Editi Effiong’s excitement is infectious. It’s less than three weeks since his crime thriller, The Black Book, premiered on Netflix, and the movie has already been watched more than 70 million times. “I’ve been in a very happy place,” Effiong says. “You create a thing and watch it go out in the world, it would make [anyone] happy.”
The Black Book is one of the most expensive Nigerian movies ever made, with a $1 million budget raised in part from Nigeria’s tech elite, including the cofounder of fintech unicorn Flutterwave, Gbenga Abgoola, and Piggyvest’s Odun Eweniyi. The movie’s success—it claimed the most-watched spot on the platform in South Korea and has been the number-two ranked film in several countries across South America for over a week—makes it one of Nigeria’s rare breakouts on streaming platforms and is perhaps a vindication of Netflix’s decision to invest in “Nollywood,” as the local industry is known.
“Thanks to The Black Book, Nollywood filmmakers can now say, ‘Take a bet on us, support us with the right funding, and we will give you films that can compete globally on your streamer,’” says Daniel Okechukwu, a Nigerian film writer.
Effiong started his dramatic career writing and directing plays in church, which drew him into production design. At the age of 12, working on a play about the crucifixion of Jesus, he obsessed over building the right cross, spent time designing realistic Roman empire uniforms, and even developed a prop that gushed out fake blood when soldiers in the play were “stabbed” with a spear.
This is the kind of ingenuity that’s needed to succeed in Nollywood, which has always been a low-budget endeavor. While its stories have often been overly theatrical and moralistic, they’ve always had the ability to entertain. Filmmakers work mainly with small budgets, between $25,000 and $70,000, typically finishing production within a few months. In the early days, they released their work on cassettes, but although the rise of cinemas and streaming networks has upped the game for filmmakers in terms of production quality, the industry continues to be grossly underfunded.
When Netflix formally entered the Nigerian film industry in 2020, many in the business thought it would mean more money flowing into productions. The streaming giant had previously licensed existing Nigerian films and made them available to its more than 200 million global subscribers. When it started investing in its own slate of original content, Nollywood hoped that it would spur a creative boom, as well as a financial one, giving filmmakers the opportunity to explore new ground. But Netflix’s early titles were broadly similar to what came before them, in similar genres, albeit with slightly more elevated production values. And the money wasn’t great either. Reports have shown that Nigerian filmmakers are paid a lot less compared to their counterparts in countries with significantly smaller markets. The average licensing fee for Nigerian films on Netflix is between $10,000 and $90,000 according to Techcabal, significantly less than in other parts of the world.