AFM 2012: South Africa's Locations Boom Gives Locals a Boost

While local filmmakers still struggle in the shadow of big-budget offshore shoots, homegrown fare is beginning to benefit from the country’s thriving locations sector.

South Africa's film business has gone through a growth spurt in recent years. With its varied locations, skilled English-speaking crews and the help of production incentives and new studio facilities like Cape Town Film Studios, the country has played host to such high-profile productions as Invictus, District 9 and Safe House as well as such Hollywood A-listers as Matt Damon and Denzel Washington.

Now that the country has arrived as a location for Hollywood folks, veteran producer and Cape Town Film Studios chairman Anant Singh is looking to take the region’s burgeoning domestic industry to a new level. Singh, a major player in South Africa with more than 60 films to his credit, recently wrapped the 3 1/2-month shoot of Long Walk to Freedom (on offer at AFM from Pathe, Distant Horizon and Videovision Entertainment).

Based on Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, the film has been a labor of love for Singh, who says he acquired to the rights to the project more than 15 years ago.

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“The production is the longest in terms of number of shooting days and the biggest in terms of budget” that South Africa has produced, he tells THR. “It’s very epic in scale — think of Ghandi as a benchmark. And we hope to make Long Walk to Freedom a benchmark film for South Africa that will catapult the industry forward and lead to more local stories being told.”

The studio space was key for the epic, which is being edited and expected to be released in 2013 in time for Mandela’s 95th birthday on It took South African producer Singh more than 15 years to launch the upcoming Nelson Mandela biopic Long Walk to Freedom. July 18. “We couldn’t have done it if we hadn’t had the studios,” says Singh. “We built the prison Robben Island at Cape Town Film Studios.”

Other local and international films also have kept South African crews busy recently. “The past two years have been very successful,” with 20 to 23 films shooting a year, says National Film & Video Foundation CEO Zama Mkosi. “The response from local and international productions has been phenomenal. It demonstrates growth and the fact that South Africa as a filmmaking country is on par with the global filmmaking world.”

Mkosi’s office didn’t have information on the number of South African films going to AFM this year because filmmakers register directly with the market.

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TV projects also are coming to South Africa. Michael Bay will need the soundstage space at Cape Town Film Studios for the next year or so to shoot the pirate adventure series Black Sails for Starz, according to the facility. Expected to air in 2014, the eight-episode first season will start off with the tales of Captain Flint and his men 20 years before Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Treasure Island.

“We’re building two water tanks, and Michael Bay will be the first to use one when it is ready in March,” says Singh. “That adds to our offers for productions in Cape Town. We already had a medieval village, and now we also have Robben Island.”

Also setting up shop in South Africa is Cinemax’s Emmy nominated action series Strike Back. Thanks to the diversity of the region’s locales and the show’s globe-hopping storylines, South Africa has doubled for everything from Kenya to Somalia, Niger, Algeria, Zimbabwe and even England.

South African industry insiders see nothing but upside within the country’s locations sector. “I have been in the industry for 30 years, and it has never been as exciting and buoyant as now,” notes Singh. “Having the locations and talent and technology here makes it one of the most exciting locations in the world. And the working language is English, which is a big edge over the likes of Argentina and others.”

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Still, challenges remain. Industry insiders say that while the country is making more local films than it was a few years ago, securing funding for local projects remains difficult. “Besides the recent success, our industry still has a long way to go,” says Mkosi.

Sara Blecher, producer-director of the surfing drama Otelo Burning, adds that despite all the attention South Africa generates as a shooting location, local filmmakers struggle because their films are made for an indigenous market and rarely get seen outside of the country.

“If you look closely at the financial model of filmmaking in South Africa, it is incredibly difficult to recover the cost of the film from the local market,” says Blecher. “Either films in this country are made for the foreign market or they need to be made for incredible microbudgets in order to be viable.”

But many say the experience of having Hollywood and other international productions in South Africa has strengthened the local infrastructure and crews’ skills.

“Location-facilitated films and international co-productions are essential to the well-being of the local film industry in that it affords the opportunity to recapitalize the industry, provides opportunities for local crews to become world-class and gives local cast international exposure,” says David Wicht, executive producer at production firm Film Afrika.

Blecher agrees but adds that the presence of big-budget offshore shoots also can have a downside.

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“Obviously the experience people gain working on big-budget films is invaluable,” she notes. “Sometimes, however, the opposite it true. Sometimes it puts them beyond the reach of the indigenous industry — as in, it gets them used to doing things in a particular way — and sets a very high bar that in turn just pushes up the costs of local production.”

Wicht, however, says that in the long run, South Africa’s success as a shooting destination will continue to provide a boost to local content seeking a global audience. To that end, Film Afrika is developing several films and TV series set in South Africa but aimed at the international market.

“One of the unexpected positive side effects of South Africa’s popularity as a destination has been films choosing to relocate their stories to South Africa, such as Safe House and the Film Afrika co-production Free Willy,” says Wicht. “This helps viewers become accustomed to South Africa as a setting, leading to a much greater acceptance of stories set in South Africa, which we hope means South African stories will find worldwide audience acceptance.”

Ultimately, Blecher says that even though local filmmakers face hurdles, South Africa’s locations boom still offers opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise exist.

“In a way, it could be the only reason the cast and crew can afford to work with us on our films,” she says. “This applies to both actors and technical crew — not many of whom would be able to earn a viable living from just working on our own films.”