The Future of Streaming and Production Growth in Africa
“Is this the start of the golden age of African films?” an article in NewAfrican Magazine asks, and not without cause. The democratizing accessibility of production technology and the growing interest in global stories has led to a new wave of African content, along with the talent and film infrastructure to support it – and an audience eager to consume it.
Films like ‘Atlantics,’ ‘My Octopus Teacher,’ ‘Papicha,’ and ‘This is Not a Burial, it’s a Resurrection’ have entered and won international awards at film festivals including Cannes, TIFF, and Sundance.
The Nigerian film industry – nicknamed “Nollywood” – has now become one of the most prolific in the world, producing 2,500 films a year. And Afro-centric stories are being told in mainstream Hollywood films such as ‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,’ which has grossed over $800 million worldwide, ‘The Woman King,’ ‘The King’s Horseman,’ ‘Nanny,’ and upcoming projects like the animated series ‘Iwájú’ coming to Disney Plus in 2023.
This new wave of content has positioned the continent for continued, and inevitable, future success. “Africa is probably the next biggest frontier for content creators,” says Juliet Asante, CEO of the National Film Authority of Ghana.
The current state of viewership in Africa
On the African continent, most films aren’t watched theatrically. Despite a continent-wide population of 1.5 billion people, there are only 1,500 screens according to a recent UNESCO report. It’s estimated to be the lowest ratio in the world, with one screen for every 790,000 people. “We rely on our home audience to watch our films,” Ugandan producer, Semulema Daniel Katenda, recently told The Guardian.
That’s why the arrival of video-on-demand (VOD) has provided an organic home for a new wave of African entertainment – film and television – even if access is a work-in-progress. Due to this obstacle, the number of subscribers to streaming services are not comparable to other regions. “Streaming numbers can only rise as far as internet penetration can go,” explains Asante. Tony Maroulis, principal analyst for London-based Ampere Analysis, conveyed a similar sentiment to The Hollywood Reporter, reporting “[Streaming] penetration is very low. In sub-Saharan Africa, it’s less than 1 percent.”
That is changing, however, as network infrastructure continues to develop, and audiences continue to expect more local content – which streamers are looking to increasingly provide to increase their audience. “If you are able to showcase local content, then chances are that you’ll grow subscription numbers because viewers want to access content that they can be able to relate to,” says Timothy Owase, CEO of the Kenya Film Commission.
Growing the number of productions and streamers in African countries
For a long time, Nigeria and South Africa were the dominant film industries on the African continent. The latter alone generates $750 million a year; $220 million of that coming from foreign productions. But now, with the budding content boom underway, 31 countries are observing an increase in productions thanks to a rise in investments in local content.
The current leader is Showmax, owned by the Africa-based entertainment company MultiChoice. Launched in 2015, the streaming service is accessible in almost all of the continent’s countries and has been investing in original African films and series. Recent analysis has shown African films and series represent 40 percent of what users are watching on their platform.
Viola Davis and John Boyega in 'The Woman King' / SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT
US streaming companies like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Disney Plus are looking to follow in its footsteps. In addition to boosting their catalogues of local entertainment by obtaining licensing deals to stream content from Ghana, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, and Nigeria, American streamers are moving forward with original content as well.
Streamers like Netflix – which debuted its first African originals in 2020 – are making development deals with local creators and production companies, similar to those stateside made with Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes. These deals include the likes of John Boyega’s UpperRoom Productions, dedicated to non-English films set on the continent, and Mo Abudu’s Ebony Life Studios in Nigeria, which was behind the country’s first original Netflix series ('Blood Sisters'), and also has deals with the BBC, Sony Pictures Television, and AMC.
Individual projects are being financed too, in top markets – Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa – such as Netflix’s investing nearly $60 million USD in four productions in South Africa slated for 2022 and 2023.
We believe that Africa is one of the major creative centers for great storytelling that resonates around the world."
Of course, $60 million is modest compared to Netflix’s spend on North American content, but that’s partly by design, as the company and its competitors wait for streaming penetration to climb higher than 1 percent. “What they’re doing is trying to establish a presence in Africa so that when the market does take off, they’ll be the default service,” says Maroulis in The Hollywood Reporter.
Netflix is ahead of its competitors in that respect. However, others are not far behind. Amazon has signaled its ambitions by recently building up its local original development teams in South Africa and Nigeria. Disney Plus recently entered the market in six countries, and Paramount+ is launching in Africa in 2023; it’s likely that both will announce original content plans in the future.
As a result, the years ahead may very well realize the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers’ (FEPACI) belief that the industry – currently generating $5 billion in annual revenue – has the potential to bring in $20 billion.
Current challenges worth overcoming
There are some challenges to overcome before that achievement can happen. Infrastructure can be limited, with a low number of soundstages, as well as production and post-production facilities. Equipment can be expensive, and what limited crew there is, tend to not cross borders. What’s more, as we’ve seen in Latin America, the more local content streamers finance, the more existing resources can become strained and cause labor shortages.
As more dollars finance more local content, and build out local infrastructure in the process, international productions’ increased interest in using Africa as a shooting location can also meet hurdles as incentives remain rare on the continent. Northern countries like Mauritius and Morocco offer 30 and 20 percent rebates, respectively. South of the Sahara, South Africa stands out as a rare provider of incentives with 25 to 30 percent of qualifying expenditures.
Ini Dima Okojie in 'Blood Sisters' / Netflix
Countries like Ghana and Kenya, however, are looking to work with their governments to introduce incentives because of their importance. “By putting in place a film incentive package, we will enable more productions in the country. And we know the more production takes place in our country, the more benefits will accrue,” says Owase. Those benefits aren’t just economic, either. “When we have global productions taking place in our country, we give room to young filmmakers to access skills from the experienced practitioners who would be working on these big budget films from other countries.”
Many on the continent are aware there’s something of an uphill climb ahead. “Rome wasn’t built in a day. We will be getting there,” Dorothy Ghettba, Netflix’s Director of Series in Africa, told Variety. But the rewards of perseverance will be worth it. “We believe that Africa is one of the major creative centers for great storytelling that resonates around the world.”
Current changes in Streaming
At a time when Africa is approaching an inflection point in terms of broadband connectivity and affordability, and in the chase for scale in streaming, it’s the technology behind NBCUniversal’s Peacock that could be the additional boost needed for African SVOD service. Pan-African pay-tv operator MultiChoice announced on March 2nd that it will be relaunching its regional streamer Showmax with Peacock technology. NBCUniversal and the UK’s Sky Studios will take a 30% share in a new company that will redevelop and overhaul Showmax for African audiences.
Showmax has been feeling the intense pressure of streamers like Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV+ scooping up subscribers across the African market, while HBO Max is yet to launch, and Paramount is still working on a Paramount+ rollout for the continent. For Showmax, subscribers will now have access to an extensive premium content portfolio, bringing African audiences the best of local and international programming. For NBCUniversal and Peacock, it’s a strategic move to capture one of the last emerging markets still up for the taking.
This type of consolidation signals more opportunities and bigger budgets for African content producers in the near future.