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Michael Matthews, Sean Drummond: Two for ‘Five’ in Durban

Producers Michael Matthews and Sean Drummond are bringing the West to South Africa with their film “Five Fingers for Marseilles.” Directed by Matthews and written by Drummond, the gritty, Western-inspired movie is primarily in the South African languages Sesotho and isiXhosa, and aims to attract an international audience. The producing partners have collaborated on two shorts since 2009. The two spoke with Variety about this, their first feature film.

Tell us about “Five Fingers for Marseilles.”

It draws on Western conventions, but sets them in a modern South African context, based in a small-town deep in the middle of the country — a sort of new frontier in itself that’s not often seen. It’s the story of one town fighting for its freedom, and the Five Fingers — who we meet first as driven, but somewhat naive children and again as adults, each seeking their own peace, dealing with the consequences of their past choices — who are on the front line of that battle. It’s dark and raw, slow burning in parts, explosive in others, loosely referencing current South African politics (the best Westerns always had social or political undercurrents), with a touch of something more mystical or spiritual.

What kind of projects are selling well these days?                                                            

Popular on Variety

Like most territories, we’re still dictated to by what’s selling in the global market. American films are generally in the majority on screen and in audience numbers, apart from periodic breakout South African hits. The good news is that these breakouts seem to be coming along more often, and we see more local films releasing and more films staying on screen for longer.

Whether that translates into any real effect on financing, I’m not sure. For us, we want our films to compete globally — our industry needs that — and that means our films need to sit on that level. Apart from the obvious creative and technical excellence, it means that in some cases budgets need to be relatively higher than the industry might be used to here. And that’s hard to justify to financiers when many of them look to local B.O. figures. I’m not sure even the best local B.O. figures justify those budgets, even for the top earners.

What are some challenges you face as South African filmmakers?

There’s the constant challenge of finance, as there is in any independent film industry. And if we want to make films that are bigger, that’s more money. You hear grumbles about funding, and of course movie-money is hard to find, but with the (Department of Trade & Industry) rebate, etc., here we have a lot going for us. Rather than dwell on negatives, I think we should focus on making our film industry an appealing investment, especially for private equity.

A priority is building up local audiences – so attracting people that might not usually watch films, as well as offering films that compete with the international stuff coming in and draw audiences towards local content rather than the imports. If we can build up the sort of hype around local films that you see attached to a lot of the bigger stuff coming in, that would be a great step. There’s a marketing concern in there too — I think a kick in the berries for film marketing here wouldn’t be a bad thing. You see a lot of anticipation for films like Neil Blomkamp’s “Elysium,” following “District 9,” which is a South African director who made his mark with a South African story, and audiences here got on board. We need more of those stories.

I also think there is an important place for films that aren’t necessarily commercially viable, which is tricky in an economic merit model, so another challenge for the industry might be to source finance that’s altruistic and dedicated to expression and culture, maybe something more along European models. Maybe it takes a thriving commercial model to allow for that, redistributing portions of revenue from successful commercial films towards those projects.

With the advent of VOD, do you think movie-going has become a rarity?

The cinema model will continue to change, but hopefully not as extremely as Spielberg and Lucas think. I think the audience for moviegoing will always love moviegoing, like the theater audience will always love theater. It’s the experience as much as the films themselves and some films will always warrant that. Not even only the blockbusters – I think you experience film in a different way in a cinema space and that applies to even the tiny indie drama. It draws you in, in a different way, it’s all-encompassing. Different kind of a magic.

Do local audiences want films about race and politics or do they prefer escapism?

I think there’s a place for films that do either one, and for films that do both. Personally I think it’s good to explore topics that have relevance to the lives of South African audiences, but the trick is to do it subtly through plot and character, not to mistake “issue” for storytelling. Story is king. And also, a lot of these issues are relevant all over, so themes can be universal.

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