Is Vertical Integration Killing the Nigerian Film Industry? Mami Wata and the Failing Structure of Nigerian Showbiz

With Nollywood’s increasing global appeal, it is necessary to implement the appropriate structures that allow films and television products reach their greatest potential given artistic input and the punishment of antitrust operations.

In 2018, Nigerian filmmaker, C.J. ‘Fiery’ Obasi, started his crowdfunding campaign for the film, Mami Wata. Obasi’s production company, Fiery Film, announced the campaign on their website on 21 May 2018. Though the goal was $120,000, the film was only able to raise $1,208. Five years later, the film has travelled to several film labs, has been crowned at Sundance for the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award in Cinematography, been chosen as Nigeria’s official selection for the 2024 Oscars and toured ten countries. Its success has allowed it to secure global releases in several countries across the Americas and Europe (including the United Kingdom). However, in the film’s home country, Nigeria, a scheming engagement is preventing audiences from ever viewing it. The film is being handicapped by the realities of vertical integration, poor policies and limited purchasing power.  


C.J. Obasi rose to prominence with his zombie apocalypse film, Ojuju, in 2014. His zero-budget debut feature won the award for Best Nigerian Film at Africa International Film Festival and Obasi received the Trailblazer of the Year award the following year at the Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice Awards for the film Ojuju. Since his debut, C.J. Obasi has worked with his longtime producer and wife, Oge Obasi, whose expertise expands multiple Nollywood blockbusters including Kunle Afolayan’s The Figurine and the renowned October 1. The Obasis’ intentionality and resilience followed them through several film labs including the prestigious OUAGA Film Lab (OFL) and incubators in order to access funding and distribution opportunities. One mesmerizing note of intentionality Obasi mentioned in a 2023 interview with ScreenDaily was how their recce in 2016 had ruled out the fishing villages in Nigeria and finally got the idea to move to Benin Republic four years later. 

Mami Wata’s success is one that has quite literally toured the world. Beginning from Sundance in January 2023 and travelling to FESPACO, Africa’s most prestigious film festival and gathering, where it won three more awards. With a total of 15 viewings across Africa, Europe, North America, South America and Australia, Mami Wata has had one of Nigeria’s most prominent festival runs in recent years and with its global release, should have been on track to win majorly at the box office.  

Whilst Nigerian film enthusiasts had been awaiting Mami Wata’s release for years, some filmmakers and viewers took to X (formerly known as Twitter) to express how they had been prevented from watching the film due to ‘technical issues’. The audience members have also mentioned the film had no promotional paraphernalia, not even posters in view. With the film having valid showing times in 39 cinemas across the country, consideration of possible foul play and sabotage lingers. 

One user on X revealed that ‘Mami Wata only has one show time in Jabi Lake Mall. Quite certain Genesis cinema will not even show it at all’. At the Silverbird Cinemas, the film had only one slot for showing at midday 1:50 pm. The same user recounted their experience at the same cinema in 2022 with Dara Olaitan’s Ile Owo (2022).  

On this social media discourse, Nigerian film critic, Oris Aigbokhaevbo through his platform on X, @Catchoris, also weighed in on his experience saying 

Shame. 10 years later, Nigeria’s cinemas are working same tricks. In 2014/15, I went to see Confusion Na Wa by Kenneth Gyang. They said it wasn’t showing but couldn’t explain why, even as it was on the schedule. Same thing is happening in 2023. Crazy! 

The director of the film, Kenneth Gyang, responded to his tweet stating he had also been prevented from seeing the film but was told a different lie: 

In Abuja, I was told there’s no tickets because it was sold out. I happily sneaked in to check my sold-out film only to see an empty theatre. They weren’t showing it, and we weren’t the only ones they said ‘sold out’ to. It’s hard for indies. 


Spectators online contemplate the reasoning for this unfortunate occurrence of obfuscation. Perhaps it is a national phenomenon across several independent exhibitors or, ‘jealousy’, ‘corruption’ and ‘cabal mentality’. These have been laid explanations for the handling of independent film in Nigeria. Observing the Paramount Consent Decrees of 1948 in Hollywood (US), a phenomenon could be proposed: vertical integration.  

Vertical integration is a business strategy where a company owns and operates multiple levels of the supply chain. It could be from acquisition (raw materials) to production, distribution, compliance and more. While the purpose is to control business function, efficiency and profit maximization, it ultimately cuts out competition and limits free markets often leading to monopolies and fascism.  

