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S. Africa pic biz looks for solid ground

New coin boosts African filmmakers

DURBAN–As South Africa’s leading film fest wrapped its 33rd edition, local bizzers were looking ahead with cautious optimism as the young industry continues to find its feet.

But questions remain as to how long it will take for the South African biz to stand on solid ground. The industry is producing more films than ever before — roughly 20-25 per year — but profits largely remain elusive.

Government support has been instrumental in achieving the incremental gains of recent years, but without it, the local industry would likely crumble. The biggest constraint remains tepid interest from the private sector, which has yet to give significant backing to local producers, despite a favorable tax scheme introduced by the government after industry pressure.

Equity investment from government-run bodies the Industrial Development Corp. and the National Film and Video Foundation remains the driving force behind local pics, along with attractive production rebates from the Dept. of Trade and Industry. A post-production rebate has recently been added to the scheme, and proposed P&A and post-production incentives reportedly are on the table as well.

“(The government) has been very quick to respond to the changing landscape,” producer Ken Kaplan says. Ongoing dialogue between the government and local stakeholders, he adds, has shown that the government remains deeply committed to nurturing the industry until it can stand on its own legs.

The harvest at the Durban film festival illustrated the industry’s potential. This year’s crop of local films highlighted the country’s growing output and diversity, with more than 60 pics, including 16 features, showcasing what producer Helena Spring calls “the emergence of a strong new South African creative voice.”

While local filmmakers for years labored under the weight of heavy subject matter like HIV and apartheid, a lighter voice is emerging. Comedies like “Blitz Patrollie” and “Gog’ Helen” were well-received by festival auds, as was the 3D animated feature “Adventures in Zambezia,” reflecting a trend toward light-hearted local fare that performs relatively well at the box office.

“If we want consumers to buy tickets in significant numbers, we need to entertain them,” says Helen Kuun of distrib Indigenous Films. “As everywhere else in the world, the romantic comedy, family drama, comedy-dramas are performing.”

Weak overall B.O. figures remain a huge obstacle, and getting the growing black middle-class into theaters remains an elusive goal. Theater chains Ster-Kinekor and Nu Metro are frequently criticized for a lackluster support of local pics, with fewer than 10% of South African screens dedicated to local films. But that number has grown from just .5%, according to a 2005 study, and is likely to increase with the growing output of South African films. Only in recent years, too, have local pics proven they can compete for audiences, with five films since 2010 topping the R10 million mark (around $1.2 million) — a number usually surpassed only by Hollywood releases. In 2010, the local industry had an 11% market share of gross B.O. revenues, a 10-year high.

Homegrown comic Leon Schuster remains a proven B.O. commodity; his latest pic, “Mad Buddies,” which was acquired by Disney for worldwide distribution, has grossed nearly $3 million to date. Romantic comedies “Semi Soet” and “Material” both grossed around $1 million earlier this year, an encouraging sign that a wider market exists for South African films with “feel-good content,” according to Kuun.

The modest budgets of local productions — typically in the range of $500,000-$700,000 — would allow for slow but consistent growth for the industry if such success could be replicated.

The potential for more revenue streams across multiple platforms exists. Satcaster M-Net remains a consistent driver of TV distribution. As broadband speeds increase, prices drop, and Internet penetration rates driven by the mobile sector continue to rise, emerging VOD and streaming platforms will open up new revenue sources for producers.

Even if the online panacea remains unproven globally, Kaplan says, “we’re entering at a very low-cost production level, so we’ll be well placed to reap the benefits of emerging distribution methods.”

As with much in South Africa, industry optimists are taking a long view, citing how far the country has come in less than two decades since the end of apartheid.

“South Africa is a young country,” says producer Steven Markovitz, acknowledging that the industry’s growth is taking a lot longer than we were hoping.

“It took the country awhile to find an identity and a way forward,” he says, “(but) I think we’re starting to come into our own.”

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