LAGOS, Nigeria — A 15-second drum roll and the title of the film, Deceptive Heart, comes crashing onto the screen in a groovy 1970s font.
Less than 10 minutes into the Nollywood movie, the heart of plot is revealed: A woman has two boyfriends and doesn’t know what to do.
The story moves as quickly as the film appears to have been shot. Some scenes are shaky, with cameras clearly in need of a tripod, and musical montages are often filled with pans of the same building.
Most Nollywood movies are made in less than 10 days and cost about $25,000.
Fueled by low budgets and whirlwind production schedules, Nigeria’s film industry has grown by some estimates over the past 20-plus years into the most prolific on Earth, pushing out more movies a year than Hollywood in California or Bollywood in Mumbai, India.
Hollywood tends to portray Africa as an exotic land of deserts and giraffes, populated by huddling masses, according to Samuel Olatunje, a Nollywood publicist known in the business as “Big Sam.”
Nigerian movies are popular because they portray African people more accurately, Big Sam explains outside his single-room Lagos office. They explore African issues rarely touched on in Hollywood — magic, tribal loyalties, the struggle to modernize.
“Stories that you can relate to,” he says.
Ventures Africa business magazine says Nollywood knocks out 2,000 titles a year and is the third-largest earner in the movie world, after Bollywood and Hollywood.
The $250-million industry employs more than a million people.
Artists say Nigeria’s bad infrastructure and chaotic legal system prevent them from making films that are as impressive in their quality as they are in quantity.
“You’ll find that we’re having to make do,” legendary Nollywood actor Olu Jacobs explains at an exclusive country club in Lagos.
Trained at Britain’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, Jacobs says Nigerian artists often have the same artistic capacity as their Western counterparts, but not the same financial capacity. “We’re not happy because the finished product doesn’t have the finish that it should have,” he says.
Later that day, Jacob’s driver inches his car through grinding traffic in Lagos, the African megalopolis as chaotic and bustling as any Nollywood production scene. A young businessman in an SUV nearly cuts him off. The SUV driver’s eyes grow wide when he recognizes Jacobs, and he smiles like a child meeting Santa Claus. He lets the actor’s car pass in front.
Nollywood was born, so the story goes, when Kenneth Nnebue, a video storeowner, had too many blank tapes in the early 1990s. To find a use for them, he shot Living in Bondage with a single camera for video. The protagonist joins a secret cult and kills his wife in a ritual sacrifice that wins him enormous wealth but leaves him haunted. The movie was an instant hit, selling 500,000 copies.
But at the country club, Jacobs says modern Nollywood is no accident. When he returned to Nigeria from the London stage in the early 1980s, he, like many other artists, knew he could make successful movies at home.
“We all knew that we had a market,” he says. “When I grew up, cinemas were always filled up. Stage performances were all ways full. Why shouldn’t there be?”
The main problem for movie-makers, Jacobs says, is also the top complaint of almost every industry in Nigeria: not enough power. Less than half the population of Africa’s most populous country has access to government electricity, and even the wealthiest families deal with daily power cuts. Nigerian film producers pay a premium for fuel to run generators to keep the lights on and the equipment going.
Piracy also cuts into profits, Jacobs says. After a film is released, producers have only a few weeks before illegally burned copies undercut their sales. Pirated Nigerian DVDs cost no more than a dollar or two and are available at markets in even the farthest corners of Africa.
But these cheap DVDs have also helped the industry grow, making Nigerian movies wildly popular in Africa and among Africans overseas.
Last year, Nollywood ventured off the continent entirely to screen Half of a Yellow Sun, a movie about Nigeria’s 1960s civil war based on an award-winning novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, at film festivals Toronto, London and Los Angeles.
While it didn’t get rave reviews, the Hollywood Reporter called it an “epic-on-a-budget” that will continue to draw audiences. Half of a Yellow Sun had a budget of about $8 million, the largest in Nollywood history.
By comparison, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, based on a book by Suzanne Collins, had a budget of about $130 million and was one of the highest-grossing Hollywood movies in 2013.
A week after the Los Angeles premiere of Half of a Yellow Sun, the cast and crew of a Nollywood soap opera, Remember Me, pack into a hot, borrowed apartment in Lagos. Director F. Olu Michaels secures a red film over a harsh white light with masking tape before calling out “Action!”
Then he silently drops to his hands and knees and crawls behind the cameraman to avoid casting shadows on the set.
After the shoot, as a generator rumbles just far enough away from the set to avoid being picked up by microphones, Michaels says Nollywood films are improving rapidly because of intense competition.
“The quality of what we bring out now is not what we brought out, even five years ago,” he says.
Still, he says, the industry has a long way to go before its actors and directors have a chance to make millions of dollars.