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Nollywood – When Hollywood Comes Calling…

omoni-oboli1

The Nollywood grapevine has been abuzz in the last couple of days regarding news that a prominent Nollywood actress, Omoni Oboli, turned down a lead role in a Hollywood movie. Apparently, an American producer approached the Nollywood star about doing a movie in which her character would be featured having sex with three different men and in which she would be expected to be completely nude. According to Nigeria Films, the project, whose producer and name were not disclosed, was budgeted at $40 million and the report suggests that the role would have launched Omoni into international stardom; but would it have…?

Let’s take a closer look. Oboli, married and the mother of three children, was offered just $500,000. I say “just” but, whilst this amount would be considered an insult to the average Hollywood Z-lister, it would have made Oboli the highest paid Nollywood star ever (the average star salary being a few thousand dollars per Nollywood production). My feeling is that either the role is being hyped-up by Nollywood reporters, it’s a rumour that’s been put out there by Oboli’s publicity people to boost her profile in Nollywood, or Nollywood media speculators are naively unaware of the uneven playing field in the global arena.

Earlier this month Tambay posted an entry on this site (which you can read here), reporting that the “Nigerian film industry (Nollywood) has overtaken Hollywood and closed the gap on India (Bollywood), the global leader in the number of movies produced each year, according to a new United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) report…” Hurray for Nollywood, right? But these figures only relate to the number of productions put out each year, with no mention of revenue. With Nollywood’s heavy reliance on video production, they can be as prolific they feel the need to be. According to the UNESCO survey, in 2006 Bollywood produced 1,091 feature-length films, while Nollywood put out 872 productions – all in video format.

The West has certainly been keenly taking note of the rise of Nollywood. Over the last few years, I’ve read various Western media reports covering the rise in popularity of the Nollywood’s output, not just in its home territory, but across the diaspora, particularly where African and Caribbean communities can be found in significant numbers. Back in 2004, The Guardian reported on Nick Moran, star of Guy Richie‘s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, going to Nigeria to make and star in his own Nollywood film. I never saw the finished product, but it aired on one of BBC’s fringe channels and can probably be dredged up somewhere online. Despite the difficulties faced in getting that project made, fascination with Nollywood still remains, with The Guardian reporting on it again two years later and with reports cropping up from time to time in US press. No doubt, the fascination is with how to tap into such a market, and the caution about doing so is due to lack of regulation of the industry and ability to keep tabs on revenues (pirating of Nollywood films, within and outside of Africa, is rife).

But let’s look at the West’s interest in Bollywood in the last year alone. In May 2008, The Times Online reported during last year’s Cannes Film Festival:

“Bollywood has met Hollywood at the Cannes Film Festival, with George Clooney, Tom Hanks and Brad Pitt signing rupee-spinning deals for big movie collaborations”

In June 2008, again from The Times Online:

SYLVESTER STALLONE, the star of the Rocky and Rambo films, is to become the first well-known Hollywood actor to star in a Bollywood movie.

Stallone’s fellow action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger, now governor of California, will also feature in the production.

In November last year from Desi Hits, with the headline “Will Smith & Anil Kapoor Talk Bollywood Collab with Aishwarya Ra” wrote:

Will Smith recently chatted with Anil Kapoor about a Bolly-Hollywood collaboration film to star himself, Anil Kapoor and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. According to a source, “Will has been coming to India every few months and is scouting for actors and places. He already has a script in mind and…has approached a handful of Indian actors. Two of them being Anil Kapoor and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. Anil Kapoor said, “[Will] came to my residence. Very nice chap.”

‘Slumdog Millionaire’ director, Danny Boyle, has also confirmed Will Smith’s Bollywood adventures in India, saying, “While we were filming there, Will Smith came over twice. There’s a massive coming together of Bollywood and Hollywood. It’ll only take one person to bring them together and it will be huge.” Looks like that “one person” may just be Will Smith himself, who seems to have been bitten by the Bollywood bug from his singing stint on ‘Indian Idol’ last year!

From The Hollywood Reporter, also in November last year, writer Paul Schrader packs his bags for Bollywood:

Saying he feels the U.S. film market has become “barren,” the writer of classics “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” is packing his bags for Mumbai to write and direct the Bollywood action movie “Extreme City.” “City” is a cross-cultural tale that will center on an American man who travels to India to help resolve a kidnapping case for his father-in-law, only to get caught up in a gangster plot. While the story combines various elements, it’s “not a Masala movie,” Schrader said, referring to the term for a kitchen-sink Bollywood film that tosses in action, romance, family drama and other genres in one big stew.

