BY SEKE SOMOLU
It was recently announced that the decade-old Motion Pictures Council (Mopicon) Bill has been revived by the Ministry of Information and that they will be seeking to ‘fast-track’ its passage into law. The first step of this process is a committee review of the bill, which will be publicly inaugurated on April 8th, 2016. As a member of the Nigerian community of film and TV production professionals, I am putting forward this essay as my contribution to that bill review process, and I am respectfully urging the Honourable Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, and his team, to reconsider their impressions of the Mopicon Bill and to reject it in its entirety.
The bill, if successfully enacted, would lead to the establishment of a government-funded body known as the Motion Picture Council of Nigeria (Mopicon). Foremost among the proposed functions of Mopicon, as articulated in Section 2 of the bill, would be:
(a) determining who are Motion Picture Practitioners
(b) determining what standards of knowledge and skills are to be attained by persons seeking to become registered as Motion Picture Practitioners and …;
(c) securing in accordance with the provisions of this Act, the establishment and maintenance of a register of persons entitled to practice as professionals in the motion picture industry, and the publication, from time to time, of lists of those persons.
The bill goes on to list other functions which include ‘regulating and controlling’ professional practice in the motion picture industry, and the oversight of all professional guilds and unions covering the moving image arts and sciences, as well as venues and networks through which moving image media can be screened, distributed or exhibited. In short, the Mopicon bill seeks nothing less than total control over every single aspect of film and television production in Nigeria, which immediately reminds me of the old adage: absolute power corrupts absolutely. But lets put that aside for a moment. It is the first stated function of Mopicon that gives me the greatest concern: this intention to ‘determine’ who may make films and to specify what would qualify people to be filmmakers. This idea lies at the heart of the Mopicon bill as it is currently drafted, and would effectively compel people to be licensed before they can make films in Nigeria. The bill states quite clearly in Section 32: “a person not registered as MEMBER with the council is prohibited from producing and making projects for both the Cinema and Home Video market plus television stations and networks…” The bill recommends prosecution with the possibility of jail time for non-Council members who produce films (which means that in theory, a film producer could be jailed alongside thieves and murderers simply for making a movie, regardless of the quality or content of the film in question). This idea is dangerous and has no place in a country that claims to be a free market democracy.
Film (and television and all other forms of moving image media) is essentially an art form. It is a medium of creative expression, no different from literature or music or painting or sculpture. The idea that we should determine by force of law who can make a film, is no less absurd than the idea that we would try to legislate who may write a novel or compose music or paint a picture or take a photograph. An attempt by any entity to legally restrict who may make films or television programs will prevent some of the best and brightest people from joining this industry, stifle creativity and innovation, and ultimately retard the growth of a critical sector of our economy.
The idea that only ‘registered’ filmmakers deserve to make films seems to be predicated on the notion that only filmmakers who possess some qualification or the other are fit to make good films. In fact, the Mopicon bill specifies that in order to be registered filmmakers would be required to have completed certain accredited training programs or courses of study. But the history of filmmaking, both locally and internationally, is full of successful directors, producers, screenwriters, actors and other relevant artists who never had any sort of formal training. People who are truly committed to working at the highest level will seek out whatever knowledge and skills they need. Nobody has to tell them. Some will enroll in universities, others will study online and experiment or serve apprenticeships. Either way, they will grow in the industry and the industry will be richer for it. Mo Abudu is one of the most successful African TV and film producers today, in spite of never having acquired any formal production training. Steven Spielberg, perhaps the best-known filmmaker of the past half century, and certainly one of the most commercially successful, dropped out of university and began his career without the benefit of a degree or other formal qualifications. There is simply no basis for the idea that any degree or diploma guarantees good filmmaking, or that a lack of such qualifications condemns one to being a poor filmmaker.
Some may argue that for the sake of quality we must ‘standardise’ and that the film industry should not be an ‘all-comers’ affair, but I would argue that it is precisely when the industry is open to all and sundry that we see the greatest amount of creativity and diversity of expression. Nollywood, which is widely celebrated today, is the product of the efforts of a diverse group of people, some of whom were highly educated, but many of whom were utterly lacking in any higher learning. This assortment of creative Nigerians expressed themselves freely without permission or consent from anybody and in the process created commercial value and cultural impact which transcended our borders and remains a foundation for much of what filmmakers create today.
