By Gbenga Bada
As the Nigerian film industry continues to boom, increasingly foreign investments, a cold war is fast brewing among stakeholders.
The war, according to industry watchers, is brewing among independent filmmakers/production companies, film distributors, and cinema owners/operators.
In other major film markets – Hollywood and Bollywood – the production company is responsible for dealing with the film distributors for the marketing and distribution of the film to cinema owners and operators.
However, in Nigeria, several independent filmmakers – due to many reasons – deal directly with the film distributors for the marketing and distribution of films to cinema owners and operators.
With only a handful of independent filmmakers masquerading as production companies and a small number of full-fledged production companies around, just five film distributors and over 10 cinema owners and operators, animosity continues to fizz among the stakeholders.
Aside from Blue Pictures and Metro Classic film distribution companies, the three other certified film distributors in Nigeria – Filmone, Silverbird, and Genesis distribution outfits – also operate in the cycle chain as cinema owners and operators.
Noteworthy is Filmhouse’s operation as a production company, making it the most powerful of all the stakeholders and taking up roles in the three-stage cycle of the film exhibition from inception to the cinema. As the leading player in the cycle, Filmhouse changed the face of the industry in eight years of operations despite arriving much later.
However, production companies and independent filmmakers have continued to silently groan over perceived opacity and unfair dealings.
In 2020, The Temple Company released its first feature film, ‘The Kujus,’ directed by Biodun Stephens, and had Bisola Aiyeola as a co-producer. The family-Christmas themed film was distributed by Silverbird Distribution. A few weeks after release, the management of The Temple Company expressed dissatisfaction at how Genesis Deluxe cinemas had yanked off the film from primetime without prior notice. According to an inside source, the film was allotted time slots that couldn’t afford families to watch together as expected by the producers.
This caused disagreement between the production company and the cinema operator, with the production company threatening to pull its film. The production company, which was making its debut, withdrew its threat and allegedly swallowed the bitter pill.
While many independent filmmakers and production companies have continued to mutter their grievances under breath, filmmaker and co-founder of The Audrey Silver Company, Mildred Okwo, has expressed dissatisfaction over what she termed as lack of transparency and unfair dealings.
Following the release of her Neo-noir film, La Femme Anjola on Friday, Marcy 19, Okwo took to her official Twitter handle to announce that her film was withdrawn from Filmhouse cinemas except for only four locations.
“Filmhouse has removed us from all cinemas except these ones – Surulere, Landmark in Lagos, Dugbe in Ibadan, and Port Harcourt – I guess it’s to make way for their new film. It is their cinema and they will do with what they please,” she tweeted.
In an interview with TheCable, Okwo said: “I don’t think the government should let a company that makes film also distribute and exhibit. You can do both if the government allows it but there must be a way of ensuring there is fair play for all. It must be regulated.”
The filmmaker, whose film is being distributed by the Silverbird distribution company, went further to say: “If Filmhouse has a movie coming, they must give others a chance. Our government and other distributors are the ones letting them get away with it. I couldn’t have reached out to them myself. That’s the job of my distributor.
“I don’t blame Filmhouse for anything. It is their business and politics. They are pushing their own as it should be. In my opinion. It is the other distributors and cinema operators that seemingly allow Filmhouse to muscle them around.”
However, Okwo was not to go away with her outburst as a Twitter user, Jude Martins, who claims to have been on the exhibition side of the ecosystem for close to seven years, said: “Aunty, this your publicity stunt is made in Aba. Cinemas are not charity organisations, they are businesses that have bills and salaries to pay. If your film is making money, it stays long in the cinema. Just checked the CEAN (Cinema Exhibitors Association of Nigeria) website and can see it only made N13m in two weeks, what Omo Ghetto made in one day, haba, fear God na.”
Martins returned to react to Okwo’s outburst saying: “Hello Madam, about my reaction to you yesterday, I apologize for my tone, and would state clearly that my statements were a personal reaction and not the position of either Filmhouse Cinemas or FilmOne Entertainment. Perhaps, because I’ve been on the exhibition side of the ecosystem for close to seven years, I clearly understand the intricacies of the business and the repercussion of poor sales on the welfare of cinema workers. You are a great filmmaker and I look forward to seeing your next project in the cinemas, hoping it does well.”
Okwo further alleged that the treatment meted to her was not the first, as her last film, ‘Surulere,’ suffered the same fate in 2015.
“I am used to this though. In 2015, Filmhouse pulled my film Surulere in the second week even though it was number 1 Nollywood film and number 2 overall.”