And even the last Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, premiered in India before it was released anywhere else in the world, with MeriNews reporting:

IT WAS a preplanned move, which reaped enormous gains for the Sony Group, when it launched the latest 007 Bond movie ‘Quantum of Solace’, in India, before it was released anywhere in the world. The collection was 170 million within a week of its launch, a sufficient proof of outreach of the Indian cinema amongst the fans.

And what does Nollywood get by way of “collaboration?” $500,000 for three sex scenes starring a nude Nollywood actress.

Of course, money aside (and, no doubt, Hollywood is scratching its head to figure out a secure way to get its share of the Nollywood market), cultural mores must surely come into play. India and Nigeria are both former British colonies of some significance and, with their histories so intertwined, it must be difficult for British filmmakers to view either country with much more than a neo- or post-colonial eye. Stalwarts of the Bollywood industry such as veteran actor, Amitabh Bachchan, were less than thrilled by the portrayal of India by British director, Danny Boyle, the kind of India that is very rarely portrayed in Bollywood films, not even in poor boy meets rich girl scenarios. Before Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, we were most likely to get a Merchant Ivory view of India from the viewpoint of white colonial ruling class or a culture-clash romance with a white protagonist. It’s only through British directors of Indian heritage like Gurinder Chadha, in movies like Bride and Prejudice, that we in the West get to see Indians as people who aren’t just there to serve as props for white protagonists.

While the US doesn’t have these colonial ties to India or Nigeria, it certainly has enough racial baggage of its own to colour its take on these cultures and their prolific film industries. Fortunately for India, however, their isn’t much cultural stereotyping to fall back on in the US; these aren’t native American Indians – they’re Asian. Whilst Asians have certainly played a role in America’s short history, their portrayal in America’s mainstream films has been limited, and American-Asians tend to be from China, Japan, Korea… India is a newer kettle of fish. On Planet Bollywood about four or five years ago, Amy Maharaj Page wondered why the sudden Hollywood interest in Indian film:

After many years of great movies and stars like Amitabh Bachchan and Rekha, why is it that Hollywood is finally taking notice of the glamorous Bollywood world? Could it be the beauty that some of the newcomers possess, a la Aishwarya Rai? Or is it the strong culture and family values which pervade a certain innocence Hollywood no longer seems to maintain? Or is it merely the fact that they want a change?

Hmm… she may have a point. Strong culture and family values are positive stereotypes that are held of Asians in America; and the attractiveness of Asian women has never seemed to be be in dispute in American culture, especially with a white male to for them to fall in thrall to.

So, between global economics and endemic racial stereotyping, where does this place Nollywood in the international playing field? Not in a very good place. Whilst Americans of all hues are falling over themselves to collaborate with Bollywood, America’s portrayal of its own black citizens leaves a lot to be desired in terms of fully fleshed out, multi-dimensional characters, something that’s debated constantly on this blog and, to a great extent, the reason that this blog, and other black cinema-related blogs, feel the need to exist. And, of course, the stereotypes of African-Americans is directly related to the those of their forebears. The simplification and implicit inferiority of Africans was key in keeping African slaves in bondage for hundreds of years and still very much informs the view of many Americans, black and white, and non-Africans in general, of Africans today.

Strong culture and family values are things that Nigeria has in abundance. However, Nollywood hasn’t exactly helped with regard to the portrayal of the diversity of life experiences in Nigeria among its every day citizens, with much of its output to date being woefully shallow – at best we have heavy-handed Tyler Perryesque moralising, on the other extreme there are gun-toting gangsters, desperate drug dealers, wily scam artists and profligate prostitutes. It’s a constant output of religious righteousness and juju (voodoo), good versus evil, with nary a fully developed storyline or character in sight.

I like to think that there is a Nollywood minority seeking to address the issue of prolificacy of output over quality of product but, while wider Nollywood continues to pander to the lowest common denominator in order to make a quick profit, it can’t expect Hollywood, who has also resorted to this formula of late but who also has a cannon of more profound and less crude output in its archives, to come calling with anything amounting to respect or collaboration on an equal footing – and neither should it solicit it, and certainly not just yet.

