JOHANNESBURG — If South Africans were surprised by the box office success of “Material,” a heartwarming romantic comedy about a young Muslim man who pursues a stand-up comedy career against his conservative father’s wishes, perhaps no one was more surprised than producer Ronnie Apteker.

“We got lucky with ‘Material,’ ” says Apteker, an Internet entrepreneur-turned-producer. “If you make movies in South Africa and try to make money … it just doesn’t work. You’re trying to beat the odds.”

Apteker co-founded Internet Solutions, South Africa’s first Internet service provider, before a love of film pushed him into writing and producing a decade ago. For an entrepreneur with a successful track record in business, it was a risky venture.

“There’s a difference between making movies and the business of movies,” he says. “It’s not that difficult to make a movie. Trying to sell the movie, though, is a whole other journey.”

“Material” benefited from an aggressive marketing campaign, strong support from the local press and favorable buzz via social media. It was also buoyed by a standout performance by Riaad Moosa, a South African comic making his feature debut.

At a time of growing discontent in South Africa, which was hit hard by the global economic crisis, the comedy succeeded most perhaps because, inside the theater, it helped auds to forget their troubles.

“Many of the (more serious) films just really don’t do well in South Africa,” says Debbie McCrum, general manager of distrib NuMetro Films. “South Africans want to be entertained.”

Most B.O. successes in South Africa follow predictable formulas: Comic Leon Schuster’s laffers reliably gross $3 million-$4 million in theaters, while romantic comedies and musicals targeting the white, Afrikaans-speaking market have accounted for some of the country’s highest-grossing films of the past decade.

But “Material,” says Apteker, told a universal story that cut across racial and cultural lines — a difficult task in a country which, 18 years after the end of apartheid, is often still divided.

While modest by global standards, the pic’s R8 million (about $920,000) at the box office made it one of the country’s most successful local films in years. Apteker says it’s also sold well via TV, DVD and VOD.

Whether or not the movie’s successful formula can be repeated, though, remains to be seen. While many in the South African biz are encouraged by the industry’s slow growth over the past decade, and the occasional hits, like Oscar foreign langauge winner “Tsotsi,” which break out internationally, Apteker seems doubtful about the industry’s future.

For every hit like “Material,” there are a dozen pics like “Copposites,” a buddy-cop comedy that has grossed a mere $46,000 since its October release.

“There is no industry here,” Apteker says. “If it just loses money, it’s not an industry.”

Still, the producer is happy with “Material’s” domestic success, and hopes to secure Indian distribution when he takes the pic to the Intl. Film Festival of India, which begins Nov. 20. He’s also pleased the pic impressed his most discerning critic: his mom.

“That was a big benchmark for me,” he says. What: Laffer “Material” is a hit amid a stumbling
S. African film biz.
The takeaway: Comedy’s universal themes offer escapism in a local industry that lacks infrastructure. mostly misfires as it seeks to gain its footing with auds.