Bok for the bioscope: South Africa's movie boom
Date Released: Thu, 3 October 2013 12:15 +0200
If you look out into the veld at the intersection of the N2 highway and Baden Powell Drive, which takes you to Stellenbosch, you will notice something out of place.
Lurking in the fynbos vegetation are two large, wooden sailing ships with their crow’s nests exposed to the wind. Your first thought is that someone has built a theme park in the middle of nowhere.
The two ships are fantastical, but for a different reason. They are part of the set of Black Sails, a US television series that seeks to compete in the Game of Thrones space. Black Sails is a production of the US Broadcaster Starz Entertainment and is the first high-end television series of its kind to be filmed in Africa.
Facilitated by local production company Film Afrika, it represents a major breakthrough for South Africa.
The first series is, to use the movie jargon, “in the can” and the green light has been given for the second series to be shot on the lot of the Cape Town Film Studios.
With the advent of high-definition television and the improvement in the size and quality of home viewing, TV is now seeking to emulate the production values that used to be the preserve of movies for the big screen.
What is curious is how a film lot next door to the sprawling Khayelitsha township has become a go-to production facility for Hollywood. The reception area bristles with posters of movies that have been shot at the studios, among them Dredd, The Borrowers, Chronicle and the yet to be released Mandela movie, Long Walk to Freedom.
On the day that I visit the lot, a cavernous soundstage is being prepared for the shooting of the next series of Black Sails. Rigging is being knotted and sails are being stitched.
Out in the veld, preparations are being made to bring the two ships back to life. One rests in a vast tank of water, the other on a hidden gimbal — a device that creates the impression of movement by rocking the ship to and fro.
Nearby, the production’s greens team is recreating the Caribbean by planting fresh vegetation around a village that has been built on the slopes of a hill.
Cape Town Film Studios CEO Nico Dekker explains how South Africa secured the production of the television series. “They asked if they could shoot it here. I said we have no sea, no water. They said: ‘We heard you guys are crazy enough to make that happen.’ Within four months, two five million-litre tanks had been built — one with a beach and the other for scenes on the open sea. Again it was the local production company, under the guidance of set designer Wold Kroeger, who had the task of making it resemble the 17th-century Caribbean, says Mr Dekker.
Local engineers rose to the challenge of building the two pools in record time, but they went further and linked them through an underground tunnel. “You can have high tide and low tide on the beach. I don’t think anyone else in the world has this kind of facility,” says Mr Dekker.
A stone’s throw from the two ships stands a 17th-century Caribbean village with a bar and a bordello on a sandy street that runs up a small hill. Down the road is another startling sight — Soweto’s Vilikazi Street with its red brick houses, where shooting for the Mandela movie, Long Walk to Freedom, took place.
And the block of cells Mandela was incarcerated in on Robben Island has been recreated with incredible attention to detail.
What has made South Africa a go-to destination for the movie industry is its competitive pricing, the abundance of technical skills, engineering nous and a can-do attitude. And one more important thing, says Mr Dekker: the fact that the industry has backed itself by making a substantial investment in the studios.
The Cape Town Film Studios, owned by Marcel Golding’s Sabido Investments and Anant Singh’s Videovision, represents a massive R350m roll of the dice on the future of filmmaking in South Africa.
It has been backed by the City of Cape Town, which has spent R30m on the roads to and from the facility, and the Western Cape provincial government, which holds a 10% stake. It also enjoys the backing of the Department of Trade and Industry, which has contributed R23-million in “soft money”.
Cape Town, which is seen as a desirable destination by global movie stars who can make or break a decision about where to shoot movies, is on the up. But so, too, is Johannesburg.
In a sound-mixing studio in Johannesburg’s Balfour Park suburb, Samuel L Jackson is in a familiar pose, arm outstretched and pistol pointed at the head of a co-star as an ominous mist swirls about. Around him, the unkempt streets of Johannesburg make for a depressingly good dystopian set. The music rises, punctuated by a drumbeat as the camera picks out his threatening eyes above the gun sights.