If the Oboli story is true, then I commend her stance and hope that other Nollywood stars take her lead, particularly female stars as, unless Hollywood is looking to provide company for Djimon Honsou, the definitive Hollywood African, there seems little room for male Nollywood actors in Hollywood as, indeed, there has seemed to be very little room for African Americans in American cinema for over a century other than to demean, emasculate or trivialise them and their presence in American history and culture – stars like Denzel Washington and Will Smith notwithstanding.

I’ve never seen Oboli in action, but I’m willing to bet that she’s one of the more attractive Nollywood’s female stars (though not quite on the scale of Eurocentric ideas of beauty that African-American actresses tend to have to conform to in order to make it big in their chosen profession), and I wonder if she possesses the kind of acting talent of actresses like Viola Davis, who has a great depth of talent but not the looks that Hollywood seeks. I don’t know whether the three men she’d be having sex with in this “starring” role would be white, black or martian, but it’s clear that her role would have been one in which the hyper-sexuality of African women, whether obligingly (most likely if she’s coupled with white men) or under duress and with undue aggression (quite probable if she’s with black men), would have been portrayed as simply her nature.

I look forward to the day that Nollywood can command the same kind of footing that Bollywood can currently boast of, where a mutually collaborative exchange can take place on a more or less equal footing. However, as it stands today, Nollywood is only ripe for exploitation for profit, and the proliferation of stereotypes of African people with which Western audiences can feel comfortable. Nollywood needs to work on diversifying its range and concentrate on stepping up its game with regard to developing both the business and the creative sides of the industry. Of course, $500,000 is still a lot of money to most, so how soon before an attractive, probably single, childless and ambitious Nollywood actress swallows the bait and takes her place in the Z-list of the Hollywood firmament?

14 comments to Nollywood – When Hollywood Comes Calling…

  • AccidentalVisitor

    Excellent report, MsWOO. But I have some doubts over the validity of this part of the story:

    Apparently, an American producer approached the Nollywood star about doing a movie in which her character would be featured having sex with three different men and in which she would be expected to be completely nude.

    I’m sorry but Americans typicaly don’t make movies these days with explicit love scenes. And explicit love scenes involving any black people in a Hollywood movie is about as common as snow in Texas….during July. So I have my doubts especially since the vast majority of Americans couldn’t pick Ms Oboli out of a feamle Celtic dancers lineup. This sounds like a rumor that was accidentall or intentionally spread amongst the masses in Nigeria until members of the press picked up on it and passed it along as legit news. Or maybe Nollywood was just trying to get some attention. I may be wrong but just as I didn’t buy the jamie Foxx as Sinatra story for a second, I’m not really buying this one either. Unfortunately journalism is dying and the news is less and less reliable, especially when it comes from the web.

  • If you read the whole piece, and not even too far into it, you’ll notice that I have my doubts too. I had my doubts when I first read it two days ago and was about to dismiss it but then it got me thinking, which led to this post.

    But it would seem that Nollywood, or at least certain supporters and elements of it, would like to ally itself with Hollywood, before it has done the necessary work to put it on an equal, non-exploitative footing (whether that be with regard to finance or control of images – and, let’s face it, whoever has the finance, controls the images).

  • @ AV: You must have missed the bit where I wrote:

    “My feeling is that either the role is being hyped-up by Nollywood reporters, it’s a rumour that been put out there by Oboli’s publicity people to boost her profile in Nollywood, or Nollywood media speculators are naively unaware of the uneven playing field in the global arena.”

  • AccidentalVisitor

    That’s strange. It appears I missed that entire paragraph. Sorry about that. The only thing I can think of is that somehow I “leaped” past it when I went from reading the first paragraph on the main page to reading the rest of your analysis after I clicked on the link.

  • Sergio

    I agree. The story is a obvious hoax planted by her people to “raise her profile” as you say. It’s not unusual. It’s done all the time in the film business

  • Bollywood has been around for a long time and it’s just starting to have a real crossover appeal thanks to Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire and The Pussycat Dolls remix of “Jai Ho.” So if Nollywood follows a similar pace as Bollywood then it has a sizable path ahead of it.

  • @ Karen: It’s true, Bollywood is a much older industry than Nollywood. However, it’s appeal in the West precedes Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, especially in the places like the UK where interest in real Bollywood films (not just films set in India made by White filmmakers) has been growing in the last decade and where they’ve been showing in select cinemas in London’s West End for a few years now. Hollywood (Will Smith, Sly Stallone, et al) is actually coming to the game quite late, but not too late to make a potentially sizeable profit.