Vertical Integration in the film industry works in different ways. Typically, it goes from the purchase of a script. In some instances, large companies can have in-house writers and development executives who churn out content ideas. After the script is perfected, the film is then produced. Distribution and marketing are the most important parts of the film business. If you cannot show it anywhere, how do you make a profit? Rather than searching for distributors, these production companies typically have ‘sister companies’ or are part of a ‘group’ entity which simply requires the film to be engaged in another department within the same company. In complete fashion, the ‘group’ is likely to have physical spaces for exhibitions and cinemas. They are able to pick the perfect screening slots for their films and work effectively with data from previous films (local and international) which filmmakers can hardly ever be privy to. With the onset of streaming, it is likely that these distributors also stand as aggregators between filmmakers and streamers. As such, they participate in all aspects of filming right to the end. On the smaller scale as with younger filmmakers, it simply involves the filmmaking process and their participation in film reviewing or critiquing or some sort of small-scale exhibition within restaurants. Vertical integration is a great business model to scale reasonably and generate more profit. Notably, vertical integration exists beyond the entertainment industry. Companies like Amazon, Apple, NVIDIA, Samsung, Zara, and Alibaba engage in this practice. By controlling more than one stage of the supply chain, a business is actively participating in vertical integration. 

The Nigerian film industry is currently riddled with vertical integration. The big studios produce content and are also active distributors, sales agents and exhibitors in the industry. The entertainment pipeline also involves producers who double as reviewers, critics or media at the same time. Players participate in all stages and segments of the industry partly due to hustle culture and the rest due to accessibility. As such, monopolies and alliances are born with priority and preference given to some in-house studio films over independent films.  

In 2023, Business Day reported that Nigeria contributed roughly $66,000 or N59.2 million to the Barbie (2023) revenue. Although the headline describes it as Nigerians ‘splashing’ money, for a film that grossed over $1 billion, Nigeria’s input is a mere trickle. For Nigeria to have contributed $66,000 is telling of the current purchasing power and state of the country’s socio-economic landscape.  

A low-budget global standard film in Nigeria would cost about N30 million and would typically go up to N70 million. Bigger spenders in the industry have budgets that run as high as N250 million and in the unicorn case of feature directorial debutant, Editi Effiong, about $1m for the movie, The Black Book. It is Nollywood’s second-largest budget to date. If the certainty of a sale to Netflix or Prime Video was not present, these films could run at a great loss. This was seen with Biyi Bandele’s adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun in 2013. The film reportedly had an investment between $8 million to $10 million dollars and was only able to make $2.1 million back at the box office. 

In July 2023, Fitch Solutions predicted that Nigeria’s short-term economic growth outlook was dim due to rapidly increasing living costs following the removal of fuel subsidies, which has led to a significant increase in fuel prices. This crippled the purchasing power of millions of Nigerians, with inflation at a 17-year high of 22.4 per cent as of May 2023. The report also projected that real GDP growth in Nigeria will slow to 2.7 per cent in 2023, down from 3.3 per cent in 2022.  

Additionally, the International Trade Administration reported in 2023 that Nigeria’s debt-to-revenue ratio will rise to 123 per cent in 2023 and 160 per cent by 2027, indicating a further reduction in the country’s purchasing power. This drastic decline in the purchasing power of many Nigerians has continued to manifest in the movie industry. For context, in 2019, the biggest film in the world, Avengers: Endgame, grossed $1.3million in Nigeria. Conversely, in 2023, the biggest film in the world, Barbie, grossed only $66,000. A complicated association of political instability, economic sabotage, inflation and removal of fuel subsidy has brought Nigerians and their purchasing power to their knees.  


The top 20 7-day film release report for Nigeria’s box office shows how low film revenue can be for local content. With 18 weeks in cinema, Atunwa had made N5.4 million. Considering this amount will still be split between the exhibitor, distributor and filmmaker, it is almost impossible for the filmmaker to break even (to no fault of any party given the business model of exhibition). While cinemas have snacks and advertising to fall back on, the filmmakers are largely at the mercy of ticket prices especially if they were unable to secure grants or product placements for their film.  

While the presence of streamers has allowed some dependency and safety net for producers, there is still the need to ensure a return on investment. While distributors remain players in the content creation space, vertical integration in Nigeria will continue to hurt independent filmmakers. 

In Hollywood, the practice of vertical integration was banned by lawmakers in 1948 through the Paramount consent decrees. These decrees were in effect for 72 years and were recently (in August 2020) overruled by a New York federal judge. The reason was to prevent antitrust administration and monopolies stating that the ban on vertical integration never affected studios like Disney and so in fairness and to maintain competitive markets, the ban was removed. 

