South African film sector at crossroads

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When native son Gavin Hood returned to South Africa for the first time after winning the Oscar for best foreign-language film for 2005's "Tsotsi," crowds swarmed the Johannesburg airport to greet him. Nelson Mandela even invited him to his home in an affirmation of just how promising the movie scene had become in the post-apartheid era. Now, a year and a half later, the industry is facing a painful reality check. While film is still flourishing in the country -- helped by some generous government subsidies, co-production treaties with the U.K. and other European countries, and a passionate body of local moviemakers -- it's not evolving as quickly as most would have hoped.

Although Hood became the poster boy for South African cinema, he was somewhat miscast in the role. A longtime resident of Los Angeles, Hood most recently shot New Line's "Rendition" and will next helm Fox's X-Men spin-off "Wolverine." Apart from Hood, though, only Darrell Roodt, who earned an Oscar nomination for his 2005 U.S. release "Yesterday," has earned any real international clout.

The crux of the issue? Money. Many of the nation's most promising filmmakers, such as Norman Maake (2003's "Soldiers of the Rock"), Kalo Motabane, whose first feature film, "State of Violence," goes into production in February, and Simon Hansen and Sharlto Copley, whose first feature, "Spoon," will be released next year, face an ongoing problem securing financing.

"We can build the industry with five seriously competent directors," says Paul Raleigh, the head of bonding company Film Finance South Africa. "But even the most talented and enthusiastic directors are handicapped if they don't have the necessary budget. Someone that has to shoot in 20 days is half as likely to make a film that travels as the director that has 40 days to shoot. Most directors are lucky if they have 1 million rand ($147,000) to play with."

He adds: "We need to see funding develop quickly or our most talented people will migrate to Hollywood."

Just how South Africa can do so is the subject of widespread conversation. A sustained commodities boom has helped private industries thrive and filled government coffers, but cash earmarked for filmmaking has been scarce this past year, despite the best efforts of the country's main government funding body, the National Film and Video Foundation.

The South African government long ago singled out film as an economic priority, but that supposed commitment has translated into a meager 36 million rand ($5.3 million) budget for the NFVF in 2007. Nor have any other sources stepped in. A quasi-government-owned bank designed to fund commercial features, the Industrial Development Corporation, had 300 million rand ($44 million) to spend, but none of it was invested in local films, much to insiders' frustration.

What's more, the country's leading broadcaster, the SABC, has entered into only one agreement with Johannesburg-based production company DV8 to fund a slate of five films.

Filmmakers are left with few alternatives. The kind of high-net-worth individuals who helped bankroll Hollywood's resurgent indie scene in the late 1990s are hard to pin down in South Africa, and there has been no massive infusion of capital from banks and hedge funds of the sort that has financed entire slates of studio movies in the U.S.

Insiders say that what nongovernment money there is comes largely from investors wishing to get a taste of the glamorous film business, rather than savvy business types determined to take cinema seriously as a long-term financial proposition.

"After 'Tsotsi,' there were plenty of people intrigued by the proposition (of backing South African films)," says David Wicht, executive producer with Film Afrika, a Cape Town-based production company that specializes in international co-production deals. "But they became confounded by the economics of international distribution. We're in the twilight zone here. There is not a big enough cinemagoing audience to make consistent profits. So South African-made features remain dependent on foreign sales. Foreign investors need foreign names on the credits to begin to think about inking a deal."

The difficulties of raising money in South Africa became abundantly clear to director John Barker when he sought to make the low-budget youth comedy "Bunny Chow." Every major South African production company turned the project down.

"Our angel investor pulled out the night before we left for the boondocks to start shooting at the Okkipokki rock festival," Barker recalls. "I maxed out my wife's credit cards and scrounged money from friends and loved ones to come up with a 100,000 rand ($14,600) production budget."

Barker's movie opened domestically in March and earned a decent 300,000 rand ($44,000) at the local boxoffice. It will receive limited theatrical release in the U.S., playing on roughly 30 screens.

With an indigenous audience of only 3.5 million regular moviegoers, any South African film with more than a shoestring budget must hold the promise of doing well abroad to get funding. Producer Ross Garland, a key player in putting together the money for "Kharmen e Kayelitsha," a 2006 release that sold in 12 countries, laments the demise of a $250 million fund announced at the Festival de Cannes in May by South Africa's Kensani Capital.

That fund collapsed before it invested a penny in local productions, but Garland, a former investment banker, remains hopeful that private investors will back his new production, "Spud." Adapted from the best-selling novel, the film is a coming-of-age story about a boy at South Africa's most prestigious boarding school.

"In a small country like South Africa," Garland says, "you can count on three degrees of separation to get you a meeting with the money. But I much prefer the model in which you're dealing with a recognized private equity fund."

The struggles of indigenous filmmakers seem all the more harsh when South Africa has done so well in luring foreign film production. Its talented crews, weak currency, exceptional diversity of locations, beneficial tax credits and growing list of co-production treaties continue to attract international shoots.

Film Afrika facilitated two new Hollywood co-productions and a French film during the past year.

Director Ed Neumeier, in Cape Town to helm Sony's "Starship Troopers: Marauder," marvels about "the positive attitude of local crews" and only laments the lack of proper stage facilities -- though ground has been broken on the much-anticipated Dream World Studios, which will house four soundstages and is expected to be operational by October 2008.

Despite the concerns about landing financing for projects, locals are devoting a great deal of energy toward developing local talent. Screenwriting school SEDIBA is the country's largest such institution and will admit only 10 students next year. But, after its second year of operation, SEDIBA now boasts 24 graduates from its feature film track and 90 television track alumni.

"Our goal is to get producers and commissioning editors speaking a common language with the writers," says Claire Hamilton, one of its executives. "We teach them how to talk objectively about structure and character development as well as about log lines."

Other writing programs include SCRAWL (the South African Screenwriters Lab), which has brought professionals like Anthony Minghella in for workshops, while AFDA (the South African School of Motion Picture Medium and Live Performance) teaches students technical skills. Additionally, film programs at universities like Wits and Tshwane produce graduates who aim to direct, and Film Afrika launched its own mentorship program six months ago.

"We formed a Section 21 (nonprofit status) company aimed at accelerating growth amongst experienced film crew into management, editing, art department positions," Wicht says of the program. "Our first intake was 30 trainees. They are being mentored by Cape Town-based professionals from several participating production companies. We expect this program to provide valuable hands-on experience to black professionals that want a career in film."

No matter how great the challenges facing filmmakers -- and South Africa has dealt with far greater challenges in the past -- optimism runs deep. The Department of Trade and Industry is introducing a new rebate scheme later this year that will provide more money for low- and midbudget feature films, and Barker, for one, is already moving ahead with a new project, "The Umbrella Man."

"I'm sending the script to the Weinsteins and to the NFVF," he boasts.

But, he admits, "I can't take the constant adrenaline rush of showing up to set, wondering if cast and crew had shown up for work when they were not being paid. I'm determined to fund this next one properly."
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