South Africa Comes of Age
Diverse locations, low costs and cash rebates have transformed the once-troubled region into a major force on the global film scene.
In February, when the sci-fi hit Chronicle led the U.S. weekend box office, soon followed by the Denzel Washington-Ryan Reynolds thriller Safe House, few viewers realized that both were made in South Africa -- a nation that has emerged from the twilight of apartheid to an increasingly brilliant film and TV future.
In Chronicle, shot by South Africa-based production firm Film Afrika for U.S.-based Davis Entertainment and distributed in the U.S. by Fox, Cape Town doubled for Seattle. It also got a starring role in Safe House, from South Africa's Moonlighting Films in partnership with Universal, Relativity Media and others.
"For us, that was a big shot in the arm," says South African producer Anant Singh. "That was the first time something like this has ever happened."
There are plenty of firsts lately in the South African film industry. The 183,000-square-foot Cape Town Film Studios opened in late 2010. After shooting 2011's The Borrowers there, Stephen Fry tweeted, "Must say deeply impressed with brand new Cape Town Studios. Make [England's] Pinewood etc. look v. shabby."
In summer 2011, Abigail Breslin pocketed a reported $65,000 to do four hours of voiceover work along with Samuel L. Jackson, Jeff Goldbum and Leonard Nimoy in Zambezia, a 3D film set for South African release Dec. 26. "It's the first South African animated feature bought and distributed by a major U.S. studio, Sony," says its producer, Stuart Forrest of Triggerfish Animation. Adds Forrest's sales agent, Edward Noeltner of L.A.'s Cinema Management Group: "We've sold it in over 40 countries. We've sold the 2013 animated film Khumba in 20 countries, and we'll be showing new footage of it at Cannes."
In March, Film Afrika CEO David Wicht, who worked on Chronicle, became the first South African mogul to open an office in L.A., to be closer to studio partners and seize TV opportunities as his country's profile rises. "Success breeds success," he says.
One key to South Africa's success is that it's cheap -- the same advantage that drew renegade producer Avi Lerner there even during the nightmare years of apartheid in the '80s. "South Africa was largely excluded from the internationalization of the film industry during apartheid, as Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and Canada became popular destinations. But South Africa predates L.A. as a film industry," says Wicht. "Today, the fact that its currency, the rand, appreciates slower than, say, Australia's dollar, helps it retain its low cost."
Spurred on by such advocates as Wicht, who returned to his native Cape Town in 1994 after apartheid, the government began to back the resurgent industry. The rebate started off at 15 percent in 2004; now it's 20 percent for foreign films and, for local films and co-productions, 35 percent on the first $776,000 and 25 percent on all costs above that. "This is a cash rebate, not a tax rebate," says Wicht. "It does not require a finance company or taxpayers to buy it. Cash!" In fact, cash handed to foreign and co-productions has increased 4,000 percent since 2004. Film Afrika alone pocketed $22 million. "In October, they removed the cap on incentives, so it's unlimited," says Wicht.
Nor are there many limits on the region's versatility. "South Africa has huge varieties of locations, looks and feels," says Wicht, "anything from desert to jungle, urban to rural." For 2005's Lord of War, South Africa doubled for more than 14 locations, including Bolivia, Beirut, Sierra Leone, Indonesia, Berlin and New York.
South Africa's advantages would evaporate if producers had to fly in their workers, but the country's TV and film production workforce has grown from about 4,000 in 1995 to an estimated 30,000 today. And the quality of that workforce is increasing, as many international moviegoers noticed in 2009, when the $30 million South African film District 9 earned four Oscar noms and grossed $211 million worldwide. Clint Eastwood is said to have been so impressed by South Africans working on 2009's Invictus that he brought them along for other projects elsewhere.
When Zambezia started production in 2008, some top actors refused to do voice work on it. But after the budget was raised in 2009 to make it a 3D film, then raised again in the summer to a little less than $20 million to attract talent, A-listers began flocking to the project. The film was re-storyboarded with an international audience in mind, and 80 percent of the complex 3D footage was fully rendered so the stars could see that what they were getting into was good. Forrest credits the advisers from afar who helped the three-year project get to that salable point. "We had story input from a Pixar writer, a Disney producer, a DreamWorks marketing executive, the CEO of Walden Media, the directors of Hoodwinked and our voice director Ned Lott, who's done a lot of work for Disney," says Forrest. "On Khumba, we've had input from writers from Aardman and The Lion King."
South Africans have big plans to cash in on their momentum. "We've got people interested in taking an equity position in Triggerfish, and we hope to ramp up production to a new feature every two or three years, back-to-back, just like Pixar or EuropaCorp," says Noeltner.
Adds Forest: "Over two decades, South Africa has solidly averted a civil war and created a new land of opportunity. It makes sense that our artistic expression should be reaching for the stars."
And nowadays, when South African filmmakers reach out to the stars, their agents actually return the filmmakers' calls.
The big news in South African film is the $40 million sci-fi epic Dredd, starring Karl Urban as postapocalyptic Mega-City One's top cop, menaced by Game of Thrones' Lena Headey as the seller of a reality-altering drug called Slo-Mo. The fall release, which lensed at Cape Town Film Studios, is South Africa's first live 3D project.
SOUTH AFRICA BY THE NUMBERS
- 30,000: Number of people employed in the film industry, 150 of whom are registered producers
- 0.4%: South Africa's contribution to global film output
- $960 million: The South African entertainment industry's estimated value
- 750: Number of movie screens (in roughly 125 cinemas)
- 55: Number of films taking advantage of South Africa's rebates in 2011
- $1.7 million: Average production budget for a feature