by La Toya Tooles
Outside of Judith Teko’s hair salon is a street vendor that sells winter hats and gloves, Pashmina scarves, cell phone cases and handbags. Propped up on the table he has DVDs on sale for $1.
Even the casual observer can tell that the movies are bootlegged. The movie titles are printed on 8 x 11 paper and are in DVD cases that are just a bit too thin.
What the casual observer may not know is where these movies come from. They aren’t American titles. They say things like “Broken Tears Part 1 & 2” and “Beyonce and Rhianna: all four parts,” though the women on the cover are clearly not Beyonce or Rhianna.
These are movie titles from Nigeria. They are known around the world as Nollywood films.
Nollywood films tell very different stories than Western films. Because Nigeria is a largely religious country, there is not much cursing, sex or gun violence in their films. And often times they have a subtle message of faith attached. Some of the films feature African voodoo as the dues ex machina that intervenes in the everyday struggles of the African characters.
“African movies are about life’s story. You can learn a lot from them about life and what can happen to you in life,” said Teko, 35, who moved to New York eight years ago from the Togolese Republic.
Teko said she sells 50-60 movies a week from her hair salon. She didn’t watch a lot of the films before moving to the US, but began to enjoy them as she became increasingly dissatisfied with American media.
On November 1, the Kings County District Attorney’s office raided nine stores that sell bootleg Nollywood films, confiscating more than 10,000 movies, five disc duplicators, hundreds of blank DVDs and packaging. Investigators also uncovered business and bank records for several of the businesses, according to a press release.
The case originated in an unusual complaint submitted to the DA’s Action Center.
“We get a lot of complaints but rarely do we get a complaint of counterfeit coming through [the action center],” said Gavin Miles, the executive assistant district attorney.
Anthony Abulu, president of the Filmmakers Association of Nigeria, USA, and several Nigerian marketers living in the United States submitted the complaint that began the investigation last spring. Between then and now, the DA’s office met with the group to learn more about the problem previously unknown to them.
“I had been unfamiliar with the size of the Nigerian film industry before this,” said Miles.
According to Miles, this is one of the largest differences between Nollywood and Hollywood when prosecuting bootlegging. The market value of a Hollywood film is $20. The retail value of a Nollywood film is $5. Most bootleggers sell their movies for $2, undercutting Nollywood marketers that have the right to sell the movies and taking away their costumer base.
“The supposed economic injury is a lot less but nevertheless a significant dent in their income,” Miles said.
Over the last ten years there has been an increase in the production of films in Nigeria and other parts of Africa. According to a United Nations report, the Nigerian film industry is the second largest film industry in the world, behind India. Nigeria produce 873 films in 2006 almost twice as many as the United States.
Nigerian filmmakers shoot low budget films, often in a span of weeks, and market them straight to video.
“[In Nigeria], you put a small money into making a film and you make a bigger but small amount of money back,” said Jamie Meltzer, a film and media Professor at Stanford University, who in 2003 Meltzer produced a documentary about the business side of Nigerian films called “Welcome to Nollywood.”
In the documentary, Meltzer followed three of Nollywood’s biggest directors as they shot films and interviewed some of the actors.
Due to the low production and distribution costs, more than 1000 Nigerian films are made a year.
These films are slowly making their way to the US as people emigrate from Africa to the US.
According to the census, more than 880,000 immigrants moved to the United States, 10.5 percent of them moved to New York City.
“These films are important to the African communities that used to live in Nigeria, West Africa or other parts of Africa that are now in Brooklyn, DC and other parts of the U.S.,” Meltzer said. It’s a huge market, added Metzer, but “no one is making money off them accept the people making them illegally and wrongly.”
Sal Jide Thomas owns African Movie Place, one of the only Nollywood film stores that sells only legally made DVDs. He started selling African movies five years ago when he opened a storefront for his calling card business. Now, there are no calling cards to be seen in his store. Through his online store, Thomas sells movies wholesale and retail all over the country. He purchases the rights to distribute the movies within the U.S., usually for about $10,000, then copies and packages the movies for sale.
“It’s now up to me to make the $10,000 back,” Thomas said, “ If you can’t sell 10,000 copies don’t’ bother buying the rights.” Including the rights, each movie cost him about $15,000 to $25,000. He sells them for about $5 each.
“I’m not actually putting something substantial in my pocket,” said Thomas. “If my wife didn’t have a full time job I wouldn’t be able to afford my mortgage.”
“I’m personally fighting a loosing war. But I see the potential in the market.”
Thomas has seen a decrease in sales even in the years he has been in the industry.
“Before I could make $20,000 to $30,000 a month,” he said. “Now, I’m lucky if I do half that. It has gotten more competitive.
Thomas was integral to the complaint against the nine illegal film sellers. Thomas said he has been going to these stores regularly to try and convert them to legally selling the movies. Thomas said he felt the raid was more symbolic, but a step in the right direction.
“[The raid] sent a message out, saying, ‘when we tell you we’re buying the rights, it’s true,’” he said.
The best-selling Nigerian movie is “Blood Sister”, directed by Tchidi Chikere. “Blood Sisters” tells the story of how one sister’s childhood jealousy developed into something murderous. The jealous sister, played by Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde, kills her sister, who is played by fan favorite Genevieve Nnaji, and steals her husband and abuses her children. Made in 2003, “Blood Sister” is considered a classic in Nollywood and still sells thousands of copies a year.
According to Thomas, the majority of his costumers are not Nigerian. Most of them, 90 percent, according to Thomas, are Caribbean or African-American.
“It’s beyond Africans and Nigerians, it’s about the entire black Diaspora,” he said.
Danielle Rameax, a long time fan of African movies thinks they offer a more positive perspective of Africans.
“A lot of times people stereotype Africa. As children, we base our perception of Africa is influenced by the media,” Rameax said. “But they never show you the part of Africa where they live like regular people.”
Thomas has plans to organize screening and attempt to take move the U.S. Nollywood industry to the theaters. He says he has also tried to convince Cablevision to create a channel but says he has received little interest from them. The future, he hopes, is in Internet movie channels.
“They may have been separated by oceans for hundreds of years,” said Thomas, “but the stories are the same: love, hate and money.”