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Locations Africa Expo Sends Message in Durban: ‘Africa is Ready’

DURBAN–The first edition of the Locations Africa Expo and Conference was held this week during the Durban FilmMart, with an eye toward identifying and growing the opportunities to lure incoming productions to the continent.

“Locations Africa is trying to service a need on the continent to discuss the physical production…on the ground, highlighting film commissions, the services sector, the crew, the facilities, the organizations, the understanding of the incentives and legislative environment,” said Locations Africa’s Azania Muendane (pictured).

The three-day event brought together representatives of African film commissions, production services companies, location scouts, and other industry professionals dedicated to turning the continent into a world-class locations industry.

“Trying to sell Africa is always the hardest because the Western perception of what we have and who we are is vastly wrong,” said Irfaan Fredericks, of production services company Kalahari Film and Media. “How do we manage our perception?”

Industry experts were clear-eyed about the challenges: Few African countries offer production incentives; infrastructure – from roads to power supplies to telecom networks – is often shoddy; specialized equipment is hard to source outside of South Africa; and there can be significant health and security risks—a problem not only for cast and crew, but for production costs that can soar if you’re insuring top talent.

But the continent offers diverse and breathtaking locations that are impossible to reproduce on a Hollywood sound stage, and a dizzying range of stories waiting to be told. As Muendane asserted at the Expo’s opening session: “Africa is ready for production.”

Here were some key takeaways:

African governments need to step up.

Three years ago in Durban, the African Union announced the launch of a commission dedicated to the rapid growth of film and TV industries across the continent. But from film incentives to co-production treaties to streamlined permitting processes, most African governments aren’t doing enough to support their film industries—especially at the local level. Parks officials are often in the dark about the latest regulations; customs agents routinely delay the movement of equipment into African ports-of-call. “In our experience, the film commissions are very clear about what needs to be done, and they’re very forward-thinking,” said Nikki Knight, of Film Fixers Africa. “But there’s a huge amount of work that needs to be done once you’ve got your film permit.” Kenya Film Commission CEO Timothy Owase added: “If you go to a location with certain expectations, you must achieve them 100%. If you don’t, then you have to think twice. Government has to support you to be able to do that.”

…but African filmmakers are finding their own solutions.

Kenyan film professionals have spent the past decade lobbying their government for incentives, and a long-awaited co-production treaty with South Africa has stalled. But that hasn’t stopped the east African nation from developing one of the most thriving locations industries on the continent. “They’re designing a system whereby it’s not completely reliant on incentives,” said Fredericks. “It’s already a destination, people are already shooting there.” While government cooperation across borders would be a boon for the pan-African industry and support incoming productions, African filmmakers don’t need to wait for a helping hand. “There is more room for us to focus on more co-productions,” said Owase. “Even if governments have not signed co-production treaties, I think as businesses we can start interacting.”

The film and tourism industries need to work hand in hand.

From the beaches of the Gambia to the roaring Victoria Falls that straddle the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia, most African countries have developed an infrastructure to suit the needs of tourists. And the industry is booming. Earlier this year, the World Travel & Tourism Council reported that travel and tourism in Africa grew by 5.6% last year, compared to the global average of 3.9%. The challenge for the film industry is getting hoteliers and others in the hospitality industry onboard to support film productions—offering free or deeply discounted hotel rooms, for example, as is the case in many regions. “The feeling is that the red carpet is available in other countries, which in Africa isn’t always the case,” said Fredericks. “If we can get them together, it’s a driving force for the business.”

Mapping the continent’s resources remains the biggest challenge.

“It does feel like we’re working in silos,” said Knight, of the work that locations scouts do around the continent. Often the biggest challenge for incoming productions in Africa is finding the fixers who can facilitate shoots at the micro level: Smoothing the customs process, hiring qualified drivers. “The requirement from the countries we’re usually filming in is they want you to use the local resources, but you don’t know who they are, and what it is that they have,” said Knight. “You know that the stuff is there. The people exist. But you just don’t know how to find them. So it takes a long time to be able to pull that kind of support in place.” One suggestion at the Locations Africa Expo and Conference was the creation of a pan-African locations guild to help with the transfer of knowledge and support across borders. “The more that we can share our skill sets and our resources, everybody ends up benefitting at the end of the day,” said Knight.

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