Nollywood: The price of becoming a star


Sleazy happenings befalling new entrants

It is great to dream of stardom, walking the red carpets, adorning choice apparels, cornering juicy endorsements deals. Here are some ugly facts, no one would tell you about clinching fame. The good story is that they are surmountable, according to NGOZI EMEDOLIBE.

Let us call her Mary Joseph. She has this fiery passion about launching a successful career in the film industry called Nollywood. She thinks she has prepared herself by going to the University of Port Harcourt to earn a degree in Theatre Arts, after four years of intense study. After her National Service in Abuja, she moved to Lagos, the headquarters of entertainment in Nigeria, with the hope that in the next couple of months, she would have become a household name in the industry.

The first few months were quite memorable for her. With referrals, she came in contact with a lot of big names in the industry. But that hardly availed her any role in spite of the series of auditions she was attending. For days unending, she would leave her sister’s apartment in Ogba, an area in Lagos to come to Surulere, where most of the auditions usually hold. It was when she met another aspiring actress, Jacinta Ken, that she understood the basic fact that the film industry had a language, an attitude and style. “It is not about talent and diction alone, you must let them know you have ‘everything’ it takes,” Jacinta told Mary.

“Like what?” Mary asked with naivety.

“For instance, you won’t get a role when you are wrapped up like this, looking like a Catholic nun. You must prove to them that you want to do show business. There is the show and the business”, Jacinta told her, and it began to sink in. “Your attire gets you the first role, which is looking appealing to the audition panel.”

Although Mary Joseph has a strict Christian background, she decided to try a body-hugging outfit to the next audition. She wore a mini skirt that exposed her thighs, and a velvety blouse that highlighted her cleavages. This appeared like a game-changer when she was ushered into the audition arena. Her ‘grace’ seemed to have obsessed the director.

“What is your name?” he asked her.

She told him

“You are the kind of person I need for this role. Where have you been all this while? You have the face, figure and diction. I am going to have you play the lead role, but you will have to meet me at my hotel room”, he scribbled something in a paper and passed across to Mary. “That will be all for now”.

“What about the audition? I thought I would be given a script to read or something”, Mary was gesticulating to prove she could act.

“I have heard you talk; I have watched you move. I am the director of the film. You have the role, but you must see me later in the day”.

The first thing that hit Mary Joseph on hearing the director’s request was sexual harassment. After narrating her experiences to her friend Jacinta, she told her that was just one of the basic prices every upcoming actress who wants to make it in every entertainment industry-be it Nollywood or Hollywoood must encounter.

“It is just for the meantime, by the time you become a real star, nobody will give you such proposals. But for now you need them to become that”

In reality a great percentage of intending artistes in the industry face this kind of challenge before their break. But for fear of being blacklisted from getting roles in the industry by producers, they avoid talking about it. This is why every actress denies ever experiencing this.

How does this happen in Nollywood? John Okafor fondly called Mr. Ibu paints a picture. According to him, “For instance, I know an actress, a decent girl at that who wanted to pursue acting but her father disinherited her, because he went to a hotel where they were having an audition and saw his daughter there! The man was mad. He could not understand which career someone will be pursuing in a hotel that is not Hotel Management. It annoys me when I hear that this government or that has given some amount to actors. Please let government not give them again. Instead government should concentrate on providing infrastructures that would make the business of movie-making thrive. With all the money they have collected, actors do not have a place where they can stay as office. That is why actors move from one hotel to another. When they want to hold auditions, they go to a hotel. That is the reason why people think actors are not very serious people, because the people have a way of reasoning when they see someone in a hotel from morning till night. Government should strive and provide some things like Artistes’ Village all around the country, where the business of art could be transacted. There could be cinemas and studios there, so that people in that locality can get all their production needs in one arena. This idea of moving from one hotel to another is causing pain for a lot of people.” So many unreported incidents of rape have happened at such audition grounds.

At the Lagos state chapter of the Actors Guild of Nigeria, Victor Osuagwu, its former chairman admitted that the rising cases of rape in the name of auditions was a concern for his guild. “The reality is that it will not be easy for the new actors to attract as much patronage as the known ones, until they have come to certain levels in their careers. But what we are trying to do is make sure that they are not exploited in going about their search for jobs. Before we came in so many things were going on, and people just rented hotel rooms and begin to do auditions there. But we have come in and stamped our feet against it. Today there is a task force monitoring such demeanour and if we get hint of that kind of exploitation, we swing into action.”

Investigations however revealed that some of the producers who usually come into the industry with such bogus auditions where vulnerable new actresses are exploited are often taking advantage of the fact that there is not law regulating the practice of film profession in Nigeria.

An interesting scenario was the case of one David Abakpa, who claimed to have come in from United States of America with a bogus film project called Eagle Combat, whose audition held at the Sheraton Hotels, Ikeja. At the auditions, he raised the bar by promising to pay artiste fees that were not realisable by industry standards at the time. While artistes were getting N5000 for extra roles, Abakpa’s project had pegged its fees at an unprecedented N50,000! But the whole project would be exposed as a hoax a few months later with accusations of fraud, aside the emotional uproar that also set two actresses Eucharia Anunobi and Tina Amuziam against each other.