Efforts to reach Filmhouse co-founder, Moses Babatope, were futile as calls to his phone went unanswered while an SMS sent to the same phone number – and which delivered – was yet to be responded to as at the time of going to press.
A source noted that the regulatory body should look into the occurrence for the overall development of the industry.
“I don’t think there’s any law that currently forbids people from operating at different levels of the value chain, as in being involved or monopolising the services in all these levels of operation. However, I really do not think it is proper and I think it is what the regulators of the industry should look into especially given the fact that people really don’t have the mindset of fairness. The regulatory body should be interested such that everyone is carried along which leads to total development rather than individual development. I don’t think operators who trade as production companies, film distributors, and cinema operators play fairly. It’s not likely that you’d have someone who is fair-minded and would not want to muscle others to their advantage. I think people should be fair and there should be a sort of regulation. I think the regulatory bodies should be interested in the overall development of the industry,” the source said.
Academic, film curator, performing artiste and journalist, Dr. Husseini Shaibu said, “I think the right words to use is, is it ideal? Because when we talk about legality, it means that there is a universal law that says you can’t be both, I am not aware of any law but I do know that industry to industry, make certain regulations to properly structure their industries and make sure there are specialisation and division of labour. So if you are a distributor, you do just that, if you are a production outfit, you do the production and handover to the salespeople and if you are an exhibitor, you do just that and don’t compete in other areas. So, it’s from industries to industries and they make those regulations to structure their industry and make sure that one part of the industry does not suffer from the other because if an exhibitor owns a production company and is also a distributor, the tendency is that he will privilege his own productions over others but if it is done professionally, it shouldn’t be so, all productions should be given fair chance to thrive.”
Continuing, Shaibu said: “Sadly, our industry is not a properly regulated one because in America, when they make rules, it’s the industry that makes the rules and it’s binding but here we don’t have such regulations or rules or legal framework that says you do only what you say you are and can not combine two or three together because there are implications when you do so. It means that they won’t invest in the distribution of other works outside their own works that they do, so Nollywood needs that kind of regulation and no need to combine. This is not ideal and healthy especially for a developing industry like ours and I am not saying it can not be done if there are rules and pre-determined rules that have to be followed but if you don’t have such, you need a legal framework that clearly defines these.
“Here’s a scenario, if you are a production outfit, distributor and exhibitor with lots of cinema screens and you have three films coming out, there are high tendencies that you will give more time to your own film than the other and because you are not in every location, you would come up with an excuse that the film is not selling and that is why you gave your film more time slots. I insist it is not ideal for one person to be a production company, distributor, and exhibitor. I read somewhere where the Government is being urged to make anti-monopoly rules and I welcome it but I fear whether this will work considering the quarters it is coming from because these are the same set of people that kicked against the government’s involvement in MOPICCON.”
However, Shaibu explained that some professionals, who are few, would wear the three caps and remain fair and ethical. “Some are professional and they will handle your film professionally but you don’t rule out any sharp practice because this is business and people won’t privilege other productions over theirs but if it is done professionally and there are rules and checks the practices, complaints, then you can look into it but there won’t be fair dealings because if you produce your film to screen in December and somebody else does same, you will probably want to privilege your film and if your film does well over others, you begin to think of how you can maximise profit for yourself against other production. I know of some that will run professionally but to solve the problem, let exhibitors remain exhibitors and distributors remain distributors and production companies remain production companies so we can have that chain as it is, so you don’t see a producer struggling around but rather he/she sits and wait for the balance sheets at the end of the day but here, we have the producer everywhere.”
Suggesting a way to resolve the issue, Shaibu said the need to pressure the government into enacting the Motion Pictures Practitioner Council bill will take care of the industry.
“Well, it’s difficult to suggest how best to resolve this issue when it occurs than negotiate or report to the Cinema and critical part of the association and I don’t even think they have any procedure for any disciplinary actions or heard that they have punished anyone for unethical practice. The worst is to report to the NFVCB, which directly regulates that sector but I also do not know what the NFVCB can do because they also didn’t envisage this point in the industry. I really can’t say how this will be resolved except a neutral body is inaugurated to investigate and recommend what can be done and those things don’t work. What will work is a properly constituted body that has legal backing so that they can able to enforce whatever rules, standards, or punishments when such matters are reported and maybe some time we can begin to lobby the government to pass the act that established the Motion Pictures Practitioner Council because we need something that has a force of law so that when investigations are done and this body takes a position on the matter, the matter can be binding.