At a time when the coronavirus is wreaking havoc on businesses around the world, the film industry in Nigeria’s mainly Muslim north is going from strength to strength.
The region’s movie machine – dubbed “Kannywood” after its largest city Kano – has become the dominant source of entertainment for West Africa’s 80 million Hausa speakers.
Since springing up in 1992 with just seven production companies, the industry has grown to include 502 production outfits and 97 editing studios.
It now employs more than 30,000 people, according to the Kano chapter of the Motion Pictures Practitioners Association of Nigeria.
While Kannywood films have the same themes of love, revenge and betrayal as those churned out by the prolific Nollywood film industry in the predominantly Christian south, the content must adhere to strict Islamic rules.
Northflix, Kannywood’s online streaming platform, has seen its client base soar since authorities imposed lockdowns to contain the coronavirus pandemic in March.
Its subscriber base of 40,000 has nearly doubled, while revenue has tripled, CEO and co-founder Jamil Abdussalam told AFP news agency.
‘Coronavirus has been a blessing’
“Coronavirus has been a blessing to us business-wise, despite the disruptions it has caused to the global economy,” he said.
“It was not by chance, but a result of a conscious and concerted business strategy”.
Kabiru Sufi, a Kano-based economist who follows trends in Kannywood, attributed the success of streaming platforms to their astute business sense and technology.
Abdussalam said Northflix formerly used the pay-per-view system but quickly switched to flat-rate subscriptions after the virus emerged in Asia and Europe, knowing that it “would reach all corners of the world”.
The fee is just 1,500 naira ($4) a month in addition to subscribers’ smartphone and internet costs.
The lockdown, which saw cinemas, hotels, bars and other recreational outlets shut down, was a boon for Northflix as Nigerians turned to streaming their favourite movies.
That opportunity also came as producers were desperately seeking an alternative market for their films with cinemas and DVD shops shuttered.
Northflix was the answer.
“It was a lifesaver for film producers who would not have had the avenue of making money from their movies,” said Kano-based filmmaker Abdulkarim Mohammed.
Subscribers have stuck to the platform despite the easing of the lockdown, according to Abdussalam, because of the convenience it offers as well as the fact that DVDs can no longer be found on the streets.
The new business environment has challenges, both old and new.
Nigerian telecommunications services are notoriously poor, with frequent signal disruptions, coupled with exorbitant data costs that affect online-based firms.
But Northflix has been coping, the owners say.
“With a single [reception signal] bar, you can watch a movie without disruption, it doesn’t freeze and our network is capable of buffering the video,” Abdussalam said.
Other issues include censorship, criticism on religious grounds and piracy.
Muslim scholars and government officials say the platform promotes foreign values by mimicking Hollywood and Bollywood productions at the expense of the regional Hausa culture.
The industry has also come under state-imposed restrictions and scrutiny filmmakers say are killing creativity.
Under the law, every film must be cleared by the censorship board, which requires strict adherence to Islamic injunctions, including a ban on touching between men and women. Violators are usually sanctioned.
But Northflix’s location in the capital Abuja puts it beyond the jurisdiction of the Kano censoring agency.
“It has helped us bypass the restrictions,” said Sani Danja, a leading Kannywood actor and producer.