The challenges for Africa’s film industry – getting financially sustainable as all about changes

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Sylvain Beletre interviewed South African Kevin Kriedemann, Editor at Film & Event Publishing (The Call Sheet) about how African cinema – in particular South African cinema - is doing and how it can overcome the challenges it faces.

Q: How can African film producers survive today, and who should fund the industry?

Ultimately, the goal is to create a self-sustaining film industry, where we make films for less money than we receive back from their audiences. This is starting to happen in South Africa. Last year, 23 local films were released.
One positive sign was better box office returns. Of these, Shucks Tshabalala’s Survival Guide to 2010 set a new box office record for South African films, raking in R37.5 million (US$5.2 m), while Spud topped R16 million (US$2.2m), Liefling is over R10 million (US$1.4 m), Bakgat topped R5 million (US$700,000) and Jakhalsdans earned over R2 million (US$280,000).

The other positive sign was lower production budgets, as South Africans showed they are learning how to make films for around R1 million (US$140,000), which is starting to seem recoupable while still able to create acceptable production budgets. Of course, Spud cost substantially more than that.

Those figures are for South Africa, which has a population of 50 million. Add in the one billion people in Africa and everyone in the diaspora, and there should be a profitable market on the continent, without us having to rely on foreign audiences.

Sadly, this isn’t the case at the moment, due to a number of factors, from the lack of distribution structures to the diversity of the continent, especially in terms of language, to the challenge of piracy.

But it was good to see the emergence of African co-productions like the Kenyan-SA co-pros The First Grader and Pumzi and the Rwandan-South Africa coproduction Africa United. It was also good to see Durban FilmMart attract strong projects from across Africa.

There are also positive signs in terms of foreign audiences. There’s been a sense that foreign audiences don’t always understand South Africans, especially their humour, but 2010 saw South Africa’s culture (and the continent’s) exposed massively through the 2010 FIFA World Cup and through District 9, among other things, and there’s a sense that they’re starting to “get us”. The fact that the new Denzel Washington/Ryan Reynolds film, Safe House, was rewritten to be set in Cape Town is a sign that the studios think there’s genuine global interest in stories set in Africa.

South Africa’s recent inclusion in BRICS will also help to keep us top of mind, as will the fact that Africa is increasingly being talked about as the final untapped investment market.

While a profitable, self-sustaining film industry is the goal, film can make a strong case that it deserves support and soft funding from government, the tourism industry and cultural institutions.

In 2010 South Africa’s Department of Trade and Industry (dti) doubled the cap on its two rebates to R20 million (US$2.8 m), as the research showed that their rebate scheme, which has committed R1 billion (US$139m) to 188 approved projects since 2004, attracted a positive cash flow to South Africa and was self-sustaining.

This is based on research that in 2006-2007 year, the industry was worth R2.65 billion in The Western Cape,  R1.1 billion in Gauteng, and R236 million in KZN, with a multiplier effect on the broader economy of R2.5 for every rand spent.

Apart from the dti, the other main source of financing is The Industrial Development Corporation (IDC), a self-financing, state-owned national development finance institution, which caps its investment at 49% of the overall budget.

The National Film and Video Foundation is another source of funding. On documentaries, they fund development up to R50 000 and production up to R100 000. On feature films, they fund development up to R150 000 and production up to R1 million. There are a lot of European funds that African cinema can apply for. These include The Goethe Institute, The World Cinema Fund, The Hubert Bals Fund, The Jan Vrijman Fund and ‘Fonds Images Afrique’. I’d love to see more specific African funds though, like the one FEPACI is busy launching.

We keep tabs of the various application deadlines click here:  and of the various funds click here:

South African Tourism’s research this year found that one of the top reasons people came to South Africa was because they had seen it on television. New Zealand, as another example, saw tourism spike after the success of The Lord of the Rings. And since trade follows film and tourism, film’s potential impact is immense, so it makes sense for government to do everything possible to promote it.

Film can also play a key role in nation-building (Invictus is a good example of a film that helped build community) and can be used to spark dialogue around morality, like Hopeville, which won the Rose d’Or last year for Best Drama, after being funded by an NGO to start a discussion around the impact of doing good on an entire community.

Q: Some African governments do not see local film production as a priority. Which African states support their national film makers?

Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban in South Africa, Kenya, Namibia and Morocco all have film commissions, which is a good start as it gives people wanting to work there a central conduit to connect with. Morocco has the most successful studios on the continent, with South Africa having just launched Cape Town Film Studios and Namibia possibly also launching another soon. I understand Rwanda government helped support ‘Africa United’ too.

