The premise of Squid Game, Netflix’s smash chart-topping series revolves around a contest where 456 individuals, all of whom are desperate for financial salvation get enticed with a too good to be true chance to win a whooping ₩45.6 billion prize (equivalent to $32.8 Million Dollars in today’s conversation rate). Unknown to these contestants, the seemingly childish games which serve as obstacles to the alluring grand prize turn out to be deadly and destructive.
Critically examining the acclaimed series, one might be permitted to observe that similar scenarios in Squid Games are at play in the interface between global streaming behemoth – Netflix and Africa’s biggest film industry – Nollywood.
Netflix first launched its services in Nigeria in 2016 after announcing its expansion into 130 countries. This news brought smiles to the faces of Nigerians for several reasons; for the filmmakers and stakeholders in the industry, this was the much-needed opportunity to get global eyes on their products; for indigenous viewers who had been jaded by the characteristic low budget Nollywood flicks, for them this was the opportunity for Nigerian movies to step up the production plate and rival the movie quality of their North American and European counterparts, as they had been subjected to halfhearted movies marketed and distributed by traders in Alaba Market, and Upper Iweka Road (where you can grab your copy NOW!); and finally for Nigerians in diaspora, this presented an opportunity for them to access local content readily and easily.
RED LIGHT, GREEN LIGHT
Six years into Netflix’s advent of Nigeria, its biggest global offering in the past year (2021) was not a Hollywood movie or series, it was Squid Game, a South Korean produced flick giving testament to Netflix’s goal of creating a global ecosystem of movies, series and documentaries that could cut across cultures, backgrounds and geographical limitations.
Similar to contestants in Squid Game, Nollywood was ushered into Netflix with optimism and hope for a partnership that would better the Nigerian movie industry, the Netflix Journey took us from first offerings such as “Ebonylife’s Fifty” to Netflix acquiring Genevieve Nnaji’s 2018 film “Lionheart” and finally culminating into the setting up an office in Nigeria circa 2020, but similar to the Series; the adventure has come with its predictable and unpredictable twists and turns.
On quality, Netflix has dropped the ball. It was the hope of the Nigerian audience that the dearth of quality in Nollywood flicks would be filtered away by the lofty standards of the film streaming platform but alas Nigerian movies that make it to Netflix are characterized by repetitive storylines, predictable character arcs, over reliance on comedic tropes and a sprinkle of good cinematography, costuming and popular Nollywood faces giving the reputation of style without substance.
Recent releases such as Chief Daddy 2 has left the Nigerian audience head scratching and wondering if indeed Netflix still places a premium on quality when licensing Nigerian films. Unfortunately, this has piled on to the jadedness of Nigerian viewers, who are likely to be more excited for foreign releases such as Money Heist, Ozark, Bridgerton and the likes over anything Nollywood is willing to offer.
While Nigeria remains a leader in output on the continent it is arguable that currently no Nigerian movie or series on the platform have been able to set or rival the artistic standards in cinema like its Ghanaian counterpart Burial of Kojo or be relatable and engaging as South Africa’s Blood and Water.
On global reach, Nollywood has failed to meet the mark, none of its releases have been able to break continental boundaries and achieve cross cultural acclaim like its music counterpart has achieved with afrobeats. This is not a hard concept to fathom, as objectively speaking there are no Nigerian series that can compete in quality with global chart toppers on the platform such as The Throne, Outlander etc. To be a global competitor, Nollywood will have to produce something out of the box, comparative to how Squid Game separated itself and broke the shackles connected to the stereotypical South Korean dramas, characterized by ill-lucked romance, attractive actors, dichotomy of rich and poor characters and juvenile acting.
Despite the chaotic sequence of events in Squid Game, there were feel good moments that softened the tragic arc of the series; the evolution of the friendship turned sisterhood between 067 and 240 stood out as a heart warmer almost in similar vein how the Nigerian audiences were joyed when the first Incarnation of King of Boys hit the streaming platform, majority of Nigerians had rarely experienced robust and relatable storytelling told through deeply layered characters. Movies like Oloture, Sylvia, lionheart, Citation have also attempted at varying degrees to inspire same feelings of glee and satisfaction among the Nigerian audience who crave for these to be the norm rather than exceptions when it comes to Nigeria’s representation on Netflix.
After the naivete laced optimism at the onset of the games and the tribulations that followed after, contestant 456 emerged victorious and went home with the grand prize. This is the hope and best-case scenario the Nigerian audience holds for both Netflix and Nollywood. It is hoped that in the long run quality flicks on Netflix and not just mostly out of context Twitter/Instagram memes will be the biggest exporter of the Nigerian movie industry to the global audience. This is a victory Nigeria deserves.
To achieve cinematic excellence, Netflix would have to solve the dilemma between revenue or quality. It is noteworthy that despite the widespread negative acclaim for Chief Daddy 2, it shot to the top of the Nigerian Netflix Charts, while its predecessor rose to no.3 simultaneously. The onus is on Netflix to place a premium on quality and not just solely focus on possible revenue that talked about movies will bring.
Netflix needs to give spotlight to Nigerian creatives that will redefine standards and excellence in the motion picture sphere, because failure to up the quality of its releases will have Netflix facing the same fate as the Alaba/Upper Iweka and Cinema era where Nollywood survived on indigenous variants of slapstick comedy and good cinematography respectively while sacrificing overall quality on the altar of revenue.
If Nollywood and Netflix fail to step up, audiences will be left sighing with disappointment as they did when number 456 decided to return to the games despite striking gold first time.
Months after the draft of this article was completed, Netflix announced and premiered its first original Nigerian series, Blood Sisters.
Anticipate Burble Media’s review of the chilling thriller, where we appraise whether Netflix’s premier original offering achieves the cinematic excellence required to propel Nollywood to international acclaim.