Although at the guild levels, there are regulations as regards who could practice what in the industry, there are no laws backing up such in the industry. According to Steve Ajebo, who was part of the industry professionals called in to draft the Motion Picture Practitioners’ Council bill (MOPPICON Bill), the passage will enhance the industry and protect people from exploitation. “For now people operate anyhow because there are no restrictions. That is why some people will come in under the guise that they are Nollywood people and do whatever they like. Some people, who claim to be Nollywood, have never seen a camera in their lives. They just come into the industry and register with the guild and begin to do all sorts of vices in the name of the industry.”

This is just one aspect of the story.

While the industry has been accused of championing story lines that have to do with voodoo, investigations also revealed that it is a common practice in the industry all in the quest to clinch fame.

In the quest to become popular and enjoy the fruits of stardom, some actresses have developed a penchant for seeking help at spiritual homes. This writer gathered that a certain spiritual home in Edo State, owned by one Baba Oza is popular amongst the upcoming actresses. But to verify the potency of such visits in transforming the fortunes of the actresses remains an issue of debate. This much was also captured by an actress, Nuella Njubuigbo-Chikere in her movie aptly titled: Jujuwood, a satirical presentation of what fellow actresses do to clinch fame.

Before this interpretation by Nuella, two actresses, Dora Unachukwu and Regina Askia had granted interviews accusing each other of patronizing spiritual homes in the quest for stardom. That was in 2000.

Of course, the star status avails a lot of advantages for the actresses, which is why they naturally drift towards that. Aside the endorsement deals, money comes into their accounts through dalliances with politicians who are hoodwinked into sponsoring some of their movie projects. That aside, they also get paid for attending some special functions either being organised by government or by wealthy Nigerian citizens.

Finally, they are also required to pay certain amounts of money to get roles. Sums as huge as N20,000, even N50,000. If these unfortunate female artistes are to be accommodated in the production camps, they are also required to pay as much as N10,000.

For instance during a birthday party held by oil mogul and politician, Ifeanayi Uba, a misunderstanding ensued amongst the artistes; following the way the money released was shared. While some got $4000, others got $3000, leaving those in the latter category to bemoan their fate.

Zeb Ejiro, a popular director in the industry, confirmed that politicians have done so much to uplift the status of the actresses. According to him, “Where they get it wrong is that they see themselves above God, they see themselves above the industry. People who suffered to make them who they are, they dump those people, they don’t respect them. You are doing something today, maybe a child’s naming ceremony, marriage or whatever, they don’t attend. They don’t come, they don’t need you anymore! Because the politicians are giving them so much money, the politicians are buying them cars; female politicians are buying the male stars cars, homes and what have you. The male politicians are buying the female ones whatever they want. So, suddenly, they don’t need the producer anymore. They can even make bigger movies than you now because one politician will give them N100 million and you are looking for N15 million to do a blockbuster. They start to equate themselves with God and forget that these politicians will only use you while you are the reigning star. They will flock around you for that period of time. Immediately somebody else springs up, they will dump you and go to that person.”

Actor Victor Osuagwu responded to a question about his colleagues being paid to attend events thus: “It’s like buying and selling. Somebody who invited you knows he should make provision for your welfare and things like that. That does not mean that the actor has gone to beg for money”.

Another issue of concern in the quest to clinch stardom is the unprofessional conduct of actors having to pay directors and producers to appear in films.

Director and writer, Reginald Ebere has frowned at this conduct. “Before now I’d heard stories of directors and producers who would demand that female artistes buy them laptops and iPads before giving them roles. What is bad in that you may ask, well nothing really but those female actors are also required to sleep with them for as long as the production lasted and finally, they are also required to pay certain amounts of money to get roles. Sums as huge as N20,000 nay, even N50,000. If these unfortunate female artistes are to be accommodated in the production camps, they are also required to pay as much as N10,000. Now, I know that dirty linen is not supposed to be washed in public especially in Nollywood and some of my colleagues will nearly send Boko Haram insurgents to assassinate me for what I am revealing since we keep denying the sexual harassment going on in Nollywood.

But I have found out that if we do not wash our linen in public, sometimes the stench will kill us in private and Reginald Ebere has never been known not to speak his mind. I have names and I can mention them with hard facts but I refrain from pushing the walls down because I believe broken walls can be mended.”

An actor Ben Okoro has this to say about the trend: “I am a registered member of AGN. Can you imagine when I was called for a movie audition at Asaba, later I was denied the role. I did not bribe, but my girl was offered the role because she offered sex.”

Of course, this trend is not about to end soon. With the rising number of unemployed youths roaming the streets coupled with the fact that the creative industry, especially the film industry offers a window of income for vulnerable youths, more will be exploited in the quest to realise their dreams.