When Joel Phiri and his partners at Known Associates Entertainment began financing “uBettina Wethu,” the South African remake of the megahit Colombian telenovela that inspired the ABC series “Ugly Betty,” the Johannesburg-based producer says, “We talked to anybody that would listen.”
That those talks would involve both local and global streaming services was a given. But perhaps less expected was the fact that Known Associates and partners Moonlighting Films would strike a deal with Viu, PCCW’s Asian regional OTT platform, which didn’t simply commission “uBettina Wethu” or acquire streaming rights but boarded the series as co-producers.
Viu’s first foray into producing original content in South Africa is the latest example of how both local and global streamers are shaking up the country’s production industry, which has been rattled by the coronavirus pandemic. Netflix has rolled out three South African originals in the past year, while local SVOD Showmax has produced nearly a dozen originals for the South African market. “COVID notwithstanding, there’s definitely … a boom being driven by platforms,” says Phiri. “It’s a good time to be a producer in South Africa.”
Ryan Solovei, Viu’s country manager for South Africa, says the “Ugly Betty” adaptation “ticks a lot of boxes” for the company’s move into original content in the country. “It’s a local production, so it speaks to local audiences. It speaks to a younger audience,” he says.
After launching its VOD service in South Africa in 2019, Solovei says Viu could potentially produce up to 10 original series next year, and as many as 20 the following year. “Our ideal world would be to have 100% local content, and for it to be 70% our own content,” he says.
It’s a familiar playbook in the streaming wars led by Netflix, which has made original local content a key part of its strategy to lure more subscribers. The streaming giant launched its first South African original, the spy series “Queen Sono,” last year, and is currently in production on season two of teen drama “Blood & Water” while gearing up for the 2021 release of the street dance drama “Jiva!”
Dorothy Ghettuba, Netflix’s head of African originals, says the company has greenlit a number of other local originals yet to be announced, and that it plans to “invest heavily to expand the variety and diversity of our [South African] slate.”
Yolisa Phahle, CEO for general entertainment at the MultiChoice Group, which launched the Showmax streaming service in 2015, believes that local players nevertheless have a leg up on their Los Gatos-based competition. “Everything we do, and every investment we make, is 100% focused on the African continent,” she says.
MultiChoice, which includes pay-TV heavyweight DStv and the M-Net channels group, has 30 years’ worth of experience in the South African market, something Phahle cites as a competitive advantage in understanding the tastes of local audiences. The company is ramping up investment in high-end drama series and is looking to produce two to three titles with international partners a year, according to Phahle.
Among the first projects to launch will be “Blood Psalms” (pictured), an ambitious epic series inspired by Xhosa legend, co-produced by Showmax and Canal Plus Intl. Layla Swart, who created the 10-episode series along with acclaimed South African director Jahmil X.T. Qubeka (“Of Good Report”), says the duo’s plan was “to secure a co-production deal instead of an outright commission,” with Showmax and Canal Plus presenting the most attractive offer.
The competition among rival platforms, says Swart, is “proving to light a bonfire under the broadcasters/streamers and content creators alike.” She adds: “I believe us to be entering a golden age of African content creation, where … the world can be exposed to work from this continent on a scale that has never been seen before.”