Sunday 24 January 2021

Heritage ruins of western Nigerian states' cinema chain

A high-rise building currently replaces the demolished iconic Casino Cinema, Alagomeji, Lagos. Pic: by Tajudeen Sowole.

IT started as a story of potential superpower in regional African cinema business, but ended up as economic, cultural and heritage colossal loss. Within a period of two and half decades, the cinema chain business owned by Wemabod Estates Limited, a subsidiary of Odu'a Investment Company Limited crashed.

Between the 1970s and late-early 1990s, the cinema chain under Wemabod-owned West African Picture Company (WAPCO) was among top players in Nigeria's film exhibition business. One of the remains of that ruins, Casino Cinema, at Alagomeji, Ebute Meta, Lagos Mainland was demolished in 2016. Casino Cinema, an iconic edifice of the 1970s/80s, which struggled, but failed to survive poor administration of the 1990s was finally put to ground zero in a suspected conspiracy between Wemabod and Lagos State Government. Sources argued that Casino Cinema was another victim of the then Lagos State Government's aggressive push that got owners of old and 'abandoned' buildings in the city to either renovate or demolish them. Among the casualties of the then Governor Akinwunmi Ambode-led government's policy was the famous Olaiya Family house at Tinubu Square, which was also pulled down to ground zero in 2016. 

Another source added that "the facade part of the high-rise building that replaced the cinema was a directive by the then Lagos State Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture that the design be appropriated as remembrance of what the demolished movie theatre used to look like.

From being a survivor, on June 2, 1967 of bomb attack after a truck exploded in what was regarded as a direct target during the Nigeria-Biafra war, to the point of its final demise in 2016, Casino Cinema had fought many battles. It had become fragile for more than 10 years given the fact that its owner, Wemabod had converted large parts of the cinema's land to a residential estate.

About eight kilometres away from the Alagomeji, Yaba area of now extinct Casino Cinema, one of its sisters facilities, Super Cinema, in the heart of middle-class Surulere had also lost crucial identity. Super Cinema, located in Akerele areas of Surulere, arguably, had one of the largest screens and audience spaces in the golden years of Nigerian cinema during the 1970s-80s. Over 20 years ago, it was converted to a multipurpose shopping complex now known as Super Plaza. A proposed re-development plan of Super Plaza, Wemabod states on its website, will include cinema space.

In Lagos alone, WAPCO had about seven cinemas that flourished during the good old days. Sadly, those movie theatres known then as Regal Cinemas, each in Oyingbo and Lagos Island among others, have been converted to other commercial purposes. Other cinemas owned by WAPCO in Ibadan, Kaduna and Jos and, among other cities across Nigeria were duplication of some of the names in Lagos. But in Sagamu, Ogun State; Jos, Plateau state; and Kaduna as well as Ondo the company's chain Rex Cinemas were also popular.

Two weeks ahead of this publication, efforts via emails and phone calls to get the Wemabod Estates Limited management respond to state of their cinemas outside Lagos were unsuccessful.  "On Tuesday, January 19, another call for the same purpose was repeated and generated a response from a female voice identified as Temitope of Wemabod. She assured that Wemabod will respond to the question about the cinema chains of the company's subsidiary that are still functioning. A response was not received as at few minutes before publication.  

As nearly all the cinema facilities of Wemabod have been pulled down for intumenscing of capitalist ideology, posterity will ask questions. A generation of Yoruba will emerge in the future to probe the marked graves of cultural and economic colossal loss, consciously created by the Wemabod managers that carried out the avoidable heritage injustice. Redevelopment of Super Plaza, in Surulere, announced as including cinema, if achieved, would have given a semblance of responsible administration of heritage facility.

Perhaps, the lack of origination of the cinema chain concept from Wemabod led to the weak value placed on its heritage. Most of the cinemas under WAPCO then were said to have been acquired by Wemabod via an alleged loan default transactions. The cinema chain owned by an expatriate, Mr Khalil, started in 1930, but was later bought by a Nigerian named Chief Doherty in 1960. An alleged bad debt between another Wemabod subsidiary, National Bank and Chief Doherty led to the acquisition of the cinema chain by the parent company under the then regional Western Nigeria Government in 1965.

