Destination: South Africa

Fiscal shakeup strengthens ops

JOHANNESBURG — Two years ago, when the rand started rising in strength against the dollar, the production industry in South Africa held its breath.

The country’s many assets — good weather, diverse locations, English-speaking and experienced crews, a world-class infrastructure — drew international producers, but one of the major draws was a favorable exchange rate for U.S. and Euro filmmakers.

The industry feared the honeymoon could be over, but the rising rand has turned out to be a boon for the industry. It has lead to fundamental changes that industry leaders believe will ensure the long-term sustainability of South Africa as a quality production location.

There was an estimated 30% to 40% drop in seasonal commercial and stills work in 2003, previously one of the mainstays of the industry, but this decline was offset by an increase in international features as local production companies took advantage of the stronger rand to invest in infrastructure and technology.

David Wicht, chief executive of production company Film Afrika (“Country of My Skull”) says the company had its busiest year in 2003. The Cape Film Commission says there was a 140% increase in feature and TV series production in the region last year.

Wicht says that years of persistent forging relationships with international producers and studios and overcoming skepticism about South Africa are starting to pay off.

Philip Key, chief executive of Moonlighting Films (“Beyond Borders,” “Ali”), one of the leading facilitators for foreign productions in South Africa, says the initial slowdown in work brought about by the stronger rand brought a sense of reality to the market.

“There will be companies that close. And while this is always difficult for those involved, it has normalized the market. There is now an urgency to put into place systems and infrastructure that will ensure the longevity of the industry. Unrealistic and exploitative price increases have been reined in, with location fees even decreasing in some cases.”

Key says South Africa showed that it had an attractive production industry even with the rand sitting at a high of 97¢ vs. the dollar. “When stacked up against other lower-cost destinations, we are still producing real value,” he says. “We have a real industry now.”

Wicht says one of the key factors bringing producers to South Africa despite the stronger rand was the professionalism of local crews. “Directors who have worked here all leave singing the praises of our hardworking, professional crews. We don’t have unions for them and they work on gentleman’s agreements.”

The biggest development is a Hollywood-style film city, backed by the Western Cape provincial government, to be established near Cape Town by producer Anant Singh’s Dreamworld consortium.

Scheduled to start construction at the end of this year, the studio aims to be a one-stop shop from shooting to post and capable of handling big-budget international productions.

There have been several other significant investments.

  • The Refinery post-production group opened a film lab in Cape Town in October and is looking at establishing a Johannesburg branch this year. Refinery managing director Steve Harris says the stronger rand made it possible to go ahead with the $600,000 investment. Also, the Sasani Group has been upgrading post facilities.

  • Johannesburg-based Chris Fellows Sound Studio, part of the Video Lab Group, earlier this year completed an upgrade of its Studio One to Dolby Digital Surround Ex, and opened a second studio to increase capacity.

  • International producers are starting to move into the market. Matthew Stillman, of Prague production services company Stillking Films, has set up in Cape Town. Goldstein Co., a U.S. film and TV production outfit, has entered into a partnership with leading local media company Johnnic Communications to raise coin for pic production and distribution in South Africa.

The National Film and Video Foundatio has hosted a South African stand at the annual Assn. of Film Commissioners Intl. locations confab. Also, NFVF marketing manager Jackie Motsepe says the organization is in discussion with the department of Trade and Industry about developing such incentives.

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