    I’m not sure that a white filmmaker making a film set in Nigeria would do much more for Nollywood than Slumdog has done for Bollywood (although jobs for Nollywood film crews would certainly be a good thing).

    I agree that Nigeria certainly has great potential ahead of it, but it needs to seize this potential itself rather than trying to piggyback on Hollywood, especially while it’s still a relatively fledgling film industry compared to that of India and the US.

  • Curious that just about every African filmmaker who has enjoyed any international success is from a country other than Nigeria, even though the Nigerian film industry produces more product that probably every other country combined.

    I’m sure there is a Nollywood minority pushing for quality over quantity. They probably are producing work, but it’s all being unintentionally suppressed by the deluge of sub-par VCD work. But I’m sure they’ll emerge.

    I recall hearing and reading about certain Indian groups calling for a shift in Bollywood productions, from the usual song and dance (likening it to the buffoonery of black performers in cinema’s yesteryear), to a more *realistic* and varied representation of the country and its people. And even though the typical Bollywood movie still dominates, there certainly is more variety in content than previously.

    Also worth noting are the 70s and Blaxploitation movies. They dominated for a short time; and from them came a *rebellion* if we can call it that, in films by people like Charles Burnett and Haille Gerima, and the so-called “Los Angeles School of black film makers,” who sought to produce films that were the antithesis of those films of the blaxploitation genre.

    So, I think, in time, those minority voices in Nollywood screaming for change won’t be such a minority anymore.

  • I share your doubts about this. I haven’t run this story because I don’t totally believe it, either. Nobody, and I mean nobody nobody that I’ve asked knows what production this casting would have been for or who is offering $500k for three sex scenes. Nobody…OUTSIDE the VALLEY, that is. This sounds like a high end porn “agent” had a series of conversations with this actress, she saw through the BS, and bailed.

    I also share your concern about Hollywood’s sudden interest in Nollywood. But I think the best way to look at it is to look at Hollywood’s horror business. Not only have they been jacking Japan and Korea’s beats, they’ve been biting entire rhymes. We are talking about an industry so much in trouble that movies are being greenlighted based on board games. Of course Sony’s gonna look at “Games Men Play” and “Beyonce” for story ideas.

    I think we may be overthinking the Bollywood piece, though. The foundation of Bollywood is the musical. Hollywood is always going to be attracted to music. Aishwarya Rai is beautiful, but so is Barbara Mori, and that isn’t helping “Kites” find a distributor. Bollywood is caught trying to turn into Hollywood at a time when raising money is hard for the actual Hollywood.

    Bollywood and Nollywood are long tail industries. Meaning, they may produce more titles than Hollywood, but they also cost less, and last longer. DDLJ is STILL running in theaters in India. They are talking about producing a THIRD Jenifa movie in Nollywood, and what “Beyonce” movie are we up to — 5? Those calling for change in India and Nigeria are sorta tripping, because America WISHES they could get down like that. That would be like “When Harry Met Sally” still playing in a movie theater (and selling full price tickets) somewhere today, or Paramount being up to the 12th Jack Ryan movie. America has to get back to building durable goods, from the auto industry — to the entertainment industry. The only are where Americans compete internationally are in horror and science fiction.

  • Daryle, you’re right about the woods Bolly and Nolly being long tail industries; in the case of Nollywood, it stands to reason as their entire output is solely on video – and also there’s no established cinema network in Nigeria, or most of Africa for that matter, where Nollywood is most popular – so kudos to them for that.

    However, unlike Korean and Japanese horror films, which genre would Hollywood be turning to for inspiration from Nigerian films? What would be Nollywood’s genre of expertise? The way things stand at the moment, most Nollywood output is comparable to bad daytime soap and, as desperate as Hollywood might be for ideas, I don’t see them turning in that direction for new movies while there are still many more board games untouched… of course, anything is possible. :)

    And while Hollywood loves to remake Korean and Japanese horror movies, as someone whose website is one of few African-American sites or media outlets that covers African and Nollywood films, do you really envisage any current Nollywood titles being picked for a remake by Hollywood? Are there any Nollywood directors, or any other talent, that could make the potentially lucrative jump to Hollywood with remakes of their own Nollywood films?

