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Gravel Road CEO Reels About Growth in South African Film Market

Benjamin Cowley discusses the ramp up of the classic film scene in South Africa

Gravel Road Entertainment Group CEO Benjamin Cowley said he was drawn to African films because the market for them, particularly ones from the late twentieth century, is on the rise. As the head of Gravel Road, which was founded in 2012 and has recently launched an initiative to acquire and restore African films, Cowley is paving a path to respond to market demand for the cultural films. It mainly focus on restoring South African films prior to the 1990s.

Gravel Road will make its first appearance at the Grand Lyon Lumière Film Festival this year. Their presence also makes the Capetown-based group the only company from Africa exhibiting at the Festival.

What led to this renaissance of films in South Africa being distributed?

In the ’70s and the ’80s there was just this spew of production because the government created a film subsidy that promoted the production of film. There were two subsidies: one that was geared toward white films being produced for white audiences and there was one for black audiences. The idea behind that was to create entertainment for the majority of the population to keep their minds off of any form of political unrest.

So, the whole black film industry came out of nowhere and kind of outshone what was happening in the white film industry. There was just a massive content being produced and we found that there were filmmakers at the time who were inspired about what was happening in Hollywood at the time.

How do you identify restoration projects?

We take anything really that was produced on the preservation aspect of the project. Once we scan the films then we make the call on whether or not there’s a commercial life on the film. But first and foremost we’re looking out for the preservation side.

How do you go about acquiring distribution rights for films?

That’s quite a tricky one. Because of the nature of the content, it being so old, we often are faced with the challenge of identifying or finding the original producers of the film. So we have a dedicated research team whose job it is to track down these films and once they track down the films then they got to track down the owners. We’re pretty aggressive with that.

How long does it take to restore films?

The fastest is typically two weeks. The average is four to six weeks. The extreme is sitting on eight weeks. “Joe Bullet” was the extreme and that actually, if I’m not mistaken, took 14 weeks.

What are some of the key projects you all have had?

“Joe Bullet” – it’s been coined South Africa’s first Blaxploitation film. It’s based off of the American Blaxploitation film “Shaft,” which was made in 1973. That’s kind of the project which we launched ourselves with.

Do you have a special competitive edge in the international market because of the technology you use or the price that they go for?

We have the only restoration facility in the Southern Hemisphere. The other competitive edge that we have is that we’re the only ones dealing in African content. Africa has a booming industry, especially the former French colonies.

But by our restoring all these old movies we’re restoring them at a faster pace than that at which new content is being produced and therefore the content is quite popular among African audiences.

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