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African Screen Network Aims to Create Robust Distribution Across the Continent

The launch of a new screen initiative, announced in Durban this week, could mark the first step toward solving the exhibition woes that plague African filmmakers. With an aim toward providing a coordinated and concerted strategy for building an audience for local content, the African Screen Network will focus on creating a sustainable business model for exhibiting African films across the continent.

“African audiences are not getting access to African content,” says manager Khanyo Mjamba. “The whole idea is to create an infrastructure to get these films to African audiences.”

According to their agreements with the ASN, network partners will commit to screening at least three of the company’s offered films, with a minimum of one screening per pic. They’ll also be required to distribute marketing materials and provide feedback on screenings, including audience reports and photos.

Working mostly through independent cinemas and cultural institutions, the network has signed up 21 screens in 16 countries so far, with South African producer Steven Markovitz, of Big World Cinema, who co-founded the network, saying “there’s potential to double that number within a year.”

Markovitz funded the ASN through self-financing and a small seed grant from the Goethe Institut. He says the group has set a low barrier for entry for local exhibitors, with an eye toward getting more and more partners onboard as the network begins to grow.

“We know it’s going to take time to build an appetite and create a culture around African films,” says Markovitz. “This is just the beginning.”

For its rollout, the ASN has selected six critically acclaimed contemporary African features, including “Democrats,” Danish helmer Camilla Nielsson’s hard-hitting doc on Zimbabwe’s electoral crisis that won best documentary feature in Tribeca in 2015; Philippe Lacote’s “Run,” from Ivory Coast, which premiered in Un Certain Regard at Cannes in 2014; “Stories of Our Lives,” a collaborative series of vignettes on LGBT life in Kenya, which scooped two awards at the Berlinale last year; “Love the One You Love,” helmer Jenna Bass’ look at love and happiness in contemporary South Africa, which won a host of awards in Durban in 2014; “Beats of the Antonov,” by Sudan’s Hajooj Kuka, which won the audience award in Toronto in 2014; and “Necktie Youth,” Sibs Shongwe-La Mer’s blistering portrait of South African millennials, which won multiple awards in Durban last year.

The ambitious selection highlights the network’s goal of providing a pan-African platform for a new wave of African filmmaking.

“We’re looking for films that are breaking new ground in terms of story-telling,” says Mjamba. “People need to know that there’s quality [African] content out there.”

While VOD platforms are gaining traction across Africa, high data costs and slow Internet speeds have prohibited the sort of growth VOD has seen in Europe and the U.S. For the African Screen Network, that just means more untapped potential.

“Theatrical is still a cornerstone of the cinema business [in Africa],” says Markovitz, who notes that more theaters are being built across the continent. “The full potential of theatrical on this continent has not been realized yet.”

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