An image from the film in black and white of a woman looking pensive, looking off to the side of the camera.

A still image from 'Mami Wata.'

Photo courtesy Sundance Film Institute.

Are Nigerian Cinemas Sabotaging the Theatrical Release of Sundance Winner ‘Mami Wata’?

What should have been a triumphant homecoming moment for the filmmakers and film enthusiasts alike turned into a series of disappointments as Mami Wata’s Nigerian debut has been marred by a lack of marketing efforts and technical difficulties impacting screenings.

Earlier this month, Nigerians headed to the cinema intent on watching CJ Obasi's Mami Wata on the big screen during its much-anticipated opening weekend. Buzz has been growing around the dazzling black-and-white film, ever since it became the first Nigerian movie to premiere at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Special Jury Prize for cinematography in the World Dramatic Competition in January. Mami Wata has since toured the world, gaining acclaim at various festivals.

Its debut in Nigeria should have been a triumphant homecoming moment for the filmmakers and film enthusiasts alike. But the way the film has been treated by movie theater chains and distributors has created a large amount of disappointment, and sparked conversations about how Nigerian cinemas seemingly undermine and sabotage box office performances of niche films – or those they believe won't make money because they are not splashy romantic comedies or big budget crime dramas, which are currently the rave of the moment.

Opening weekend

Mami Wata opened on September 8, 2023, with little fanfare, as the distributor, FilmOne Entertainment, made minimal marketing efforts outside of a press run it had helped Obasi and his team with towards the end of 2022. Typically, film promotion in Nigeria includes billboard advertisements, a splurge on digital channels, which sometimes involves getting influencers to promote the film, and a premiere that’s often loud and themed to make it an exciting event, as has been seen in recent years. For films deemed niche – that is arthouse pictures or indie films that have done festival rounds and gathered critical acclaim – press screenings often replace flashy premieres.

But Mami Wata did not get any of this. No press screenings, no premiere, no influencer marketing, nor any kind of notable digital marketing effort. Filmgoers knew it was coming to Nigeria because Obasi and his producing partner had constantly shared updates on social media. According to industry players, marketing like this is a core responsibility of distributors, and something that FilmOne has neglected and pushed onto producers for years.

FilmOne also couldn’t secure accessible, convenient showtimes for the Sundance winner, even though the company says the film presented an opportunity to support stories that push artistic boundaries. As Ladun Awobukun, FilmOne Entertainment’s General Manager, told OkayAfrica, “Mami Wata stood out to us early on, not only for its unique storytelling and creative artistry but also for its potential to break away from the typical commercial movie landscape.”

MAMI WATA Swiss Official Trailer | Trigon

It’s been seen in the past that when a distributor wants to support a film, they go all out. Certain Nollywood films seem to get every available location, with showtimes in prime hours. Awobukun, responding to concerns about limited screening locations, says that cinema scheduling decisions are influenced by audience demand and business projections, and ultimately rest on the exhibitors. “While we believe wholeheartedly in the film's quality and international recognition, cinema operators make decisions based on their assessment of market potential and profitability,” she told OkayAfrica.

For the film's opening week, FilmOne confirmed 41 cinema locations across the country, which represents about 60 percent of the total sites capable of showing the film — a number the distributor says is commendable because cinemas “took the risk in showing a black and white film.” While this seems innocent and fair on the surface, the showtimes reveal a different story. Mami Wata opened in a non-competitive period, with no tentpole film showing, yet the showtimes were either inconveniently early or late, with most sites showing it as early as noon, or between then and 4 p.m., which is during work hours — a calamity that has befallen similar films in the past.

“Technical issues”

Even worse, during the opening weekend, several filmgoers reported that upon arriving at the cinemas, attendants informed them that the film was not showing, citing inexplicable technical issues. Some attendants even claimed the film had already screened despite filmgoers arriving before the scheduled showtime.

The first alarm was raised by Anita Eboigbe, a film journalist and co-founder of the local film publication, In Nollywood, who expressed her disappointment on X (formerly known as Twitter), “A very shady thing is happening with the Mami Wata movie showtimes, and I’m usually calm, but not this time.” She continued: “There is only one screen showing the movie in the whole of Abuja. We got there this evening, and they said there are technical issues, so they can’t show it.”

Eboigbe requested to speak to the cinema’s manager, who couldn’t articulate the said technical issues but mentioned that another cinema (Silverbird in Jabi) in the capital city would show the movie. However, according to Motunrayo Ojo, a cinephile resident in Abuja, the film didn’t show at the Silverbird cinemas in Jabi when she arrived.

