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Invest in African movies or miss out on the film market of the future

Filmmakers in Africa are used to going it alone. Long overlooked by international studios as a risky market without reliable consumers, the industry has been built from the ground up through the grit and determination of African storytellers

And what they’ve built is now catching the world’s attention. Streamers like Netflix have got boots on the ground, and financiers are rolling out new grants – but the legacy studios are still nowhere to be seen.

Universal, Paramount and Sony’s lack of commitment to Africa is not just bad for the continent’s creatives – it’s also neglecting their own bottom lines. If they don’t double their investments in African filmmaking now then they’ll be left in the dust behind the newer, flashier tech firms.

Africa is not a monolith. But the established studios see it as one – with a cursory glance, they observe a continent lacking a robust entertainment market and overlook the grassroots industries springing up in every corner.

The most successful industry is in Nigeria. ‘Nollywood’ produces the third most films annually (behind Hollywood, and India’s ‘Bollywood’) – around 2500 films per year.

Nollywood films are often stereotyped as unsophisticated and crude, but any serious analysis of its output immediately highlights the prejudice behind this assumption – just one recent example is The Black Book, a 2023 Nigerian film by director Editi Effiong, which achieved both critical and commercial success, reaching number three in the Netflix charts.

These filmmakers, producers and writers have achieved success through their own dedication to storytelling. But now Netflix is recognizing their talent and putting substantial investment into filmmaking on the continent.

Investment banks have also crunched the numbers and have started deploying funds. Afreximbank has launched a new $1bn film fund for African filmmakers, in a sign that players from outside the entertainment industry are recognizing the commercial potential in African filmmaking.

Compared to these commitments, the major international studios have been absent. African filmmakers don’t need these studios to throw them a lifeline – their success to this point proves that this isn’t necessary. But there is a mutually beneficial relationship to cultivate.

For the studios, carving out space in the African market is highly lucrative – far more so than they’ve assumed to this point. PwC projects film revenues in Nigeria to hit $12.9bn by 2027, and the international majors have missed out on this bonanza. When other markets develop to the maturity of Nigeria’s these studios will want to be in the thick of it.

Africa is also the youngest continent – by 2030, young Africans are expected to make up 42% of the world’s youth. These are the consumers of the future. If the studios ignore them today, then they will be blind to the tastes of tomorrow. So, spending now on African filmmaking is an investment that will offer returns down the line, as studios will have their fingers on the pulse of these consumers.

The youth and dynamism of Africa’s population also represent an untapped resource for these studios in another sense – these young demographics are a wealth of writing, acting and production talent. Without investing in African filmmaking, studios like Universal, Paramount and Sony are ignoring this and limiting the stories that they tell and the audiences that they reach.

Today’s film industry is consistently criticised for its homogeneity – a seemingly endless series of remixed and rehashed content is pumped out of the production line. I’m not saying that major studios should stop commissioning superhero films. But this emerging talent from Africa with previously unheard stories could be a refreshing tonic to sit alongside these legacy projects – not to mention a profitable one as well.

African filmmakers have built their industries and scenes from the ground up – that’s a success in itself, and they’ll be justifiably hesitant of major studios. There’s a very real risk of these corporations homogenising diverse African stories to fit Western tastes and imposing Euro-American standards onto local contexts.

There need to be guardrails in place to mitigate the risks of this. Investment should be sustainable, not only seeking short-term gains but also contributing to the long-term development of the local film ecosystem. This might include training, infrastructure development, and partnership models that prioritize local leadership.

Equally important is ensuring that the African film industry retains economic and creative autonomy and does not end up dependent on international studios. This includes protecting intellectual property rights, ensuring fair profit sharing, and fostering an environment where African filmmakers are empowered to continue making films after the initial investment from the studio.

These are legitimate concerns, but with these protections they can be mitigated. Together studios and African filmmakers and then become a powerhouse partnership.

International studio investment obviously offers capital. Improved access to funding, equipment and technical support will give producers the tools they need to bring their creative vision to life and compete with other blockbuster productions.

But beyond that, these studios also bring expertise in technical areas that have proven difficult for African filmmakers to access. With increased investment and the right tools, skills like sound recording, computer graphics and post-production can be honed by the expertise these studios bring to the table.

The studios also have global distribution networks. Bringing these stories to wider audiences will generate the revenue African actors, writers and producers need to stay in the industry. Films from industries like Nollywood can travel beyond local markets and propel themselves into global cultural consciousness – much like the runaway success The Black Book achieved – but to do this, they need international distribution networks.

It’s time for the big players in international film to start taking Africa seriously. African filmmakers have proven that they’ve got both the creative talent and production determination to make genuinely innovative films that resonate with audiences beyond the continent.

With the right guardrails in place, studio investment can supercharge local industries like Nigeria’s Nollywood into global film production powerhouses. And for these international studios, there’s a wealth of new markets, stories and talent within their grasp. The studios just need to be brave and take the leap – and then trust Africa’s filmmakers to do what they do best: make bold, original and compelling movies.

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