Then everything freezes as the editing team discuss the soundtrack. They are working at the Sasani Studios complex. The movie, Kite, with its big-name star is more evidence of how South Africa is building a reputation as a place to shoot — and in this case, do post-production on big movies.
Editor Megan Gill points out that more than 60 films were made in South Africa last year, substantially up on the five that were produced in 2005, when Tsotsi won an Oscar and put the country on the movie map.
What Mr Dekker and Gill lean on to back up their optimism is the first substantial investigation into the state of the local movie industry conducted by Deloitte.
Mr Dekker says the report was an eye-opener.
It found that the industry could account for a R3.5-billion contribution to gross domestic product and that it had created some 2,175 “FTE” jobs. FTE stands for “full-time equivalent”, because most film work is contracted for a specific venture. There were 2,500 “direct service providers” in the industry.
But the magic number, which makes the industry a winner when it comes to allocating government money, is 2.89.
This is the “economic multiplier” for the industry, meaning that for every rand spent making movies, R1.89 is generated in the South African economy. This, and the fact that the government’s subsidy regime “pays for itself with a delivery of more than R670m” to SARS in 2012, has led to a rapid rise in movie making.
The Department of Trade and Industry encourages filmmakers by paying back a portion of what is called QSAPE — qualifying South African production expenditure. In terms of this deal, foreign movie-makers who shoot at least half their footage in the country and use local post-production facilities can get up to 25% of their South African costs back, whereas local filmmakers can get up to 35% back.
The attraction for foreign filmmakers is huge.
In addition to the state-of-the-art film studios, South Africa — which once sold itself with the tourism slogan ” A World in One Country” — offers every conceivable location, from the verdant winelands of Franschhoek to the dry desert of the Kalahari and the gleaming corporate towers of Sandton. And there is an abundant skills base, which is replenished from the very active world of advertising, the television industry and the growing local film industry.
South Africans now have the skill to produce animated movies, some of which have had success elsewhere. Helen Kuun of Indigenous Film Distribution points out that the animated children’s movie Zambezi was very successful in Russia. Another South African digital movie set for release later this year is Khumba. It was one of four South African movies to be screened at the recent Toronto film festival. The others were Long Walk to Freedom, Of Good Report and a film that is quietly being talked up as a future hit, iNumber Number.
But although South African movies are on the rise, the missing link is a breakthrough series of movies that competes on the world stage in the way that Peter Jackson put New Zealand on the movie map with the Lord of the Rings. This, says Mr Dekker, is the spark that is needed to ignite the industry.
Nobody is more keenly aware of this than local film impresario Ronnie Apteker. On Wednesday night last week, Mr Apteker, the man behind the local hit Material, was in Johannesburg at the launch of the new movie Nothing for Mahala, for which he did the marketing and served as an executive producer.
For producers like Mr Apteker, movie openings are excruciating. After years of planning, production and post-production during which millions have been spent, it is now up to the box office to decide whether or not money will be recouped.
If a movie succeeds, it will make good money — perhaps even pay for itself while on circuit. Success spins off into further earnings from the DVD release and from sales to television channels. But the price paid by television is directly related to its box-office success and failure is its own multiplier.
When I meet Mr Apteker for coffee in the Hyde Park shopping centre, he produces a list of local movies and their earnings. It makes for depressing reading because the majority of films are deeply in the red. “This cost R7m; it made R4m. This cost R40m; it made R480,000,” he says, punching his way down the list of dismal earnings.
Although the industry is producing more local movies, they are failing to recoup the money invested in them.
Dressed in a white T-shirt, black jacket and jeans, Mr Apteker is a blur of nervous energy as he describes the battle to make successful local movies.
“This is a clear black-and-white fact: movie ticket prices in South Africa are the cheapest in the world.” In the cinemas in suburban shopping malls, high prices are paid, but they are diluted by discounts elsewhere. “Prices are diluted by R10 specials in downtown Joburg, half-price Tuesdays and morning discounts.” The result is an average ticket price that is not economical.
“In Korea it is $8.50 [about R84], in England it’s £10 [about R160] and at 8pm in the West End it’s £22. If the average ticket price in South Africa was R50, we would have made a nice amount of money.”