Government involvement can lead to increased funding for both films and infrastructure developments like studios, but there’s often a cost involved: government bureaucracy doesn’t always mix well with film industry creativity and immediacy, while there’s always a risk that government will start to pay attention to how labour law would apply to the film industry, which has stayed remarkably unregulated.

Q: African TV stations have had the reputation of not being able to fund local productions. Is this changing?

I can only really speak for South Africa. The public broadcaster, SABC, has been in a state of paralysis for the last two years, funding very little local content, but the more promising development has been the increase in both channels and demand for local content. South African content regularly tops the TAMS (survey) in South Africa and DStv has been launching a lot more African content on its satellite channels as a result, like the Mzansi Magic channel. Similarly, TopTV, their new competitor, is starting to license content, even if the actual commissions have been slower than hoped. But there’s still a feeling that local content quotas aren’t monitored or enforced effectively, We expect more and more diversification of platforms, but the problem is in figuring out how to monetize this, as it’s not easy to make money online, especially given Africa’s bandwidth challenges, and if the new broadcasters aren’t making money they’re not going to be spending it either.

Q: African film makers and TV stations often have difficulty accessing African audiences. Have there been any measures put in place recently to solve this issue? 

It’s still a massive challenge. DStv has certainly started paying attention to Africa as a market, buying up African content for the African Film Library, etc, and seems to be making some headway.

I think DISCOP Africa has been a positive development in this regard, as a sales platform for African content.

Q: With the arrival of internet, reduced budgets from global broadcasters/TV stations, channel multiplication and limited government funding, the global film industry is at a turning point. Will it affect African productions?
Absolutely. One of my sadnesses is that when the web arrived, we thought it would level the playing field between Africa and the rest of the world. But the bandwidth, cost and access problems means that once again we have a situation where we are playing catch up and relying on foreign distribution platforms like iTunes and YouTube and Amazon. It’s very sad for me that iTunes doesn’t sell content to Africa – if they don’t think there’s a viable market in the 1 billion people here, that’s either a scary indictment of Africa or of them. I think these sorts of brands – iTunes, YouTube, Amazon, Netflix, Facebook, Twitter, Google, Apple – will be far more important to our industry’s future than the traditional broadcasters that currently exist.

It’s easier than ever to make, broadcast and distribute your content, but the challenge is in making it stand out amongst more competition than ever, and then monetize that. But it’s also easier to target a niche than ever before, so I’m both excited and daunted by the possibilities involved.

I think we’re far behind the curve here, so there’s a lot to learn from overseas. I attended Entertainment Master Class in Cape Town, where all the talk was about two-screen TV and interactivity, and incorporating social media into programming. I haven’t heard as much of that from local content, apart from maybe a show like Hectic Nine-9 in South Africa, which is the third biggest local brand on Facebook, with over 1,650,148 post views. .

What’s exciting for me is that there’s less difference between sectors than ever before. In the past, feature films were shot on film and corporate videos on home video, but now everyone’s shooting on 5D. That creates more opportunities for the different sectors to work together more fluidly.

I also think there’ll be a lot closer links with video games in the future – their graphics are catching up with film all the time and film is looking for ways to become interactive, so video games and film have a lot to talk to each other about.

Q: How is the South African film industry evolving today?

Documentaries had a tough couple of years here because of the collapse of SABC. One of the positive moves is their negotiations with the Department of Trade and Industry to lower the threshold for the incentives so that documentaries will qualify. We’re also seeing a lot more documentaries made for theatrical release, although the box office numbers here are still dismal for those.

The visual effects industry has largely collapsed, with the closure of both Condor and BlackGinger’s long form divisions. The cost of labour in South Africa seemingly meant we just couldn’t compete with China and India on VFX service work.

We’ve got a big year ahead for animation, with three 3D features set to be released: Jock, Zambezia and Lion of Judah.

I think TV globally is in its golden age, because the format has changed; So with PVR and VOD and DVD, people now watch series’ episodes back to back, which allows screenwriters to write much more complex story arcs. But this has largely passed SA by, as most people are still forced to watch on TV at a set time, once a week. We desperately need the SABC to start functioning again as a commissioning body, but with a revised IP strategy that allows filmmakers to maintain some rights and explore avenues like DVD sales that the SABC has never optimized.

Q: Since independence, several African filmmakers (for example Ousmane Sembène) highlighted African history, focusing on colonialism, slavery and the resistance to European and Islamic domination. Since Obama’s election, do you think African films' mission is changing direction nowadays? and do African filmmakers feel more confident to express themselves?

In South Africa, the early films we made at the start of the last decade predominantly explored Apartheid. There were some great films, but the audience figures were disappointing – the creatives wanted to explore and dissect the past; the general population, for better or worse, wanted to forget it and look to the future.

We still have Apartheid-era films like Skin and Endgame being made, and rightly so, but there’s more variety than ever before in South Africa.
We had every type of comedy: black comedy (Jozi), romantic comedies (I Now Pronounce You Black and White), Bollywood romantic comedies (For Better For Worse), standup comedy documentaries (Outrageous), Afrikaans teen comedies (Bakgat 2), and candid camera (Schucks Tshabalala’s Survival Guide to 2010). Comedy seems to be where the safe money is.

We also had a run of Afrikaans musicals or musical-themed films (Liefling, Susanna van Biljon, and Jakhalsdans) and genre films like Eternity, a vampire thriller set in Jo’burg; The Unforgiving, South Africa’s first splatter film; and The Race-ist, a Fast and Furious-type racing movie.

There have also been a number of TV spinoffs (Egoli: The Movie; Hopeville; and Stoute Boudjies). You can add in wildlife family films (White Lion), art-house drama (Shirley Adams and Long Street), soccer films (Themba), and coming of age book adaptations (Spud, Die Ongelooflike Avontuure van Hanna Hoekom).

Q: Some recent African films were well received in the developed world. Some critics stated that certain filmmakers were adapting their film to suit the tastes of western audiences. What is your feeling?

The South African films that have travelled the best in the developed world have tended to be genre films. Last year, the films that were released overseas were a romantic comedy (White Wedding), a crime drama (Jerusalema), and a science fiction film (District 9). Most South Africans grew up watching American and British TV, so it’s inevitable that we’ll be influenced by that. But I think even the films I mentioned above didn’t just meekly accept a Western genre: For instance, District 9 was such a success because it undermined the idea that aliens would automatically land above America, and because it’s picture of a science fictional universe was so aesthetically third world. I’m not a purist, so I think as long as there’s a dialogue between Western conventions and African stories, not just the West dictating, that’s a healthy place to be.

In the past, there were limited venues where African audiences have had access to African films, e.g. at the Pan African film festival in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. There seems to be more African film festivals and trade markets around the world nowadays, which ones are not to be missed for African film makers?

Our budget doesn’t allow us to attend nearly as many of these as I’d like. FESPACO, The AMAAs, The Pan African Film Festival in the US, DISCOP, and The Durban Film Festival are the ones we’re paying the most attention to. DIFF launched The Durban FilmMart this year, with projects from all over Africa and an impressive array of funders, so I’m really hoping that continues to grow as a Pan-African event, rather than just a South African one. I’d also love to see some African sales agents starting to emerge, who specialize in these sorts of festivals.

Q: In 2010, which African films have been really successful in South Africa?

None, other than the SA ones I mentioned. This is one of the biggest problems – we need the distributors to start building an audience for African films, not just South African ones, but that only seems to be happening on DVD. There’s a lot I’m dying to see, but just can’t get my hands on.

Q: What can we (the media focused on African films) do to improve the industry?

We need to create platforms for the industry across the continent to speak to each other. We’d love our website,, to become that sort of a platform. Any African filmmakers can load their own stories, with embedded videos and images, here:

News announcement: This week on Balancing Act’s new Web TV Channel – Nollywood and FESPACO 2011

Do not miss our Web TV Channel which highlights recent interviews with top African TV and Radio personalities. There are interviews in both English and French:

Jessica Verrilli on broadcast media using Twitter in Africa:

Matthew Brown whose spent a year researching in Nigeria, talks about changing Nollywood business models:

John Kamau of Kenya’s Jamii Telecom on delivery broadcast content using its Fibre-To-The-Home network:

TV Afrique: les défis du marché selon CFI’s Laurent Allary:

Fespaco 2011 : vente et piratage des films:

Workshop at DISCOP

Differentiate your TV channel – Standing out from the competition. The TV stations that will make their mark in 2011 and succeed in gaining market share will be those that build loyalty through the people, programmes and feel of their TV channel. The workshop will focus on all aspects of differentiating your TV channel, primarily addressing: Channel attitude and personality, Content (local and exclusive); Programming (overall structure and pieces); and brand (content, personalities and marketing). Led by Russell Southwood, CEO, Balancing Act with panel speakers including Cathy Fogler, Managing Director, CAfrica and Yaa Newman of TV Africa. Date, time and Place: 6.00 pm, Wednesday 9 February, La Palm Royal Beach Hotel, Accra.
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