The year 2022 may be when the global media industry finally begins to take Africa seriously.
A series of recent agreements between African film and television producers and global studios and streamers mark a sharp change from the decades when African talents and the African market were neglected, ignored or rejected.
“I’ve been in this business for 20 years and it’s only now that we’re seeing this real explosion, a real turning point for African content,” said Nigerian TV pioneer Mo Abudu. “The reality of the marketplace has changed.”
Abudu’s company, EbonyLife Media, has benefited greatly from this change. In 2020, EbonyLife closed its pan-African TV channel, which was available across the continent, to focus on the more lucrative and growing production business, especially with international streamers. It was the first African company to sign a multititle deal with Netflix on features – human trafficking drama Oloture, drama about domestic violence Blood sisters and period epic Death and the King’s Rider, based on the 1975 play by Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka – as well as series, including Nigerian legal drama Slot & Slot, about a man and a woman who run a law firm. Other EbonyLife projects in the pipeline include a dystopian sci-fi series, Nigeria 2099, set up as a co-production with AMC; Regain, a six-part robbery thriller that launches a co-production agreement between EbonyLife and BBC Studios, and which follows a team of art thieves who want to steal Nigerian works poached by the British Empire 125 years ago; and an action series, developed with Sony Pictures Television, about the historic West African army made up entirely of women, the Dahomey Warriors – an inspiration for the fictional Dora Milaje from Marvel’s Black Panther.
In 2021, EbonyLife entered into a multi-project development agreement with Will and Jada Pinkett Smith’s Westbrook Studios for a range of African-based series and features, successfully putting Will Packer Productions and Universal Studios on a thriller based on the Nigerian Instagram celebrity and the alleged deceiver. Ramon Olorunwa Abbas, popularly known as Hushpuppi.
“We now have a satellite office in the UK and an office in the US where we can pitch global stories about Africans,” says Abudu.
In the past month, Amazon has signed two major licensing agreements with Nigeria’s Inkblot Studios and Anthill Studios, their first agreements with African production companies. Disney +, which plans to launch on the continent this year, starting with South Africa, has been given the green light Kizazi Moto: Generation of Fire, a 10-part animated anthology series, featuring Cape Town-based animation house Triggerfish, which will feature short films by directors from South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Uganda and Egypt.
At 2021’s Annecy Animation Festival, Disney unveiled the first images for In front of, a science fiction series imbued with Nigeria’s Yoruba culture and produced with the pan-African studio Kugali Media. On the live-action side, Disney backs up Greek Freak, a feature by Nigerian director Akin Omotoso about NBA star Giannis Antetokounmpo, born in Athens to Nigerian parents.
Netflix, whose service accounts for more than half of the continent’s streaming subscriptions, debuted its first African originals in 2020, starting with South African spy thrillers Queen I am and Cape Town teen drama Blood & Water. Netflix’s first Nigerian commission, which premiered in August, was King of Boys: The Return of the King, a seven-part series sequel to Kemi Adetiba’s hit gangster drama from 2018 King of Boys and with Nollywood star Sola Sobowale as a ruthless mafioso-style businesswoman. In 2020, Netflix signed a development agreement with John Boyega’s UpperRoom Productions to produce non-English films set in West and East Africa. The streamer’s current African board ranges from sci-fi animated series Hold 4 and the historical drama Amina – which premiered on November 4 and became the first Nigerian title to appear on Netflix’s global top 10 list – to And Naija jul, billed as the first African Christmas film.
“There has been a huge change. Just three or four years ago, one would have struggled to sell an African film to a major international platform, and the funding was always difficult,” says Kunle Afolayan, director and producer of And Naija jul, whose latest dramas Citation and Swallow has also gone on Netflix. “Normally I would make one film in two years. Last year I made two films in a single year.”
Netflix and the studios present their African investment as a belated corrective to how Hollywood has long portrayed the continent and its people.
“In the past, African stories have been told by outsiders,” said Ben Amadasun, Africa’s content director for Netflix, speaking via Zoom from Nigeria. “We want to help local talent bring their stories to the world.”
There are also practical business reasons for the international push in Africa. The number of Netflix subscriptions in North America is stagnating, and growth in many areas, including Western Europe, is slowing. But sub-Saharan Africa, in particular, is “an untapped market,” according to Tony Maroulis, chief analyst for London-based Ampere Analysis. “The reason for this focus on Africa is simply because [streaming] the penetration is very, very low there, ”he says. “In North America, about 50 percent of households have a Netflix subscription, a number that is fairly stable. In Western Europe, penetration is just under a third. In South America just over a quarter. In sub-Saharan Africa it is less than 1 percent. So there is plenty of room for growth. “
Maroulis estimates that there are now about 1.4 million subscription video-on-demand users in sub-Saharan Africa, a figure “we expect to grow to 2.4 million by 2026.” (Countries in northern Africa, including Algeria, Morocco, and Egypt, are typically grouped together with the markets of Europe and the Middle East.)
Digital TV Research, another London-based data breaker, is more bullish, estimating that there are already 5.1 million SVOD subscribers in sub-Saharan Africa and that their number will almost triple to just over 15 million by 2027.
Even the more optimistic numbers are a fraction of the streaming audience elsewhere. Netflix alone has 73 million users in North America and about 38 million in Latin America, a region with about half the population of sub-Saharan Africa.
The global investment in African content is part of a broader strategy from studios and streamers to replicate the successful Netflix model by producing local content for the local audience. Disney + has given the green light for a board of new European and Asian local language originals, including new series from France, Germany, South Korea, Japan and Indonesia. Amazon is already a major drama producer in India and Japan and has recently increased its involvement in Southeast Asia by opening an office in Singapore to coordinate licensing and production activities for the region. And WarnerMedia’s HBO Max doubles local language productions from its hubs in Europe, Asia and South America.
Africa is just part of this global expansion. And currently a relatively small portion.
“The SVOD market in sub-Saharan Africa in terms of revenue was around $ 107 million in 2021, which is not so much [given] a $ 40 billion North American market, “says Maroulis,” and, for example, Netflix’s investment in African content is still relatively small in the big picture. What they are doing is trying to establish a presence in Africa, so when the market picks up, they will be the standard service. “
So far, the bulk of international investment in African content goes to three countries: Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya, all of which have established film and television industries and large English-speaking populations.
“We have not seen many investments here, in Senegal or in West Africa yet,” says Pamela Diop, producer of Jean Luc Herbulot’s horror crime mash-up Salum, a Midnight Madness favorite at the Toronto Film Festival 2021 and the first project from Diop and Herbulot’s Dakar-based Lacme Studios. “But as the markets evolve, it might come.”
Abudu thinks it will.
“There’s been a shift in audience appetite and a shift, a realization from the studios and the movie screenings that not everyone is your typical white, blonde-haired viewer,” she says. “If streamers want these global subscribers, if they want our money, they have to deliver the content that this changing world wants.”
This story first appeared in the January 12 issue of the Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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