A similar experience occurred in Lagos at Silverbird Cinemas in Ikeja City Mall. Segun Odejimi, a marketing and communication professional, was told the film would not show due to “technical issues.” However, upon insisting on seeing the film, the issue was resolved within minutes.

FilmOne acknowledges these complaints and says that some of them were unpreventable. "Upon investigations and follow-up with the cinemas, some of the issues noticed by moviegoers were, in fact, infrastructural, which unfortunately is unavoidable in this terrain," Awobukun told OkayAfrica. "In the situations where it wasn’t, we angled for replacement shows to be given instead."

Interestingly, these infrastructural issues never come up when mainstream Nollywood or Hollywood films are showing, and as Odejimi experienced, when filmgoers insist, the fabled technical issues get sorted.

An ongoing predicament

FilmOne says it is engaging cinemas to address these issues; however, Mami Wata was removed from all Silverbird cinemas in the country the following week, even though most of the complaints came from there. It is an outcome that betrays the distributor’s words about engaging cinemas, and some critics feel, shows incompetence or sabotage.

This long-standing issue between exhibitors, distributors and Nigerian filmmakers who create anything other than the typical fare has persisted for over a decade. When the film critic Oris Aigbokhaevbolo went to see Kenneth Gyang’s Confusion Nawa in 2014, he was told the film was not showing without any decent explanation, despite it being on the schedule.

Over the years, it has been evident to local film industry players that niche films are often given limited showtimes scheduled during work hours. Even when filmgoers show up, they are frequently turned away and told there are technical issues or redirected to another film.

This practice by cinema operators, whether intentional or by negligence, negatively affects such films' first-week crucial box office performance, which then gives the cinemas reason to ascribe even more unfavorable showtimes in the following week, or remove the film altogether, as was the case with Mami Wata and Silverbird cinemas. Mami Wata’s opening weekend brought in an underwhelming 2.4 million naira. This paints an inaccurate picture of the acceptance of, and demand for, such films in Nigeria.

Ojo observed Genesis Cinemas, which has two locations in Abuja, doesn’t support niche Nigerian films except when they promote or distribute them. “I started noticing this foul play when I tried to watch Dinner at My Place, and they said they didn't have it, even though their website said otherwise. It became obvious when I went to watch Ile Owo, and the same thing happened. So, I began to notice a pattern,” she told OkayAfrica. Both of these films weren’t distributed by Genesis.

Supporting film bosses

Filmmakers are often silent due to fear of being targeted. A number of filmmakers have told OkayAfrica anecdotally that when they do speak out, the distributors and exhibitors shift the blame onto them, suggesting they should cast big-name actors or spend more money on marketing their films despite marketing being a significant part of the distributor’s responsibility.

A filmmaker who had experienced this treatment in the past, of less-than-ideal showtimes and attendants directing filmgoers away from their film, spoke to OkayAfrica anonymously to avoid persecution. They expressed displeasure to see this still happening in 2023 and had hoped the Nigerian film industry would have evolved beyond such self-sabotaging practices by now. “At the time it happened to me, it almost felt like there was a deliberate effort in trying to push [only] a certain kind of film,” they said. “Seeing it now, at a time that I feel like Nigerians have accepted all kinds of films, it’s really disappointing.”

As they added, “If a particular cinema chain really accepts to [exhibit] a film, then they should actually go all out to exhibit the film instead of not giving it the full access it deserves.”

OkayAfrica reached out to Obasi, who is, for now, choosing to stay focused on being grateful for the support that their film has received across the country from excited filmgoers. “Really thankful for all the love and reception in Nigeria. We do what we do cos we care about Nigerian cinema, and it’s future,” he tweeted a week ago.FilmOne, which remains the major distributor and exhibitor in the country, told OkayAfrica that it has “a strong commitment to promoting and supporting diverse stories in Nigeria,” and admits Mami Wata presented another opportunity to do so due to its unique storytelling and potential to break away from the typical commercial film landscape.

In recent years, the company has picked up arthouse films like Eyimofe and Juju Stories, which despite doing well internationally, suffered a similar fate of poor marketing, and even harsher cinema scheduling. It’s clear the appetite for a wider range of Nigerian films is there. A firmer commitment to supporting this from the likes of FilmOne would only benefit the local industry as a whole.