‘Mama Jack’ laughs all the way to bank

Cinema here is buttressed by one man: multihyphenate Leon Schuster, whose slapstick, candid camera-style comedies regularly trounce whatever Hollywood puts up against him.

Schuster’s “Mama Jack,” while technically a 2005 release since it opened late November last year, ended its run in 2006 with $3.9 million, outgrossing even the top 2006 release “Ice Age 2,” which did $3.1 million.

Ten of Schuster’s films, which he tends to release every two years in November or December, rank among the top 20 local films of all time in South Africa.

In fact, the top six are all Schuster’s, while the 2005 foreign-language Oscar winner “Tsotsi” comes in at No. 7.

Outside of “Mama Jack,” “Tsotsi” dominates the top three local films this year, having grossed $1.2 million and scoring the highest per print average ever in South African cinema. Being a drama makes it also stand out among the glut of homegrown comedies.

However, “Running Riot,” the feature adaptation of a popular play starring stage comic duo Bill Flynn and Paul Slabolepszy, opened mid-December and could wrestle the top spot from South Africa’s first-ever Oscar winner. Play was attended by more than 2 million theater-goers.

With the exception of “Tsotsi” and most Schuster films, few local films scrape past a million rand ($143,000) at the B.O., says Ferdi Gazendam, CEO of conglom Primedia Group, an investor in “Running Riot” and in leading South African exhib-distrib Ster-Kinekor. Made for $5 million, “Running Riot” is moving quickly to becoming another exception.

Coming in second (or possibly third) is Regardt van der Bergh’s religious drama “Faith like Potatoes,” which is based on a true story of a farmer who harvested potatoes in a region where they normally cannot grow.

“The film successfully tapped into the strong religious community here,” says Helen Kuun, acquisitions chief at Ster-Kinekor.

Generally, local films that succeed are those that cross over from the white middle-class Afrikaans, who most frequent the country’s 700 cinemas, to the emeging black aud.

“Ster-kinekor has seen its black audience grow from 16% in 2004 to 38% this year,” says Gazendam. He attributes this to the company’s mandate to lower ticket prices in cinemas close to black neighborhoods.

Although 80% of Schuster’s aud is white, his popularity is growing among the blacks. In “Mama Jack,” he plays a black woman working as a maid in an Afrikaans household.

As in most of the world, Hollywood laffers fare poorly here.

“Talladega Nights,” “Bewitched” and “The Producers” sank at the local wickets. Dramas like “Stealth” and “Cinderella Man” also underperformed. Action films without comic or romantic angles also tend to crash at the box office.

Strong year-end releases, led by “Casino Royale,” “Running Riot,” “Happy Feet” and “Flushed Away,” could see this year surpass 2005’s total B.O. With children out for the summer holidays, December is usually a strong month. And 2007 is expected to be a banner year for South African cinema, thanks to an upcoming (though still untitled) Schuster film.

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