    I don’t think that Nollywood should be looking to be solicited by Hollywood yet but, as Tambay mentioned, isn’t is strange that, despite its mammoth output, no Nollywood filmmaker to date has ever received any international acclaim?

    Calling for change in Nollywood might be tripping, but but I feel it’s Nollywood that’ll trip soon if it doesn’t slow down and learn to walk properly before it runs out of steam. There’s so much potential, but I fear that young Nollywood is already trying to behave like geriatric Hollywood and going solely for easy profit rather than trying to make any meaningful impact on culture and society.

  • Ultimately it comes down to what the people want… what the audience wants. As long as they’re content with the current caliber of films produced and distributed by Nollywood filmmakers, then those kinds of films will continue to dominate. If tastes change, then so will the type of films that are produced.

    Tyler Perry’s movies to me are like Americanized versions of Nollywood movies, with obviously higher budgets and production values. But the melodrama and heavy-handedness are comparable, as well as the prolificacy. We’ve wondered whether Perry will evolve as a filmmaker, or if he’ll stick to his current formula that’s obviously working quite successfully for him – financially anyway. As he himself previously stated, as long as there’s an audience for the kind of material he produces, he’ll continue as is, even though he himself doesn’t necessarily enjoy creating those movies. So, it’s all about money.

    It’s the same for Nollywood.

    I still believe that, in time, while Nollywood as we know it won’t disappear, there will be a proliferation of Nigerian filmmakers whose films will help balance the quality vs quantity issue. And, as I believe has often been the case, it would begin with Nigerian filmmakers studying film in Europe or America, and returning to Nigeria, taking with them what they’ve learned, introducing and incorporating different sensibilities into Nigerian cinema.

    And that brings me to a related issue… I still wrestle with the accepted notion of European or North American cinema being *superior* cinema, and Nollywood or Bollywood being somehow *inferior.* Obviously what I’m talking here aren’t ideas that are solely cinema-based. Labels like “third-world” are commonly used to describe African countries, automatically implying inferiority, including in cinema. In fact, there was a 60s (I think it was) film movement that called itself “Third-World Cinema,” practically embracing the label. I think it was rooted in South America, but I’ll have to look it up. They produced films that were inspired by neo-realism and documentaries.

    But, to sum it up, I guess the point I’m trying to get at is that maybe Nollywood as is should be allowed to exist as is, and find its own way, without any Western influence, or as little as possible. Just about every African filmmaker who has achieved some international acclaim (except maybe South Africans) studied film outside of Africa, and later returned to their native countries to produce work. I hope that doesn’t continue to always be the case, because the implications are disheartening.

  • Tambay, I believe you’re referring to “Third Cinema.”

    It was a South American movement which went on to include African cinema (of Sembene’s era).

    The First Cinema was Hollywood/entertainment; Second Cinema was Europe/self-expressionism; and Third was more socially conscious and tended to decry things like neo-colonialism and capitalism.

    Not sure where Nollywood would sit… perhaps a Fourth Cinema – a post/anti neo-colonial capitalism…?

  • pnc

    MsWoo, I doubt anyone in Hollywood would care to give a high-profile R/NC-17 role to an unknown darker-skinned black actress who wasn’t already a popular singer or rapper. But let’s say if she was offered such a deal, why should the nudity make a difference if the part was a good one? I don’t know much about the mores of Nigerian culture but I do like the fact they are so enterprising and have taken the initiative to build a film industry in Africa. It’s not perfect, but it’ll come up, I’m sure. Bootleg Nollywood films seem to be very popular on the streets here.

  • @pnc: Seriously – what is the likelihood that a role requiring a dark-skinned, unknown African woman to appear nude and have sex with three different men is going to be a “good” role? …unless it’s in adult entertainment.

    The mores of Nigerian culture are pretty much like the mores of most societies, don’t do (or get caught doing) anything you’d be ashamed to do in public – except that they’re more likely to actually to be seen to be observing these mores (regardless of how hypocritical it might be) that most Western societies seem to be giving up on.

    And yes, a very enterprising people. Despite the issues of quality, I’d much rather Nollywood exist in its present state than not exist at all. It’s just that it now needs to do what we always seem to be calling for all black films to do… Diversify! Offer something in the way of substance rather than superficial sophistication and caricature! As I said before, I like to think there’s a silent minority striving to add a more profound element to the milieu.