Prime Video’s African About-Face, Netflix’s IP Frenzy and Why African Producers Are Pondering ‘What Comes Next’ as Streamers Shift Course

Rexa Vella

Prime Video’s African About-Face, Netflix’s IP Frenzy and Why African Producers Are Pondering ‘What Comes Next’ as Streamers Shift Course

The anticipated goldrush for African creators sparked by Netflix’s 2016 entry into the market hasn’t entirely come to fruition, though the influx of investment from local and global streaming platforms has nevertheless been transformative for Africa’s screen industries. Budgets, production values and outputs are rising, and breakout hits — such as Netflix’s Nigerian thriller “The Black Book” and South African teen drama “Blood & Water” — highlight the power of global streaming services to deliver African stories to audiences around the world.

Yet as evidenced by Amazon Prime Video’s abrupt pullout from the African market in January, when the streaming giant announced it was shifting course to focus on “emerging” markets in Europe, a continent that was gearing up for the windfalls of blockbuster deals with deep-pocketed platforms also finds itself at the mercy of those companies’ sometimes fickle streaming strategies. “It feels much more like a studio system,” says producer Layla Swart, of Johannesburg-based Yellowbone Entertainment. “It’s a lot more of a ruthless space.”

First, the good news: Competition on the continent — particularly between Netflix, which announced last spring it had spent some $175 million on African production since 2016, and South African pay-TV giant MultiChoice’s Showmax service — has proven the old adage of a rising tide lifting all boats. The demand for premium local content to lure African subscribers has sparked an arms race among the market’s two strongest rivals to lock down the continent’s top talents. Netflix has inked multi-title deals with a dizzying range of African creators, while Showmax plans to unveil more than 1,300 hours of original African programming on the service in 2024 alone.

“The streamer war between Netflix and Showmax is good for us, that’s without a doubt,” says Dan Jawitz, of South African production outfit Known Associates Entertainment. “It’s made a huge difference,” adds Stan Joseph, whose Ochre Moving Pictures — which inked a deal with Netflix last year to adapt multiple books for the streaming service alongside filmmaker Akin Omotoso (“Rise”) — recently launched its crime drama “Soon Comes Night” on the platform. “It’s a heck of a lot easier to do work now. You’re certainly able to make programming in a fair and reasonable way, where everybody doesn’t feel like they have to sacrifice to make a film or series.”

Joseph is among the producers who credit Netflix for an investment in local talent that’s as much about cultivating relationships as cutting checks, while many say Africa’s homegrown Showmax platform is particularly attuned to the needs of the local market. In its brief foray on the continent, meanwhile, Prime Video is said to have put together a dedicated team who were committed to taking big, bold swings on its African creators.

Yet most of that team was unceremoniously canned — “retrenched,” in the C-suite lingo — in a move that reportedly none saw coming, and the same streamers whose checkbooks are underwriting the African production boom also hold outsized influence over the types of projects that get greenlit. Netflix’s recent shift toward IP-driven fare will see a host of sequels and spin-offs hitting the streamer in the months to come — Kunle Afolayan’s “Aníkúlápó” and EbonyLife Studios’ “Òlòtūré” are among the popular titles that will return in some form — but some creators rue the push toward genre-based box-ticking and commercial-leaning IP that doesn’t incentivize creative risks. Ultimately, notes Yellowbone’s Swart, this is all “uncharted” territory. “Just as much as we don’t know necessarily what the audiences will like, neither do the streamers,” she says. “It’s a lot of trial and error.”

“Òlòtūré” was the most-watched Nigerian movie on Netflix when it was released in 2020. Courtesy of Netflix

Prime Video’s Africa about-face — “perturbing,” “alarming,” “devastating,” according to attendees at this week’s Joburg Film Festival — represents a dramatic example of how easily a tech company with a multitrillion-dollar valuation can upend an emerging market; all it takes is a few swipes of the pen in the name of a “pivot” or “rebalance” to dash hopes and scrap deals months or years in the making. Simon Murray, principal analyst at Digital TV Research, points to how the investor revolt that sparked the great Netflix correction of 2022 forced many streaming platforms to rein in their globe-spanning ambitions.

“They got scared because Wall Street started stamping on them, going, ‘I don’t care if you’re gaining subscribers hand over fist. When are you actually going to make some money?’” he says. “They cut back on launches in developing markets quite visibly. It’s basically focusing much more on the rich countries around the world, and that’s not good for Africa.”

Last month, Canal Plus failed in a buyout bid for MultiChoice — in which it owns a greater than 30% stake — in a move that nevertheless raised the prospect of a joint venture between the two media conglomerates that could create an African streaming platform with truly global reach. (“They’ll have another go,” says Murray. “Probably another two or three goes.”) Meanwhile, a recent deal between MultiChoice and Paramount+ to create a branded hub for the U.S. studio’s content on the Showmax platform highlights the cautious inroads being made by the remaining global players as they eye the African market. “Those platforms are not going to launch in Africa on their own, because they don’t see there’s enough money,” Murray says. “The gains just aren’t there.”

While news of Prime Video’s pullout stunned the African filmmaking community, it was no less shocking to the company’s rivals, with Showmax CEO Marc Jury admitting to Variety last month that he was “surprised” by the decision. “To really make inroads in Africa, you have to be here, you have to be relevant for the local markets,” he said. Ben Amadasun, Netflix’s VP of content in the Middle East and Africa, also counseled patience for companies trying to make a dent in the African market. “I believe that the transition to streaming and on-demand entertainment is still in the early stages,” Amadasun tells Variety. “At Netflix, we remain focused on managing our African business for the long term.”

For streaming services looking to grab a foothold in what remains the world’s last untapped market, Africa is a long play. While there’s certainly optimism to be gleaned in Murray’s projection of 16 million paying VOD subscribers in Africa by 2029 — up from just 8 million at the end of last year — that figure represents just a drop in the ocean on a continent of more than 1.2 billion. Bullish forecasts for subscriber growth in Africa point to positive demographic trends — a large youth population, the ubiquity of mobile phones, a growing middle class — but there are formidable stumbling blocks along the way. Broadband connectivity must improve, and data costs must come down dramatically, before the full potential of Africa’s nascent streaming market can be unleashed.

Extreme sports drama “Spinners” is a co-production between Showmax and Canal Plus. Courtesy of Empreinte Digitale / Canal+ / Showmax

For now, African creators are reaping the benefits of the competition to woo new subscribers, and it stands to reason that however great the challenges, streaming companies will continue their push into the African market as growth stagnates in other territories. Nevertheless, for the filmmakers who are increasingly reliant on a handful of streaming platforms to make up for the financial shortfalls of their cash-strapped local industries, decisions made in far-off corporate headquarters often leave them twisting in the wind.

“A lot of these streamers have changed their strategy — even Netflix has changed their strategy since they’ve been here,” said one established filmmaker who asked not to be named. “Sometimes they’ve been more bullish. Sometimes they downsize a little bit, they see how the market responds, and they come back again more bullish.

“Everything is still upside-down,” they added. “We’re essentially trying to work out what comes next.”


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