postal address, he met brutal resistance. Anti-piracy raids, though rare, have sparked violent uprisings at Alaba.

Isikaku did not deny that there were pirates in his membership’s midst, but he claimed that guild leaders were trying to confront them, sometimes physically, sometimes with persuasion. But the reality is that when everyone is stealing, you have to price like a pirate.

Carl Laemmle might have recognized the marketers’ situation. When he started Universal, he immediately came into conflict with Thomas Edison, who held patents on movie cameras and projectors. Edison had been waging a legal battle against “dupers,” unauthorized copyists who would take a film and redistribute it, often just snipping off the copyright frames. As Edison saw it, his intellectual property rights gave him a monopoly on all film production. He went after Laemmle, too, filing some 289 lawsuits against him and dispatching goons to break up his film shoots.

Laemmle responded by organizing some other “independents,” a handful of mostly Jewish movie producers who operated out of New York. In 1917, they defeated Edison in the Supreme Court. But by that time the independents had already moved en masse out to California, where they could shoot in sunny weather, away from the chill of legal scrutiny. “They were pirates!” says Bic Leu, a Fulbright fellow who has studied Nollywood. “They moved to L.A. to get away from Thomas Edison.”

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One thought on “Copyright wars II: What “pirates” of Hollywood (read “American film-making pioneers”) share with Nollywood marketers”

  1. Hahahaha…an interesting parallel, I must say. The growth of piracy worldwide is alarming. Still, a problem usually births a new and more innovative way of doing things. It will be interesting to see the future of movies and movie-making some decades down the line.

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