Friday, August 06, 2004

Cinema Entrepreneurship in Nigeria

I have Tyler Cowen to thank for this story, which, though interesting, nonetheless contains a few inaccuracies.

Lagos is the biggest city in Nigeria and sub-Saharan Africa, but until recently it did not even have any cinemas.
As attention-grabbing a notion as this may be, it has the great demerit of being untrue. I distinctly remember the existence of more than a few cinemas right throughout the 1980s, not just in Lagos, but even as far north as Jos. The only thing was, they weren't the sorts of places middle-class types would ever dream of stepping into, not with the advent of the VCR.
That is all the more surprising given that Nigerians love watching films: the country is famous for its thriving and expanding home-video industry.
Now, however, that has all changed, thanks to the Silverbird Cinemas - an upmarket five-screen Cineplex in the heart of Victoria Island.
The key word here is "upmarket", i.e, priced to keep the canaille out, for the well-to-do wouldn't think of attending otherwise. Nigerians are extremely status-conscious in the main.
Lagosians enter a grand atrium under a high dome decorated with cartoon characters. Then they take the escalator to the first floor to watch the latest releases - currently including Troy, Harry Potter 3 and Spiderman 2.
Films are shown on big screens with plush seats, little red lights illuminating the floor - and popcorn available from the cinema shop.

Gut instinct

The man responsible for this pool of luxury in the chaos that so often characterises Lagos, is Ben Murray-Bruce, a US-educated Nigerian entrepreneur, who already has his own TV and radio station.


There were cinemas in Lagos in the 1960s, but they began going out of business in the 1970s - partly because of the difficulties of operating under military dictatorship.
And what might those "difficulties" have been? Not quite what one might have imagined, as censorship had little to do with their decline. Quite apart from the arrival of the VCR, two developments did more than any others to wreck the Nigerian cinema business - the "indigenization" decrees that effectively nationalized all assets held by foreigners, and the foreign exchange controls put in place as the nation's balance of payments situation sharply deteriorated with the end of the oil boom.
Cinemas closed down across the country and today many are used as Pentecostal churches or Islamic education centres.

Pirate filming

But even with Ben Murray-Bruce's enthusiasm, this was not the easiest project to get off the ground.
Nigeria has an erratic power supply, which means that seven generators have been installed to make sure that the films do not stop mid-show and the air-conditioning does not break down.
Mr Murray-Bruce has also had to convince film distributors that it is safe to send prints to Lagos - a city already awash with pirated DVDs of top Hollywood films.
Most of these copies are made by people going to the cinema with a video-camera.
Sometimes a head will appear in the frame, as a person in the audience gets up to go to the toilet.
Maybe once upon a time, but not now; these days, Nigerian pirates can get their raw materials from the same sources we in the rich world can. How's that for one benefit of the Internet?
"The argument I make to the studios is this: If you provide a product, maybe it will be pirated. But if you don't, then it's guaranteed to be pirated. And anyway, with the kind of box office returns we have now, they are convinced they have a hit on their hands," said Mr Murray-Bruce.
Just to be safe, however, no bags are allowed in the cinema - in case they contain a hidden camera.
The most important point raised in the entire article has little to do with the cinema business per se, and that is the way in which the lack of a reliable electricity supply can raise the cost of doing business in Nigeria dramatically. Hardly any business worth conducting can be done without a reliable power supply, but NEPA*, the public parastatal responsible for providing electricity, does an atrocious job of meeting the needs of either industry or private individuals; this in itself would be no big deal if private alternatives existed, but the problem is that under Nigeria's laws, it is illegal to engage in the production of electricity for sale! Is it any wonder I'm entirely lacking in the reverential attitude towards government so typical on the left, having grown up under the burden of one like Nigeria's? When the government won't meet its obligations to you, and won't even get out of the way to let you do the job yourself, it's natural that one comes to hate it.

*Nigerian Electric Power Corporation, aka "Never Expect Power Always."