South African Producers Try New Tricks to Bring Young Audiences Back to Theaters

With the country’s economy in the doldrums and the rand in a tailspin, South African bizzers are struggling to find a way forward for an industry that continues to show sluggish box office returns.

According to the National Film & Video Foundation, earnings for South African pics dropped a staggering 44% last year, with revenues of R55 million ($5 million), the industry’s lowest total since 2011. Market share shrunk to 6%, with 23 local releases struggling to compete against Hollywood blockbusters.

The first half of 2015 showed more disappointing returns, with fewer releases from local helmers, adding up to a 15% drop in revenue. “Cinemagoing audiences have little faith in South African films,” producer Elias Ribeiro says.

Ribeiro and producer Steven Markovitz are trying to shake things up with the back-to-back theatrical and day-and-date VOD releases of Jenna Bass’ improvisational mystery-drama “Love the One You Love,” and Sibs Shongwe-La Mer’s tale of a generation in crisis in “Necktie Youth.” Both are fest faves by young South African helmers that have scooped awards both domestically and internationally.

The rapid rollout last month went against the conventional wisdom in South Africa, where distribs have been reluctant to pit local pics against each other for fear that they’ll end up battling for the same small slice of the consumer pie.

“The idea of jointly promoting the films was to say to South African audiences: Here are the new voices of cinema in South Africa — filmmakers making films about their peers, making films independently, tapping into the new South African youth culture,” Markovitz says.

A guerilla marketing campaign aggressively targeted young audiences in Johannesburg and Cape Town. By releasing the pics day-and-date on VOD, Ribeiro says the producers were likewise trying to tap into new currents in how young people watch movies. “I believe all we are doing here is testing the waters with new models, trying to set a trend,” he says.

While box office and VOD numbers aren’t available, the search for new revenue streams has been spurred by the sense that support from major exhibition circuits and distributors is weak. Ribeiro suggests that there is a reluctance to take a chance on local films that might earn less than their Hollywood counterparts. Paradoxically, he maintains, such films could “harness (and) develop new audiences in South Africa.”

Markovitz was hopeful that the new wave of youth-oriented pics would draw fresh auds. “Youth audiences traditionally don’t watch South African films,” he says, “(but) our plan is … to start cultivating an appetite for our films among the youth. And not just the silos of Afrikaans or black or rich or poor, but across the board. Unless we break into these markets in the medium term, as an industry, we are doomed.”

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