But despite the production’s humble appearance there was a lot riding on it. Its director and producer, Tony Abulu, and his financial backers say the film, “Doctor Bello,” has the potential to chart a new direction for the booming Nigerian film industry half a world away.
That industry, known as Nollywood, is perhaps the world’s third-largest filmmaking industry in revenues, producing more than 1,000 titles every year. But the industry is known for churning out slapdash films with feeble story lines, amateurish acting and sloppy production values. Nearly all go straight to video and are soon forgotten.
In an effort to improve the quality, the country’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, pledged in 2010 to create a $200 million loan fund to help finance film projects.
This past spring Mr. Abulu, a Nigerian who lives in Harlem, was chosen to receive the fund’s first loan, $250,000. His film’s premiere is scheduled for Thursday at the Kennedy Center in Washington.
“The Nigerian government is saying, ‘Can somebody make a movie that will go to global mainstream theaters?’ ” Mr. Abulu said. “ ‘Can you make a film where someone in New York will go watch it and not walk out disgusted?’ ” He added, “They say I’m the one who can do it.”
Set in Nigeria and New York City, the film is about an African-American cancer specialist in New York, Dr. Michael Durant, who tries to save a young patient by seeking the help of an uncertified Nigerian doctor — Dr. Bello — an immigrant living in Brooklyn. Under the cover of night Bello slips the patient a secret African potion, helping him recover. But Durant’s solution is discovered, and he is suspended by his hospital while Bello is imprisoned for medical malpractice.
Soon, however, Bello himself falls critically ill, and it falls to Durant to save him by locating the secret elixir, which is found only in the “Garden of Life” on a mountain range in Nigeria.
Hoping to steer his film away from the straight-to-oblivion route of most Nollywood films, Mr. Abulu has set his sights high by the industry’s standards.
“My aim is to introduce Africa to America and to Americans and to introduce Americans to Africans,” he said.
He cast A-list Nollywood stars, including Genevieve Nnaji and Stephanie Okereke. And with an eye to attracting an international mainstream audience, he brought in several Hollywood actors, including Isaiah Washington, best known for “Grey’s Anatomy”; Vivica A. Fox (“Kill Bill” and “Independence Day,” among many others); and Jimmy Jean-Louis (the NBC series “Heroes”).
During a break in filming in Brooklyn last spring Mr. Washington, who plays Durant (opposite Ms. Fox as his wife and Mr. Jean-Louis in the title role), said he signed on in part because he was drawn to the opportunity to “cross-pollinate” Hollywood and Nollywood. He also hoped his involvement might, in a way, help Nigeria, he said.
“How can I bring value to destigmatize Nigeria and destigmatize Nollywood?” he said.
Mr. Abulu planned an ambitious filming schedule that straddled Nigeria and the United States, and he hired Americans for key creative positions, including his director of photography, Scott St. John.
“This isn’t a Nollywood film where they edit it in two weeks, and it looks like it was cut by a 7-year-old,” Mr. St. John said.
While the budget was $1 million “on paper,” Mr. Abulu said, actual expenditures will likely top out around $500,000 — minuscule by Hollywood standards but enormous for Nollywood. He was able to cut costs, in part, by persuading many of the cast members, including the stars, to defer at least some of their payment on the promise of a share of profits, he said. The staff of his media company, Black Ivory Communications, agreed to forgo payment altogether for a percentage of profits.
Mr. Abulu even took out a loan using his mother’s house as collateral. “And my mother’s 80,” he said. “I’m telling you, this is not a joke.”