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S. Africa studios deliver U.S. hits

Cape Town locale, national resources attract moviemakers

JOHANNESBURG — Two B.O. hits, both lensed in Cape Town, are adding to South Africa’s growing reputation as a shooting hot spot.

Universal’s “Safe House,” filmed with Cape Town-based Moonlighting Films; and Fox’s “Chronicle,” shot with Film Afrika Worldwide, highlight the development of a country long known primarily for its locations.

Bizzers say the nation has reached a turning point that will make it more competitive on the global stage.

“I think the industry has matured, and we now can attract big Hollywood productions,” says Moonlighting co-founder Genevieve Hofmeyr.

The evidence has grown in the past year, with “Safe House” and “Chronicle” joining a list of high-profile productions that includes Lionsgate’s 3D comicbook adaptation “Dredd,” History’s Emmy-winning skeins “Gettysburg” and “America: The Story of Us,” Paul Walker starrer “Vehicle 19,” which sold to distribs all over the world at recent film markets, and Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium.”

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Film Afrika CEO David Wicht says that the industry has seen a shift from location-based films to more ambitious projects capitalizing on the country’s technical skills, infrastructure, rebates and favorable rates of exchange against the rand.

“The films that have come here are not coming because the setting is South Africa,” he says. “They’re coming because they’re getting great value.”

That optimism comes in large part because of what Wicht describes as a concerted effort between government and the industry to propel the film biz forward.

The government has pushed to ensure that South Africa remains competitive globally. The South African Film and Television Production and Co-Production Incentive offers 35% on the first R6 million ($785,000) of qualifying spending in South Africa, and 25% on the remainder. The Foreign Film and Television Production Incentive offers a 15% rebate, with plans reportedly in the works to up that to 20%.

Last year, the Dept. of Trade and Industry removed the $2.6 million cap on both incentives, a move that Wicht says has made it much more attractive for bigger-budget movies to shoot in South Africa.

Perhaps the region’s most exciting development was last year’s opening of Cape Town Film Studios, billed as the first Hollywood-style studio on the continent. The $4.6 million complex, located a short drive from the city, offers four high-tech soundstages and a sophistication previously unseen in South Africa.

The studio cut its teeth on Lionsgate’s “Dredd,” slated for a September release. Dekker says the experience benefited CTFS not only through the direct transfer of technical skills, in what was the country’s first foray into 3D, but because it offered an up-close look at how a large-scale, big-budget production gets made.

CTFS has given filming in Cape Town an added dimension. Wicht says the presence of a world-class studio helped to woo the producers of “Chronicle,” which was set in Seattle.

For the forthcoming “Labyrinth,” shot with Tandem Communications in association with Ridley and Tony Scott’s Scott Free Films, the studio built a small replica mountain that was used to re-create a village in 13th-century France.

Dekker says he hopes to build more permanent sets in the coming months. He’s also looking ahead to the second phase for the CTFS campus, in which suppliers and service companies will be drawn into the complex’s fold, and hopes to eventually include bars, restaurants, hotels and residential space.

For now, the ancillary benefits of the studios have been a huge boon to Cape Town. In a country whose official unemployment rate hovers around 25% — and is believed to be much higher — Dekker estimates that studio-based productions in South Africa create up to three times as many jobs as location-based shoots.

Perhaps most important, the increased attention from international productions is giving a shot in the arm to the local industry.

According to Hofmeyr, the influx of foreign money and talent gives the industry a chance to be able to nurture South African films.

“If a country is being used primarily as a location, rather than as a production center, then you don’t develop the same skills,” she says.

Dekker agrees, pointing to the growing demand for vfx talent and the studios’ potential to unite South Africa’s technically skilled workers into a more cohesive work force.

However, the South African industry, he maintains, is underperforming.

“We need to remove a barrier in our minds,” he says. “There’s no reason why South Africa can’t make a ‘Chronicle.’ “

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