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Durban film fest widens focus

S. Africa produces more pix aimed at global auds

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA — At the July Durban film festival, the mood was upbeat among the local filmmakers and biz players, who are in the midst of a production boom that’s not only led to higher-quality regional pics but has also attracted bigger-budget foreign shoots.

As they say, a rising tide lifts all boats, and with the success of 2009’s “District 9,” an increasing number of South African projects are now targeting global audiences, while local film commissions are wooing more and more overseas shoots.

Mukunda Michael Dewil’s “Vehicle 19” illustrates the drive of local filmmakers to reach global auds. Currently in production, the actioner stars Paul Walker, and was funded by the Industrial Development Corp. (IDC) and the Dept. of Trade and Industry’s (DTI) rebate. Apart from Walker, the only American involved is Peter Safran, who is co-producing through Safran Co.

Sales company K5 Intl. has already closed a raft of deals including the U.K. (Optimum/StudioCanal), Germany (Kinowelt/StudioCanal), Australia (Madman) and the Middle East (Falcon).

Safran believes the brisk presales show the film has the potential to travel. “It’s like ‘Taken,’ which was set in Paris, or ‘Unknown,’ which takes place in Germany; it’s a classic action movie (featuring) a stranger in a strange land.”

Forefront Media’s Ryan Haidarian, the former head of production and development at the National Film and Video Foundation, is the other co-producer. He sees the project as a sign of the way people are paying a lot more attention to script, pointing out that Dewil has had an “amazing growth path” over the last five years, developing three projects through the NFVF.

Durban festival programmer Nashen Moodley notes an increase in quality in terms of both the local and other African films at last month’s fest, in which “Skoonheid” (Beauty) was named best South African Film and Kenyan co-production “The First Grader” won the Audience Award.

“We are seeing new filmmakers emerging and they are making innovative films in new ways,” Moodley says.

Film Afrika’s David Wicht agrees. “South Africa has produced about 20 local films per year for the last three years, which has been a great opportunity for our writers and directors to practice their craft,” he says. “Practice makes … well, not quite perfect, but better.”

Moonlighting is one of South Africa’s larger service companies, but it has recently moved with the market into co-producing local pics like “Skoonheid” and Dewil’s “Retribution,” which both had their African premieres at Durban.

Moonlighting’s Philip Key agrees that the improvement in quality is due to the increased quantity.

“More films are being made than ever before due to the National Film and Video Foundation funding and the Dept. of Trade and Industry’s rebate, as well as cheaper, high-end shooting solutions. Most of these films are being made for a fraction of a conventional 35mm shoot.”

Given the low budgets, box office returns have been promising. “Jock of the Bushveld,” the first locally made 3D animated feature released in South Africa, was the most watched film in the country at the start of August, grossing R2.4 million ($337,000) on opening weekend. Another local pic, “Schucks Tshabala’s Survival Guide to 2010,” topped the box office last year, grossing more than $5.2 million.

But while South Africa’s local content industry is definitely growing, the backbone of the industry remains its service sector.

Safran can understand why. “I have absolutely loved shooting here,” he says. “There are tremendous crews and the locations are limitless. Desert, beach, urban, jungle … whatever you want to shoot, it exists in South Africa. There are active and supportive funds, like the IDC, which is increasingly rare internationally. And it’s a much less expensive place to shoot, but you don’t sacrifice anything for that reduction in cost,” he says, noting that “Vehicle 19” would have been twice as expensive to shoot in the U.S.

Key maintains South Africa is “not cheap but still the best value for money. Our productivity is very high, allowing shorter shooting schedules and more value on the screen.”

All major international production insurers and bonders are active in South Africa. “And the premiums qualify for the rebate, which makes the local bond and insurance rates unbeatable,” Wicht says.

Recent projects to shoot in South Africa include Toronto player “Machine Gun Preacher,” with Gerard Butler; Daniel Espinoza’s “Safe House,” an action thriller for Universal starring Ryan Reynolds and Denzel Washington; Twentieth Century Fox’s “Chronicle”; Working Title’s “The Borrowers”; and DNA Films’ “Dredd.”

Most of these shot at Cape Town Film Studios, which opened toward the end of last year to fill what Moonlighting’s Genevieve Hofmeyr called the last “missing link” in South Africa’s film infrastructure — offering soundstages and infrastructure to rival facilities in the U.K. and Canada.

The Cape Film Commission’s CEO, Denis Lillie, says a number of films and TV series are rumored to shoot in South Africa before the end of the year. These include the next “James Bond”; Ridley Scott’s miniseries adaptation of Kate Mosse’s bestseller, “Labyrinth”; Gavin Hood’s “Ender’s Game”; and a history of Great Britain inspired by the success of the Emmy-winning “America: The Story of Us,” which was shot in South Africa.

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