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South African Box Office Signals Resurgence of Local Titles

JOHANNESBURG — Rattled by a string of political scandals, a slumping economy, and a growing protest movement that’s swept across the country, it’s been a downbeat year for most South Africans.

Yet the country’s exhibitors have shown a remarkable ability to weather the storm, with strong performances by a number of local pics fueling optimism that the industry can build on the success of 2015, when total B.O. passed the billion-rand mark (around $74.1 million) for the first time.

Through the first half of 2016, South Africa’s National Film & Video Foundation (NFVF) recorded a 55% jump in B.O. for local pics over the same period last year. Breakout hits like Afrikaans-language romance “Vir Altyd” and romcom “Happiness is a Four-Letter Word” (pictured) have shattered records, while also showcasing an ability for local fare to succeed across genres.

“It’s a breakthrough year,” says Helen Kuun, of indie distrib Indigenous Film, who calls the numbers “spectacular in the context of the size of this market” and the country’s ongoing woes.

A murky economic forecast has certainly put the squeeze on many consumers. Nicolette Scheepers, chief of content and programming for Ster-Kinekor, South Africa’s largest theater chain, notes that the steep decline of the rand in the past year has had “a knock-on effect on the disposable income available for entertainment.”

Year-on-year admissions have been sliding, and the B.O. surge is largely being spurred by rising ticket prices, as well as the growing penetration of 3D and IMAX screens, and V.I.P. seating which commands premium prices.

Still, Scheepers says “attendances have begun to stabilize over the past 18 months, after a couple of years of steady decline.”

She adds, “Core audiences continue to frequent cinemas, particularly for blockbuster and family content.”

The strong performance by a handful of South African pics might not change the overall calculus for producers, though. Local market share last year was still just 6%, with the B.O. bonanza driven by Hollywood tentpoles “Furious 7,” “Minions,” “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

As production has climbed in the past decade, with the country now releasing around 25-30 features a year, the B.O. success of hits like “Happiness,” which soared past the 10 million rand (around $741,000) benchmark, can’t hide the fact that most local releases flop.

“As the volume is increasing…the highs are really high, but the lows are pretty low,” says Kuun.

Breaking even for most films is a challenge, especially for an industry whose pics have historically recouped little from foreign sales. “You’ve got to make your cinema work in your home country,” says producer Jeremy Nathan. “At 10 million rand, it’s going to be impossible to recoup from cinema, TV sales,” and other revenue streams.

Local producers have long relied on robust funding from the South African government, which offers substantial support through NFVF grants, rebates from the Dept. of Trade and Industry, and funding from regional film offices. While government coin has extended the industry a lifeline, there are fears that few films can stand on their own legs, with Kuun speculating that if South African pics “had to be funded 100 percent commercially…there would be no films made.”

A promising trend has been the emergence of romcoms like “Happiness” and “Mrs. Right Guy,” whose all-black casts perhaps point toward a way forward for an industry that has long struggled to reach South Africa’s growing black middle class.

At a time when Tyler Perry and Kevin Hart can bring in boffo B.O. and “Black-ish” and “Atlanta” win over critics and auds alike, South African pics might also be able to strike a chord at last with foreign viewers who have typically tuned them out.

“There’s a potential to be part of the world market that wasn’t there before,” says Kuun.

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