Although I focus largely on Africa’s music business and law topics on this blog, my foray into the African entertainment space is a result of my interest and passions in fashion and film. That interest extends to my legal representation of clients in those specific creative sectors, and also to my personal interest as a creative to tell African inspired legal stories. I have in fact taken film courses, and I am currently learning the practical aspect of television and film production.
Accordingly, let me take you to 2006 when I was producing a Nollywood ‘Women in Film’ panel in Los Angeles in behalf of a non-profit organization called Nollywood Foundation. Nollywood, Nigeria’s movie industry, is said to be the third largest film industry in the world. I was responsible for finding sponsors, determining the makeup of the speakers and moderating the panel, among other things. The panelists/speakers I chose included Nollywood A-list actor Genevieve Nnaji and film director Ego Boyo, who was at the time, I believe, one of a few women directors in Nollywood.
During my actual moderation of the panel, I recall asking Nnaji where she saw herself a few years down the line in the film business. She immediately responded with, “I want to be a director”. She explained she had always wanted to make films and will do so. There was something about the way Nnaji said she wanted to be a director that created a complete silence in the room and stayed memorable for me. Fast forward over a decade later, she is that director that she said she wanted to be and Netflix has just bought the global streaming rights to her new movie Lion heart.
I am aware many practitioners within and outside Nollywood are interested and aspire to broker similar deals, so her deal forms the thrust of the rest of my discussion. Below are the basics you need to know if you are interested in following Nnaji’s path:
1. Netflix is one of the largest streaming video on demand (internet streaming) companies providing television and movie content.
2. Netflix has an $8 billion orginal production budget, has a global outlook, and is looking to acquire global rights from content producers so , according to it, “everybody gets the same great experience.” The company evaluates the brand strength of its content providers especially in markets where it is still relatively unknown, like Nigeria.
3. Netflix began its shift to securing global rights for content in 2015. At that time, it met much resistance from media companies, especially American companies, that were used to selling only regional rights.
4. While Netflix has had prior licensing and sub-licensing relationships with Nigerian streaming companies like IROKO TV, and networks like Ebony TV, this is the first time it has acquired an original series from Nigeria.
5. Netflix continues to acquire content from networks, studios, filmmakers etc. globally, but now faces steep competition from others including Disney who used to have a licensing deal with Netflix but is now launching its own streaming platform.
6. Nnaji’s deal was brokered by France based MPM Premium, a primarily international sales company, which itself is a merger of MPM Films and Premium Films.
7. Lion heart is directed by Genevieve Nnaji and written by Nnaji, Chinny Onwugbenu, Ishayo Bako, Emil B. Garuba, and C.J. Obasi. It is also produced by The Entertainment Network (T.E.N), a company co-owned by Nnaji and Onwugbenu.
8. Nnaji, according to the interviews she has granted so far, one republished below, self-funded the movie. This is a particularly important point and often a distinction with Nollywood versus Hollywood. Nigerians with their enterprising spirit, do not wait for a film to be funded by investors. They often bootstrap their own funds including from family and friends, shoot, and market their movies. Of course there has been much discourse whether Nigerians should follow Hollywood’s business model of first securing finance, and ensuring the marketability of a movie before making it.
I think there is room for diverse business models. I also think the Hollywood business model often kills dreams and the entrepreneur spirit, and yields far more flopped movies at the box office than the industry and its professionals care to admit. So, I lean more towards the Nigerian model, with a caveat that its value chain and infrastructure can and must continually improve.
9. For the Lion heart deal, there have been speculations that Netflix purchased the movie because of Nnaji’s pre-existing relationships with a Nigerian executive at Netflix. Let’s be clear, if a movie can’t sell, Netflix, regardless of how many Nigerians it employs, will be the least interested in the rights acquisition of that movie. Netflix is driven by metrics, brand recognition, among other factors, to guide its purchasing decisions. It is now in the Africa market, it has existing relationships with telecommunications companies that gives it immediate access to potential users, and there is a monetary case to be made for an acquisition from a globally recognized movie industry and one of its A-list actresses, Nnaji.
10. For Nnaji, name dropping that she has a global streaming distribution rights deal with Netflix is a good thing because it gives her leverage for negotiatons with future content buyers of her works. Netflix has a great reach i.e. it is in 190 countries and has over 118 million subscribers.
In addition, Nnaji had complete creative control in creating her movie before selling it to Netflix. This most likely means she did not compromise the Nigerian/African story she wanted to tell.
11. Also, for Nnaji, she has her foot in the door with Netflix, and depending on how she nurtures the relationship, she can broker even more deals, and one where Netflix provides the production finance for her projects, she still has as much creative control as she wants, although she may have to give up some ownership of her work.
12. Speaking of ownership, depending on how Nnaji negotiated her deal, she may still have complete ownership rights to her Lion heart movie. If this is the case, it means Netflix does not own the copyright in her original work. They are merely distributing the work, and she has the right to license the work via the media and territories not covered in her deal. The problem for her, however, is that many international distributors and TV networks may decline in such acquisition if Netflix is already streaming in their respective countries.
13. Other issues Nnaji has to worry about, and you may too if you decide to broker a similar deal, is the term of the distribution contract, deal terms can range from 5 to 15 years. She will also have to concern herself, depending on the leverage she had in her negotiations, on her input in the distribution process (publicity included), revenue, distribution fee, deductions, accounting etc.
All in all, I believe this is a step in the right direction for Nigeria/Africa, and the Nollywood ecosystem.
In the meantime, if you want an idea of what a Netflix distribution license agreement looks like, see a copy attached to the $1.2 billion lawsuit filed in 2016 by Relativity Media against Netflix here. The parties settled their dispute in August 2018.