Cape Town — While the South African film market is maturing, the lack of market research is “one of the biggest problems” facing the local industry, says producer Danie Bester of Film Factory.
A record 24 local films were released in 2010 with “Schuks Tshabalala’s Survival Guide to 2010,” setting a new box office record for a South African film, raking in R37.5 million ($5.4 million).
A comedy revolving around the 2010 World Cup soccer tourney, directed by Gray Hofmeyr and starring and co-written by Leon Schuster, the country’s most bankable star, there was little doubt the film would do well.
Even so, “the economic reality of our industry makes it difficult to justify the cost associated with research,” says Bester, who produced 2008 hit “Bakgat!,” the first ever Afrikaans teen comedy.
At present, many in the local industry rely on sporadic research by the National Film and Video Foundation, the Dept. of Trade and Industry and the local film commissions.
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“Hopefully, the NFVF will push up the amount and quality of research,” says Bester. “There are not enough resources available in South Africa. A lot of the projects developed are chosen for every reason but strong market analysis.”
Ross Garland exec produced helmer Donovan Marsh’s local hit “Spud,” based on John van de Ruit’s novel of the same name about 14-year-old Spud’s first year at boarding school. It was one of 24 homegrown films released last year.
He says, “Market research companies haven’t played much of a role in the industry to date, although that might change as we now see the industry maturing into a tangibly commercial space here for local content producers.”
Most producers do conduct their own forms of ad hoc research, according to Garland.
“Producers decide on the film they want to make first. Market research, or at least researching comparable film performance, helps right-size the budget and develop a sensible business plan. To do this a producer needs to be honest about the project and where it fits in terms of its genre and natural audience pull.”
“Spud” was published in 2005 giving Garland five years of anecdotal feedback from fans, which helped to assess its crossover potential.
His next movie, “31 Million Reasons,” is a heist movie set in the Indian community of Durban.
“With that, we focused more on comparable heist film performances in South Africa, and its natural fit as a talking point for the Indian community,” says Garland. “You can’t paint by numbers in this game but you can certainly use common sense to assess who you should be pitching your film to or which groups are most likely to pay to get in.”
Chris Roland, executive producer of ZenHQ, is one of small but growing number of industryites who do rely on market research.
He says, “We want information on what is likely to work or not, looking at current global trends and attempting to project future trends. In today’s shaky economic environment it’s vital to know your marketplace.”
ZenHQ relies on companies outside South Africa for this research. “Since sales agents, distributors and buyers are the key to getting content to the marketplace, we communicate regularly with these to determine the kind of content they are interested in. This plays heavily in our development decision making.”
Test screenings are also common, but as Bester admits, “By then it is too late to make significant changes” because few projects can afford prices retakes.
While Roland believes market research should be the first port of call, he adds there will always be films that defy expectations, citing 2004’s “Hotel Rwanda.” Based on real-life, the film follows a hotel manager attempting to protect Tutsi refugees from the murderous Hutu militia during the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
“‘Hotel Rwanda,’ which we co-exec produced, was not expected to do well due to the subject matter. That it took off was a surprise, and a credit to director Terry George’s vision and sensitivity to the story.
“Sometimes the universe conspires and all falls perfectly into place in spite of market research. But these are unusual cases and are the exception rather than the rule.”