JOHANNESBURG — It’s been more than half a century since independence movements swept across Africa, but when it comes to doing business on the continent, stubborn reminders of the colonial borders remain.
Perhaps nowhere is that more apparent than in the worlds of film and TV, where the French and English markets have only in recent years begun to court one another.
The challenges go beyond linguistic divides, with less-developed Francophone industries lagging behind production powerhouses like South Africa and Nigeria.
“If you’d like to work with English-speaking territories, co-production is one of the biggest difficulties,” said Alain Modot, CEO of the distribution network DIFFA, during a panel discussion at Discop this week. In Francophone Africa, “there is absolutely no broadcaster who is able to invest as a pre-financer.”
Despite that sobering reality, French-speaking economies are on the rise. With the continent’s two giants, South Africa and Nigeria, hobbled by recession, Africa’s fastest-growing economies last year were Ivory Coast and Senegal. Yves Bigot, CEO of TV5 Monde, noted that population growth alone could help lift the Francophone region.
“In Africa and throughout the world, the French-speaking communities have a very bright economic and cultural future,” he said, pointing to estimates that the French-speaking population could reach 700 million by the middle of the century—mostly from the fast-growing regions of the global south, particularly Africa.
Whatever challenges those countries face, he said, “the demographics will make sure that the economic development will follow.”
For some, the development can’t come soon enough. “French-speaking Africa is a mine of talent…but the landscape is at a very early stage,” said Bernard Azria, CEO of Cote Ouest. “We are taking inspiration from the English-speaking countries to guide our decisions, because it’s a good example of what might be happening in our own.”
With the world’s largest catalog of African content, Cote Ouest pioneered efforts on the continent to dub popular series into English and French. The cross-border success of shows like “The Story of My Life” (pictured) strengthened the company’s conviction that in parts of the continent, cultural similarities can transcend linguistic barriers.
For producers, that opens the door for series “that can be easily adapted and sold to neighboring countries,” said Azria, with the goal “to develop a win-win collaboration between the two Africas.”
Some of those collaborations are already taking shape. French production and distribution group Lagardère Studios is partnering with South Africa’s Urban Brew Studios to produce a telenovela that will lens in both French and English. Last year, Canal Plus Overseas signed a development deal with Restless Global and Ten10 Films for “The Trade,” an ambitious series based on the West African drug trade and largely set in Nigeria, Guinea Bissau, and France.
This month, Canal Plus International boarded “Agent,” a glitzy series set in the glamorous world of African soccer, which begins shooting on the island nation of Mauritius next month. A co-production with Mauritius’ Cinebar Studios and Collective Dream Studios, it features casting from Mauritius, South Africa, Nigeria, the U.K. and France—a clear sign of the show’s ambitions to appeal to both English- and French-speaking markets.
It might just be a matter of time, though, before those markets are the same. On a continent that is increasingly young and urban, the similarities between audiences in Lagos and Kinshasa might ultimately outpace the differences. “Language just happens to be a barrier,” said Leo Manne, SVP of Southern Africa for urban music net TRACE. “Collectively, we have a story to tell.”