Low prices are the result of a price war between the major cinema houses, Nu Metro and Ster-Kinekor, in 2004. Prices were cut, but this did not result in fuller movie houses, says Mr Apteker.
There is what he describes as “a perception problem when it comes to local art”. South African consumers are reluctant to believe that quality movies can be produced locally, so they do not venture out to see for themselves.
The problem is compounded by the release of too many mediocre movies, reinforcing the stereotype. Mr Apteker returns to the list of box-office flops. “They shouldn’t be releasing half these films.” He punches the page. “This film is unwatchable. It’s the biggest load of crap.”
The local industry does not have the confidence to assess itself critically. “I’ve never heard someone say ‘this South African film is a disaster’. They always say ‘made it’ or ‘coined it’ or ‘broke through the R1m barrier’. But they didn’t actually make anything.”
Adding to the problem is that South Africa has a small movie-going audience for the size of its population. Steven Markowitz, who runs Big World Cinema, agrees. He points out that the American film business was built on a major roll-out of distribution in the 1920s.
“The people who built the business are the people who built the cinemas.”
South Africa’s distributors are upping their game, upgrading cinemas and converting from film to digital projection. It is a transition to modernity that is essential if the industry is to grow the number of cinemas and the movie-going audience. Even so, large communities are still without their own cinemas. Rather than travel a great distance to see a movie, they watch television or wait for the DVD to be released for home screening.
Progress is not without pain. On the day that I visit Charmain Lautre, CEO of the Film Lab, in her Balfour Park office, she is in a pensive mood. “Tonight,” she says, “we are developing our last-ever roll of film.” With fitting bathos, the last roll of film to be processed by the 100-year-old business is for a cement commercial. A part of its operation has been responsible for copying films for distribution to cinemas. At the end of this month, it will close its doors as digital takes over.
Outside her office stands a deserted work area with old film canisters gathering dust on workbenches. “This is where we used to do negative work. That ended in 2004. Thirteen people were retrenched.”
In the film development room, copies are being made of a celluloid trailer for the few cinemas that still use the technology. It is for the movie The Family starring Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer.
Ms Lautre is sceptical about the benefits of moving away from celluloid. “That beautiful, soft atmosphere thing on film simply doesn’t exist on digital. We can sit in the viewing room and pick out those that are shot on film and those that were shot on digital. When we look it up on IMDB [the leading internet movie database], we are 100% right.”
The move to digital may not always lead to better quality, but it does open the door for the proliferation of smaller movie houses at a much lower establishment cost, which is essential if South Africa is to build a sizeable movie audience.
But all of this will fail if South Africa does not begin to make better local movies. It is uncanny how all the players I speak to share the same concern: the biggest problem is the absence of good scripts.
“South Africa is like an angry teenager,” says Mr Markowitz. “We have a confused identity. We are grappling with who we are.” Many of the scripts he sees are “derivative”, pointlessly copying American and European story lines. “You are not going to outdo America at making American movies.”
He frequently sees scripts by white South Africans who write about the lives of blacks in the townships. “Why don’t they write their own stories?” he asks. “We need to take some chances — stick our necks out a bit.”
It is noteworthy, he says, that many of the most successful South African films — the Oscar-winning Tsotsi, the Afrikaans hit Skoonheid, the recently released Of Good Report and the sci-fi cult movie District 9 — were produced by mavericks, some of them rejected by government funding agencies.
Mr Apteker says a problem is the tendency towards laborious subject matter, which rakes over the coals of misery. “It’s like the Holocaust. I don’t want to watch too many movies about it — and I’m a Jewish guy.”
Mr Apteker has a one-liner that sums up the problem with local productions: “When people ask me what I think of the local film industry, I say it will be great when it starts.”
Caption: Fantastical: Two sailing ships built for the television series Black Sails. Picture by: RAY HARTLEY
By: RAY HARTLEY studied at Rhodes University
RAY HARTLEY studied at Rhodes University
This article was first published in Sunday Times: Business Times