Across Nigeria, over 15 cinemas were under WAPCO for more than 30 years, according to investigation. It was the largest cinema chain owned by an indigenous company despite foreign domination of the motion picture industry then. The big players with powerful control in film distribution then included American Motion Picture Exporting Countries of Africa (AMPECA), a member of Motion Picture Exporters Association of America (MPEAA); and Indo Films, owners of Rainbow Cinema (Mushin), Kings Cinema (Lagos Island) and Sheila Cinema (Broad Street, Lagos). There were other smaller players such as Lisabi Films, which owned Metro Cinema, Liwo Cinema; Bendel Films as owners of Idera Cinema (Mushin), perhaps Central Cinema, (Ebute Meta). an

In the northern part of Nigeria, Lebanese-owned Plateau Cinemas and Star Cinemas, each had chain of cinemas of about 20. Few of their cinemas however were also in the south, Lagos inclusive.

Lack of futuristic plan by indigenous cinema owners

The opportunity to lay a solid foundation for Nigerian cinema to blossom was lost, perhaps, forever in the 1970s/80s when Wemabod did not see the future. The nationalism energy to get Nigeria on competitive path of development was not missing in the country’s post-independence, even in a cinema industry dominated by foreign owners.

Post-independence Nigeria, obviously had sparsely local or indigenous film productions to feed the growing cinema audience. Post-civil war films such as Kongi’s Harvest (1970), produced by Ola Balogun and Francis Oladele; Alpha (1972), Ajani Ogun (1975), by Ola Balogun, among others demonstrated the passion to get the indigenous cinema off the ground.

As distribution was crucial to the survival of filmmaking, the pioneers of Nigerian film industry could not make any impact under the strong cinema chains dominated by foreigners. And the Nigerian cinema audience of the 1950s and 1960s was still the same in the 1970s with expanding tastes for Indian and American films. Between mid to the late 1970s, Chinese films were added to that cinema menu of Nigerian audience, still by the foreign owners of the theatre chains.

It wasn't exactly clear if the indigenous cinema owners in Nigeria of the 1970s-early 1990s had any common forum like association. Yes, there was a union of film exhibitors then, but not exactly that of indigenous cinema owners. However, lack of futuristic plan on the part of the cinema owners was very clear then.

Given the combined number of cinemas owned by WAPCO, Bendel Cinema, Lisabi Films and few other individuals of indigenous operators like owners of Jebako Cinema, Idi-Oro, Mushin; Danjuma Cinema, Agege; and God Dey Cinema, Ajegunle, among others there was enough strength, collectively, to take control of the industry. For example, the 1970s was a period when indigenous film producers started showing interest in feeding the cinemas. But the producers lacked enough capital to keep afloat. Also, the cinema chains of foreign owners where the bulk of the audience resided were not ready to promote Nigerian films.

And came the Indigenisation Decree of 1972 that, supposedly, created an opportunity for local contents ownership of industries. From all indication, there  wasn’t enough willpower to take advantage of that law. WAPCO, specifically, was the most guilty of the lack of futuristic plan. There was an attempt by the Wemabod's National Bank   then to support indigenous producers, sources said. The attempt, they explained was discouraged by a failed-transaction in loan to one or two Yoruba filmmakers.

That story, as it sounded, confirmed that the people at the helm of affairs at WAPCO lacked the knowledge in running cinema business. A film, Orun' Mooru, for example, produced by star comedian, Moses Adejumo, known as Baba Sala (1936-2018) allegedly funded, partly, by National Bank was not properly released in theatre chain tradition. The format of release was the same crude method of the traveling theatre of hawking from one cinema to another. Yes, chain release then, which required multiple prints was very expensive. But with a company of WAPCO status that had cinema chain, multiple release of Orun' Mooru would have revolutionized the indigenous cinema. Sadly, that opportunity was lost.

As at the 1980s-1990s when cinemas across the world were being reinvented into mega screens with contemporary shopping malls to attract new generation audience, WAPCO, in Nigeria, again seemed to be in the dinosaur years. With so many cinemas and expansive spaces in property ownership at strategic places across Nigeria, in Lagos specifically, WAPCO was well positioned to create modern cinemas with malls. Sadly, the best that the Odu'a subsidiary company could give in that regards was the current Super Plaza, in Surulere. Converted from the former Super Cinema, the shopping Plaza was built without consideration for the cinema outlet that promotes culture and heritage values of the people.

More than ever before, the 1990s when the Nigerian indigenous film productions were showing greater prospect was also an ideal time to invest in the local industry. Yes, there was not going to be a vacuum for long; a new investor, Silverbird Cinemas stepped in and started reviving Nigeria’s cinema culture. Almost 20 years after the Silverbird examples kept growing, it's still doubtful if the managers of Wemabod Estates are interested in cultural and heritage revival of the ruined cinema chain of southwest states.

 -Tajudeen Sowole is a Lagos-based writer and Art Advisor.

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