DURBAN — Over the past nine years, the Durban FilmMart (DFM) has grown into Africa’s leading film finance forum and a fertile ground for foreign producers, sales agents, financiers and industry leaders looking to scout the next generation of African talent. Variety spoke to Durban Film Office and DFM head Toni Monty about the FilmMart’s growth, its challenges, and how South African and other African filmmakers can help the industry move forward to claim a greater stake in the global marketplace.

The Industrial Development Corp. (IDC), which has invested close to R1 billion ($75 million) in the South African film industry since 2012, strengthened its partnership with the Durban FilmMart this year, and signed an MoU with the National Film & Video Foundation (NFVF) this week for the Emerging Black Filmmakers Transformation Fund. Is there anything more you’d like to see from government bodies – or private enterprise – to grow both the DFM, and the South African film industry?

South Africa is obviously very lucky. We have so many agencies within South Africa that support the industry, and they do engage with the industry regularly, in terms of their policy direction and their policy structures. We’re very fortunate. You go to most other places in Africa, and you tell them what we’ve got, and they’re completely amazed. We’ve got commissions in every province, we’ve got a national funding body, we’ve got the IDC, and we’ve got the [Dept. of Trade & Industry] rebate. As a country, we are very, very lucky to have that kind of support.

I do think that all these agencies need to get closer to the ground. I think there are attempts to do that, but I think that all government agencies need to work harder at really understanding the needs of filmmakers, and the needs of industry. Sometimes, they can be like passing ships in the night, which is really unfortunate, because opportunities are then lost.

Distribution remains a huge challenge for South African – and African – filmmakers, and was a frequent theme of panel discussions at this year’s DFM. The government, to its credit, invests heavily in the production of local features, but those movies often struggle to get seen. What do you think the government or the industry could be doing differently, so that the projects we see in development at the DFM aren’t simply being made, but finding the widest possible audience?

Globally, as in Africa, there are many different channels and opportunities for distribution. I think that the missing link for us, especially in South Africa, is that most projects are largely government-funded, and it circles back to that idea of being on the ground, and understanding the filmmakers’ needs, and the filmmakers understanding the marketplace, and understanding “product placement.” Filmmakers would kill me if they heard me talking like that! [Laughter] How to place that product in the marketplace? Number one, there are too many filmmakers that don’t understand. Number two, that the government agencies don’t have enough grounding in that space either. And number three, I don’t think there’s enough conversation and understanding happening between the government agencies and the filmmakers. I think that is something that needs to be addressed.

It is almost like a situation where we’re saying, ‘Let’s produce the films, let’s get the numbers up,’ but then after that, we’re not seeing these things through. We do need to put more effort into that space. It comes down to understanding the market. It comes down to understanding the local box office, to understanding the local audiences. If we look at attendance during the festival for local films, it’s not always great. There isn’t a desire to tap into local content, and there definitely needs to be some work going into that. It starts at the beginning: what are you producing for the local market? Is that met by a demand? And how are you getting to the local market? If you’re talking about taking it into the global market, is it met by a demand? Do we really understand the rhythms of the global market to understand whether or not this has an opportunity in that space? We just need to be paying more attention in that space, and how we’re taking these films into the marketplace.

Speaking to producers and sales agents this week, it seems the great strength of the DFM is as arguably the top talent pool on the continent for African filmmakers—a place to meet emerging and established directors and producers, and find exciting projects in development. But buyers don’t generally come to Durban to acquire finished product. As one sales agent put it to me, ‘It’s not the selling end [at the DFM], it’s the discovery end.’ Do you think that’s something that can or should be changed?

It’s a development process. When we started nine years ago, we received about 160 submissions from all over Africa every year, and when you look at the majority of those projects, it was very clear where the support for African filmmakers was required. And that’s what we’ve been focusing on. But absolutely, we want to be moving into a space where Durban will be the space to come to actually trade in titles. But it’s been developmental. In a sense, the industry hasn’t been quite ready for it—not en masse. Of course, there are filmmakers in South Africa and in Africa who are doing very well for themselves individually. But when you look at it as a collective, there is a lot more development that’s required. We do feel that the market has matured over the last nine years, that we are moving into a new space now, where we can re-look at the model and ask ourselves, “So what’s the next step?” And it’s quite an exciting space. We’re ten years old next year, and we’re looking to launch some initiatives that will speak to the next step for Durban FilmMart.

There are a growing number of film markets scattered across the continent. Discop has expanded to Zanzibar, and soon to Lagos. Cape Town is giving the Cape Town Intl. Film Market and Festival (CTIFMF) an overhaul this year. How can these markets work together to ensure they’re not cannibalizing each other, but instead complimenting each other and working toward growing the pan-African film industry?

There’s always the potential for it to become very competitive, and for one to cannibalize the other. But I think at this stage, we’re all talking to each other and figuring out how we can work together, rather than against each other, and how we could possibly complement each other. Cape Town is literally brand new. They have some ideas, in terms of their strategy and where they want to go, and we’re having discussions. I think there is an opportunity for us to work together. At the end of the day, [CTIFMF market director] Elias Ribeiro is very much about developing filmmakers. That’s what Durban FilmMart is about. He takes it to heart, and we take it to heart. Hopefully, we’re going to find a synergistic existence. You don’t have to be fighting over a particular space.

This year’s challenges aside, the festival has suffered in recent years because of a lack of continuity; last year, Chipo Zhou became the seventh DIFF manager in six years. What can the Durban Film Office, and other festival partners, do to ensure more stability moving forward?

Obviously this is very important to us—not just from the Durban FilmMart perspective, but the Durban Intl. Film Festival is incredibly important to the city of Durban. We certainly are engaging with the [University of KwaZulu-Natal], which is essentially the custodian of the Durban Intl. Film Festival. They’re aware of the challenges. The university itself is one big bureaucracy, and the wheels do turn slowly. The discussions have been ongoing for the last couple of years. I do feel we are reaching a point where there is an understanding of what has to happen going forward, and I am feeling fairly confident that these things are going to be addressed in the coming months, in terms of what is the way forward for the festival.

The festival does require consistent leadership, and we see that has not been the case over the last couple of years. At this stage, I do feel that there is understanding that action now has to be taken, and it cannot go on like this. We are hoping and planning that by the 40th edition of the Durban Intl. Film Festival [in 2019], that those arrangements will have been finalized. I can say for sure that the Durban Intl. Film Festival holds too much value for the city for the city not to find another way forward. There will be some positive news in the coming months that will bring confidence to the industry that things are moving forward in a positive direction.

Pictured: Toni Monty