For the last few years, Bollywood has dominated the film world in terms of quantity of output, making over 1,400 films in 2011. But now it looks as if Nollywood has finally overtaken it, with production rates estimated at around 1,800 annually.
There are several reasons for this. Firstly, Nigeria's industry is built almost entirely around digital cinematography, whilst many Indian directors still prefer celluloid. Production values are low and the budget for the entire industry is only around $250 million, four fifths of which comes from state funding, with Nigeria's government now seeing film as one of the country's most important industries. Whilst Indian films tend to be aimed first at cinema audiences, Nollywood thrives on the straight-to-DVD market and on sales to dedicated TV channels across Africa.
So why isn't Nigeria pulling in the big money associated with cinematic success? First of all, it has a massive problem with piracy, losing around 50% of its revenue this way. Secondly, it's not good at pitching to the international market. Viewers really need to be Nigerian, or familiar with Nigerian culture (perhaps through repeated viewing of such films) in order to understand the context of many of the stories. They also need to be patient with the low quality of much of the material. Nollywood films tend to be enjoyed in the West as kitsch artefacts, much as Filipino films were a few decades ago. Their sensationalist plots undermine their credibility further, denying them the kind of attention that might enable the industry to make a breakthrough.
Over the last few years the Indian industry has not only grown, it has started to change. There have always been Indian directors making high quality films but now they are more prominent and quality has started to improve across the board. This has helped Indian films to break through into lucrative Western markets. Nigerian critics expect that their industry will soon start to change in the same way, having reached a point where there is enough developed talent around to take it to the next level.
The big problem is finance. Record keeping in Nollywood is notoriously poor and as a result film projects struggle to attract significant investment. Changes in this practice are needed before the industry can move forward creatively. Nevertheless, Nollywood is clearly on the verge of something big, which could in turn ensure African voices are heard much more clearly in worldwide cultural conversation.