With Film One Distribution (a part of Film One Group) as the official distributor of Mami Wata, the duty of its performance falls on the company. Since its creation, the company’s focus has been on wholesome entertainment and hospitality. Today, Film One Group engages in distribution, production and exhibition in the film industry. In 2017, Kingsley Jerimiah reported for the Guardian that ‘Poor customer service is killing businesses in Nigeria

Poor customer service can easily be extended to poor partnerships and contracts. Considering the ill-treatment of Mami Wata by cinema houses, it would be expected that there would be some sort of accountability or outrage on their part if they did the needful. Since the outrage by audiences on X and accusations from filmmakers, the company has not given statements or tried to make amends for the ill viewing. 

While several irregularities plague the Nigerian film industry, it is without a doubt that Mami Wata reopens a conversation on Nigeria’s rejection of indie films to a global audience. While the complaints about indie film distribution are not new, the problem has finally met its match in the Obasis’ film. The social media awareness of Mami Wata’s cinema runs in Nigeria is that it has allowed Nigerians understand why the same type of films are constantly being made. It is not that there aren’t films being made, but some distributors are purposefully blocking the showing of independent films.  

For the past eight years, many top-grossing local films have been related to acquiring, spending/flaunting (illicit) money or brawls. Nigerian cinema has been captured by grandiose tales of grassroots espionage, one percentile living, humorous family quarrels, kidnapping, ritual killing and of course the ever-trendy Japa syndrome. While art imitates life and vice versa, there is an ever-constant character that lingers in Nollywood films irrespective of present trends. 

In the same breath as condemning the sabotage of independent films, a location manager, Shawn [real name redacted] recalls his time spent working on the film. He had stated that before the film was selected to be shot in Benin Republic, he had been contacted to work with the Obasis. He stated that to date he has yet to receive any compensation for the work done prior. For Shawn, Nollywood is a dog-eat-dog structure with one person a villain and a victim at the same time in different stories. Shawn’s story is one that is quite similar to the one that echoed in 2022 through the #HorribleBossesInNollywood trend on X (formerly Twitter). Several independent workers and artists had come forward revealing they were not compensated, were assaulted or uncredited among other ills. The exposé ultimately gave light to a network of actors who primarily work to their personal favour or the favours of those they deem ‘worthy’ of it. Compensation, credit, due diligence and proper channels are a luxury and not a right in Nollywood; a reality that can easily be extrapolated to the general Nigerian experience.  

With the recent triumph of Funke Akindele’s A Tribe Called Judah (2023), the first film to hit and surpass a billion Naira box office mark, a clearer perspective is given to this case. A Tribe Called Judah was so successful that it was frequently sold out. Exhibitors gave the film priority and, in some locations, increased ticket prices after two weeks in. The film was a result of Funke Akindele’s mastery of film art and film business. Akindele holds the top three spot for highest-grossing films in Nigeria. Her success is propelled by three decades of on-screen excellence and an entertaining Instagram feed. A Tribe Called Judah’s success was one that tricked down to other films showing at that time as viewers who arrived at sold-out screen times waited or opted for other films.  

Nigerian marketing is one that requires consistent social media promotions, humour, buga and excessive dancing. The marketing success of the film can be traced to the excessive social media campaigns by Akindele, her crew, cast and an army of fans—not to mention the fan meets where celebrities ushered viewers to buy tickets to the film at the beginning of its release. 

While Mami Wata is a festival season success, it is not malicious to point out that the average Nigerian did not—and still does not—know about it. No product is ever successful without some customers being aware and giving up their money for it. Perhaps Mami Wata suffered a fate of marketing inaction or perhaps the filmmakers simply wanted enough theatrical viewing time in order to be the country’s official submission at the Oscars.  

The failure of Mami Wata at the Nigerian box office may have been averted considering how much Nigerians support citizens who have represented them proudly internationally. Leading with the Sundance win, an appropriate social media campaign could have been created and possibly giving exhibitors some confidence in the film and extending its viewership and showing times.  

While Nollywood has grabbed global attention, it will require continued structure and fair participation to break out as a global offering. Hindering independent films, antitrust operations and non-compensated labour are surely ways to stunt growth. In January 2024, Prime Video announced that it was downsizing its Africa and Middle East operations, limiting one of the ‘safety nets’ in Nigerian filmmaking. It becomes central now more than ever for associations, guilds and lawmakers to tackle antitrust operations and non-compensated labour in order to ensure proper structure in Nollywood and for filmmakers and marketers to truly collaborate for the success of films so Nollywood is not left behind in a world of ‘global films’

***Update: An earlier version of this essay stated that Genesis Cinemas is the official distributor of Mami Wata. However, this has been updated to reflect that Film One Distribution is the official distributor.

The views, thoughts, and opinions published in The Republic belong solely to the author and are not necessarily the views of The Republic or its editors. We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected].