Made in South Africa
High-profile projects and native success prove the film sector has come of age.
If I were to name a definitive event, it would either be Blood Diamond or Invictus, as these were mainstream Hollywood productions, and the fact that Leonardo DiCaprio and Clint Eastwood were here meant the global profile was raised," says Denis Lillie, CEO and commissioner of the Cape Film Commission. However, he adds, hosting the FIFA 2010 World Cup may have done even more to convince the skeptics that South Africa is now a major player on the global film scene. "We silenced the critics. World media descended on us, and there were no broadcast hitches from this side. The visiting media found that we had all the necessary equipment, skill and support services that they needed for 24-hour coverage."
Indeed, after years of high hopes and false starts, the South African film industry appears to have hit its stride. The evidence is everywhere, with a number of high-profile Hollywood projects calling the region their home away from home, from Safe House starring Denzel Washington and Winnie with Jennifer Hudson to Dredd, the comic book reboot that has become the first big-budget production to take up residence at the region's new state-of-the-art production facility, Cape Town Film Studios.
Even James Bond has his eye on the region. "We are excited that the new James Bond film is considering locations in South and Southern Africa," local producer Anant Singh says. "Film people love to work in our country."
It may sound like spin, but Singh's optimism is justified: South Africa has arrived, and that's good news for an industry that has struggled for years to fulfill its vast potential.
Success in South Africa has always been gauged by the health of two separate but related industries: the local production sector and locations shooting, because local productions are largely dependent on the success of lucrative location shoots.
To that end, South Africa offers two distinct rebates available to all productions shooting in the country. "The lower rebate is 15 percent of all rand spent in the country for foreign films that purely make use of South African goods and services," explains David Wicht, founder and CEO of Cape Town-based production shingle Film Afrika.
The higher rebate varies between 25 percent and 35 percent of all rand spent and applies to films that are made as official treaty co-productions with a local company. Both rebates require a minimum of 50 percent of shooting and pay a maximum rebate of R20 million ($7 million).
One of the country's major draws, adds Wicht, is its experienced below-the-line talent pool -- the vast majority of which speaks English. (Despite having 11 different official languages, South Africa counts English as its primary tongue.) "It has become clear that one of the key attractions to shooting in South Africa is the depth and breadth of the local crews -- from art departments, design, camera teams, stunts, special effects, visual effects, production, accounting," Wicht says. "This means far fewer people have to travel here than they do to some of the Eastern European countries, which saves considerably on flights, per diems, fringes and hotels."
The exchange rate is also an advantage, with one U.S. dollar equaling almost seven rand.
Nevertheless, the booming industry hasn't quite worked out all of its kinks. Certain aspects of production still work on "Africa time," meaning things like obtaining permits don't always move as swiftly as they should -- though -- that has improved.
"The permit process has been a challenge, but the city of Cape Town has woken up to the fact that the film industry wants to come here, and there are great benefits to that," Lille says. "The film commission and industry have been working very closely with the permit office in recent months, and we seem to have addressed the majority of problems in the system."
Another problem being addressed is the sheer distance between Cape Town and Hollywood (a 17-hour flight, with one connection). In an effort to bridge that gap, Film Afrika plans to open an office in Los Angeles in early 2012.
"We hope the new office will help facilitate even more opportunities for U.S. producers to shoot in South Africa," Wicht says. "Having a presence in L.A. will also help with the creation and development of original material for filming in South Africa."
This kind of support for the local film industry goes hand in hand with the larger effort to attract foreign shoots. After all, the better the location sector does, the more South Africa's burgeoning production sector benefits, and if the latest figures from the National Film and Video Foundation are any indication, the locals should be very happy.
The NFVF estimates that 25 feature films with an average budget of $3 million each can produce 1,200 direct jobs, with an additional 4,000 indirect jobs in performing arts, extras, catering, etc.
Last year, South Africa produced 23 films which managed to capture an impressive 11 percent of the local market share in gross revenue -- a sharp improvement over the previously reported market share of 0.7 percent in 2007.
This is the kind of news the local industry needs to promote overseas, and the increasing number of South Africans working in Hollywood certainly doesn't hurt that effort. Sharlto Copley, the South African actor who played the lead role in Neill Blomkamp's Oscar-nominated District 9, proudly admits to acting as something of an unofficial publicist for his home country.
"After District 9 I was able to play a large role in bringing DNA Films' Dredd to shoot in S.A.," says Copley, whose profile will be raised even further when he stars alongside Matt Damon and Jodie Foster in Blomkamp's District 9 follow-up, Elysium. "That had more to do with my creative relationship with the producers at DNA. I am still very involved and keen to help people set up shooting in South Africa and linking them with the right parties for their creative needs."
Even South Africa's most well-known screen export is getting in on the act. "South Africa is gorgeous in terms of its landscape and wildlife," says Oscar winner Charlize Theron. "But for me, it's the people who make this country absolutely shine. They have a spirit and a strength to them that makes my home unlike anywhere else in the world."
FOUR SOUTH AFRICANS CHANGING THE FACE OF HOLLYWOOD
With the phenomenal success of the South African production District 9 the 31-year-old writer-director is quickly becoming one of Hollywood's hottest properties. Next up is the sci-fi epic Elysium with Matt Damon, Jodie Foster and District 9 alum Sharlto Copley.
A graduate of the University of Cape Town with a law degree, she won an Emmy for her screenplay for the HBO film A Lesson Before Dying in 1999. Big-screen credits include The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Nights in Rodanthe.
Born and raised in Johannesburg, Liebesman went to NYU's Tisch School of the Arts before making his directorial debut with the 2003 Columbia thriller Darkness Falls. He most recently directed the sci-fi hit Battle: Los Angeles and is working on the Clash of the Titans sequel, Wrath of the Titans.
Undoubtedly South Africa's golden girl, the actress made an immediate impression with her sexy turn in the 1996 black comedy 2 Days in the Valley. After working in everything from romantic comedy to sci-fi, she firmly established herself on Hollywood's A-list with her Oscar-winning role as a serial killer in 2003's Monster. She next stars in Jason Reitman's Young Adult and George Miller's Road Warrior sequel Mad Max: Fury Road.