These days Hollywood is very much in third place when it comes to new movie releases.
Nigeria’s film industry, christened ‘Nollywood’, produced during its 2008 peak over 2,500 movies in a single year. Nollywood and the wider African film industry has already eclipsed the US film powerhouse of Hollywood in terms of the quantity of films it produces. Only the Indian film industry (‘Bollywood’) is now more prolific.
But the movie business can be unpredictable: many investors have backed away from Nollywood and no-one is quite sure how to sate China’s demand for movies. With emerging markets producing and consuming films as never before, there are questions to be answered about the future of movie production worldwide.
Originally it was Nigeria’s film industry that led the African film-making charge, with a huge output of ‘Nollywood’ productions in the 90’s and 00’s that were often produced speedily, on minimal budgets.
In those early years it seemed like a winning strategy: films made on tiny budgets could still turn a big profit. It was a totally different strategy to that of a typical US studio which still focuses on hugely expensive releases, star power, and a colossal advertising spend to remain profitable. This has tended to mean your average Hollywood flick over the last two decades usually shows far higher production values than a typical African output.
African films often stick to themes exploring moral dilemmas at the heart of modern Africans, such as the challenges facing migrant workers new to big cities.
2005’s One God One Nation tackled the struggles of a Muslim and Christian trying to marry each other. Other films tackle religious themes and many are strongly evangelical. 666 (subtitled ‘Beware, The End Is At Hand’) features gory scenes and an especially bonkers depiction of hell on a very limited budget, mostly spent on papier mache devil horns.
But in the mid 2000s, video piracy undermined the profitability of the high-churn, low budget strategy for Nigerian movie producers, and African governments have done little to help. Investors were scared off by the rampant piracy and legislative changes to streamline the industry seem to have had negative effects on production volumes.
Many producers now seem unsure how to operate profitably within the current system of distribution. Some have ambitions to make films with higher production values but it’s unclear how these can be profitable within the current distribution infrastructure, where pirate copies can flood the market almost immediately after the film premiers.
What of America, the home of cinema and big budget blockbusters?
America’s domestic box office market appears to be shrinking; cinema attendance is in decline across the States. Some of the most exciting productions to come out of the States recently have been television dramas rather than big screen films.
Trying to reverse declining box office sales, Hollywood is increasingly targeting new audiences. The evangelical Christian market has turned out for faith-based epics such as Noah and God’s Not Dead, and worldwide film sales are thriving thanks to Chinese audiences.
So significant is this Asian audience that China-specific content was added to Hollywood blockbuster ‘Iron Man 3’, incorporating scenes set in China with local megastars.
It did the trick, even though Asian audiences cheerfully agreed the China-specific scene was absolute rubbish. Even Chinese moviegoers couldn’t believe Iron Man would fly to China for heart surgery in a pointless plot detour that simultaneously tried to flog a local milk drink via product placement.
Although Iron Man 3’s content experiment may have had questionable artistic merit, Hollywood producers know that they need to get the Chinese market right. It’s felt that China still has plenty of room to grow in terms of market potential for films. Although there are 20 thousand cinema screens across the country, that’s still only one for every 70,000 people. Chinese box office sales contribute a hefty slice of profits to many Hollywood hits.
China has shown ambition to mount its own challenge to Hollywood by producing films domestically. Although demand for cinema trips is expanding, there’s an annual quota on the number of foreign productions the government will allow to be shown.
It’s true that censorship restricts in practical terms what kind of films are screened and produced. Comedies are easiest to work around the rules, and some topics just aren’t tackled.
Notoriously, the Chinese government banned the depiction of time travel at the cinema a few years ago. It’s difficult to really predict what will fall foul of the censors as there are no specific guidelines issued, meaning some censorship decisions are somewhat arbitrary. It’s also sometime blatantly unfair: Avatar was kicked off national screens to make way for a Confucius biopic, and studios get only 25% of box office takings, rather than the 50% that they can expect outside China.
Despite all this, it’s still worthwhile for Hollywood to woo the Chinese market – frankly the audiences are too big to ignore. Transformers: Age of Extinction was the highest ever grossing film in China and ticket sales there exceeded those in the film’s domestic market of North America.
There’s been some indication that both Britain and the States are exploring ways to collaborate with China and produce ‘fusion’ films that will appeal to both Western and Eastern audiences.
Disney has a long-term co-production deal with the Shanghai Media Group, Sony Pictures is backing new films from Chinese directors, and a co-production treaty has recently been signed between the Chinese and UK governments. China has also signed co-production agreements with South Korea, Russia and India, meaning the future film production landscape could be one of international co-operation.
Unlike Africa’s lower production values, Chinese audiences seem particularly keen on special effects and lush costume dramas. Both the government and China’s own film critics bemoan the trend to ape entertaining but vapid Hollywood blockbusters but it seems that’s the prevailing taste. It seems Hollywood and the inevitably nicknamed Chollywood may be natural bedfellows after all.