Nearly two decades after the end of apartheid, the South African film industry is still grappling with its legacy as it struggles to bring more black audiences into movie theaters.

The cinematic landscape in South Africa largely reflects the geography of apartheid, with most movie theaters located in shopping malls in predominantly white, affluent suburbs. The country’s 40 million-strong black population remains largely underserved by plexes, and many industry insiders fear that the South African biz, which has been growing rapidly in recent years, will stagnate if it fails to reach a wider audience.

“Locally, we are stunted in getting to the broader population here,” says producer Steven Markovitz of Big World Cinema.

The National Film and Video Foundation is taking the first steps toward addressing this inequity, with an initiative to bring more digital cinemas into black townships across the country.

The project, which kicked off with a pilot phase in 2010, will build or rehabilitate one cinema in each of the country’s nine provinces.

The NFVF’s Terrence Khumalo says the government-funded project, which will cost R30 million ($3.8 million) over the next three years, will help local filmmakers gain a platform to exhibit their films.

Some filmmakers, though, feel that building more screens solves only part of the problem.

Director Charlie Vundla (“How 2 Steal 2 Million”) says the new township theaters would have to show something other than the Hollywood blockbusters that dominate screens at Ster-Kinekor and Nu Metro, South Africa’s largest theater chains, to have an impact on the South African industry. They need to spur audiences to “develop more of an appreciation for local films and local talent,” he says.

According to statistics compiled by the NFVF, local pics accounted for less than 4% of total B.O. through the first two trimesters of 2011, grossing $2.3 million. In 2010, they accounted for around 11% of total B.O., grossing $11 million.

The hard numbers, says Markovitz, influence exhibitors who are looking for short-term profit, as opposed to long-term sustainability. “But the long-term game is in the local films,” he says.

As the rapidly growing black middle-class continues to flex its commercial muscle, it’s become an especially attractive demographic for local businesses. But while both Ster-Kinekor and Nu Metro have looked at ways to increase their presence in black townships, concrete plans have failed to get off the ground.

Despite the robust support of government, industry insiders agree that the private sector, in the words of Markovitz, “really needs to come to the party and see the opportunity” in everything from production to distribution to exhibition.

Basil Ford, of the Industrial Development Corp., which has invested millions in the local film biz, says the South African business community is nervous, because it sees film as an untested market.

Recent successes, he says, should be encouraging. Two locally produced comedies, “Semi-Soet” and “Material,” recently claimed second and third positions at the box office for eight weeks running. And the increasing quality and international exposure of local films should build confidence as the industry looks to expand.

“Ten years ago, it wouldn’t have made a difference to have more screens,” Ford says.

The NFVF initiative, according to many, is a start. And the success of Afrikaans-language films, which have found a reliable niche among white auds by casting recognizable pop stars in leading roles, could be a harbinger for local filmmakers trying to reach black audiences. “We have TV stars here. We have (black) music stars here. There is a real following out there,” Markovitz says. “But until there is a big-scale program to build hundreds of screens in the townships, (reaching black audiences) is going to be an ongoing problem.”