What of the idea that the Mopicon bill is necessary in order to professionalize the film and TV industry? Yes, motion pictures are a complex creative medium that encompasses the arts, technology and business; and filmmaking can involve as great an application of our intellectual and physical capacities as any other discipline. However, filmmaking is NOT a profession in the traditional sense. A mistake by a doctor or an engineer or a lawyer can lead, in the worst instance, to a loss of human life and/or property. That is why those professions must be tightly regulated. A mistake by a filmmaker will at worst result in a bad movie that no one wants to see and which loses money for its backers. Some may further argue that filmmakers influence culture and social values to a large degree, and as such merit closer government regulation. But there are already laws to deal with those who may want to use mass media to incite crime or acts of violence. We already have a National Film and Video Censors Board (NFVCB) that ostensibly guards against films which promote obscenity and truly objectionable political or religious sentiments. We already have a National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) that polices the films and programs disseminated over our airwaves. So, what then is the need for additional regulation of the film industry? How do we justify to taxpayers the added expenditure of already scarce public funds to pay for yet another government agency? The ultimate arbiter of what prevails in the movie marketplace should be the audience, the members of the public who buy movie tickets and DVDs, and who pay subscriptions to pay TV and internet streaming services. Filmmakers already enjoy great public regard for being purveyors of popular entertainment. That esteem has only increased as the industry grows ever more lucrative and the most successful film stars and producers command greater monetary compensation. As we go forward, the respect accorded by the public to our filmmaking community will only increase as we continue to improve our aesthetic and technical skills, and create ever more impressive films and television programs.
The bill also proposes to deal with this issue of upholding technical standards and best practices in the industry. However, I believe this responsibility is no business of the government, but rather rests with specific professional guilds and discerning producers, broadcasters and production entities. For instance, the art of music video production in Nigeria was immeasurably boosted by the satellite station MTV Base, which insisted on certain minimum technical standards before they would consider any music videos for broadcast. Similarly, other major broadcasters and distributors such as MNet and FilmOne have imposed aesthetic and technical standards, which have compelled a lot of Nigerian filmmakers who desire to see their work reach mass audiences to up their games.
If we look to other major democratic nations across the world, we will not find any statutory agencies which determine who may or may not make films. For sure, there are censors and rating bodies which, like our own NFVCB, police films that are meant for distribution; and you also find many agencies whose sole purpose is to offer fiscal support for their various national film industries. But only in authoritarian regimes and dictatorships does one encounter such draconian government regulation of creative industries as that outlined in the Mopicon bill. In the United States of America, which boasts of the wealthiest and arguably, the most influential film industry on the planet, there has never been government regulation of the film industry. The only ‘regulator’ in that country, the Motion Picture Association of America, is a private sector initiative (ie, a self-regulator); it assigns film ratings and more broadly, lobbies on behalf of film industry interests. There is no American entity, not even their powerful professional guilds, that can legally determine who may make films or not.
Enacting the Mopicon bill in its current form would create a massive industry gatekeeper, which would erect hugely restrictive barriers to entry for filmmakers. Since films are a business as well an artform, the Mopicon bill is akin to making it as difficult as possible for entrepreneurs to start businesses. Not only that: because filmmakers would have to obey the strictures of Mopicon, any alternative or dissenting (read: innovative) ideas and approaches would be suppressed; innovation would decline, which in turn would lead to creative and commercial stagnation. Filmmaking is no different from any other kind of business. In our present economic climate, as we seek to diversify and grow our economy as much as possible, no one would advocate that we stifle the efforts of genuine entrepreneurs who are committed to invest their capital, create new jobs, and grow wealth.
I want to believe that the authors of this bill want the best for the Nigerian film industry. Like the rest of us who struggle to make films or video productions in Nigeria, they have experienced frustrations and challenges, and are moved to seek solutions. But this bill is not the way to go. The Mopicon bill was first drafted in 2006 and perhaps it suited that era, but we live in a different world now. In 2006, the Nigerian film industry was dominated by the video CD (VCD) market, which was controlled by the merchants of Idumota and Iweka Road. Today, the VCD market is a much smaller factor in the industry, as audiences choose to consume most of their entertainment online, in cinemas and via pay TV. In 2006, the filmmaking community was much smaller; in 2016, the pool of filmmaking personnel has swelled as a whole generation of young talented tech-savvy artists have emerged and are producing innovative and exciting new works. Back in 2005, no Nigerian films were screened at any of our cinemas, but today Nigerian films are drawing huge crowds to movie theatres and earning tens of millions of Naira at the box office. The private sector is driving the construction of cinemas, studio facilities and distribution networks, which means this important market segment will only grow and the problem of undercapitalization will dwindle. By almost every measure, the Nigerian film industry is thriving and on the cusp of even greater increase.
Which is not to say that our industry does not have problems. Challenges abound, with piracy chief among them. But we already have the National Copyright Commission, and there are many laws addressing the issue of intellectual property violations; the real matter there is about enforcement of laws and enlightening the general populace about this sensitive issue. Most other problems can be addressed by private sector investment, industry self-regulation and individual professional efforts. There may well be specific legislation yet to be devised that will benefit the film industry, but the Mopicon bill is not that legislation. No one will refuse if government offers to support the efforts of filmmakers with grants, loans, tax incentives, and other mechanisms that can make the film industry more competitive. But, in essence, filmmakers need the same support that any other sector of the knowledge/creative economy needs in order to thrive. Government needs to only create an environment that is safe and secure; an environment with sound public infrastructure; an environment in which the rule of law is paramount and private property rights are protected; and an environment in which citizens are free to create, experiment, exchange ideas, express opinions, exercise creativity, and build together.