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.
Although Netflix has often cited the market rate as the reason for that figure, Nigerian filmmakers have argued that if the platform intends to show Nigerian films to a global audience, it should pay global rates for it.
Netflix didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Two of Effiong’s previous films—Up North and The Set Up—were licensed by Netflix. He began making The Black Book in 2021. The film stars Nollywood veteran Richard Mofe Damijo as a former secret military agent whose child is framed and subsequently murdered by corrupt police officers. The film follows Damijo’s character as he embarks on a convoluted journey to wrestle justice from the hands of the perpetrators and dismantle a rotten institution that he helped build.
Ade Laoye plays a supporting role as a budding journalist who is on a quest to uncover the truth behind her mother’s murder and finds her life intersecting with Damijo’s. “After reading the script, I was excited about the story, the potential cast, and his vision for the film,” Laoye says. “It was clear to me early on that this wasn’t ‘just another project.’”
With smaller budgets, Nollywood filmmakers, no matter how ambitious, have often had to compromise on their vision. To bring his dream to life, Effiong had to find unconventional routes to fundraise. He reached out to the colleagues and friends who worked in the tech industry and treated the process as though he was raising money for a tech startup, drawing up documents and making sure to provide weekly updates on the project.
“Investing in The Black Book was driven by a belief in the story and the potential impact it could have both within and outside Nigeria,” says Eweniyi, a cofounder of Piggyvest and one of the investors in the film. “The project presented an opportunity to support a movie that was rich, engaging, and culturally significant.”
Eweniyi says Effiong’s fundraising model is a template for future cooperation between the Nigerian tech and film sectors, especially with the allure of the quick returns Nollywood offers. One of the investors in The Black Book, Volition Capital, recently launched a $20 million investment fund dedicated to financing “African creative projects.”
“The tech industry in Nigeria is burgeoning, and collaborations between tech and the entertainment industry, particularly Nollywood, will open up new levels of content creation, distribution, consumption, and most importantly, quality,” Eweniyi says. “The synergy between tech and entertainment is excellent for both sides, honestly.”
Access to a fuller budget gave Effiong and his crew more time with the script and the actors more time to prepare for their roles. It also allowed the production to use higher-quality equipment. The result is a visually slick movie, based around a story that uses contemporary political concerns—such as police brutality and administrative corruption—as the backdrop for personal narratives.
“Nollywood needs more money across the board, but the key thing is more money in the right hands,” says Okechukwu, the writer. “The Black Book is proof that we can make a globally successful film if we give an excellent producer a great budget. The global streamers now understand what they stand to gain from a million-dollar Nollywood title.”
Effiong says his ambition was always to make a movie that resonated beyond Nigeria. “Africa is seen as the last frontier, and when things are commissioned in Africa they’re like, ‘Yeah this is to grow the African market.’ But that’s not where I’m at,” he says. “From day one I always said that The Black Book is a Nigerian film meant for the entire world … I’m not just making a film for Africa. I’m making a film because I want to make a film for the world. I want to make a film that the world needs to see.”
Nelson C.J. is a Lagos-based writer. He is a columnist at Teen Vogue, and contributes to Time, the New York Times, Rolling Stone and other publications.