Cape fear: South Africa faces financial woes


CAPE TOWN -- When word spread that Clint Eastwood would be shooting his upcoming drama about rugby hero Francois Pienaar in South Africa -- with Matt Damon in the lead role, no less -- the locals were thrilled.

Alas, that was a rare piece of good news in a forest of troubles. And the root of those troubles can be found in a system that still fails to develop compelling screenplays.

"Traditionally, we haven't thought too much about training writers," says Genevieve Hofmeyr of Cape Town-based Moonlighting Films. "But the script is god. If we can get the government to support that aspect of filmmaking, we'll really be building our industry."

Unfortunately, the statutory funding body -- the National Film and Video Foundation -- doesn't have the resources to take action, since it reduced its budget for script development for 2008. "The funds set aside for script development appear to be diminishing," says Aifheli Dzebu, head of policy and research at the NFVF.

As a result, funding for local productions can be scarce. Conflict has been simmering between the Department of Arts and Culture and the NFVF ever since the news in 2005 that the NFVF's 35 million rand feature film fund was not being renewed. The cool relations between the two organizations became downright frigid with the announcement of 2008's budget of 36.6 million rand ($3.6 million), which is far less than the NFVF had in mind.

A prepared statement by Dzebu was sharp: "The NFVF budget was increased by 6%, which was determined independently by DAC despite our numerous requests to be involved and despite the presentation to the DAC of the NFVF's business case, which is based on a much more realistic budget." The increase was not only below inflation, but nearly 6 million rand ($600,000) less than 2004's budget, with the effect that the NFVF is stagnating somewhat financially and cannot grow the industry the way they had hoped.

Some relief for local filmmakers came in February, when another government body, the Department of Trade and Industry, announced its new rebate. The DTI's original film production incentive, introduced in 2004, was a boon to big-budget foreign films but didn't support smaller local productions or foreign co-productions. In consultation with industry stakeholders such as the Independent Producers Organization and South African Screen Federation, two new incentives were developed: the location film and television production incentive, which replaces the large-budget film and television production rebate; and the brand-new South African film and television production and co-production incentive. This means that for local productions and official treaty co-productions, the qualifying total production budget is 2.5 million rand ($250,000), and the rebate is 35% of the first 6 million rand ($600,000) of the production budget, 25% for the remainder, with the rebate capped at 10 million rand ($1 million).

"Local films are incredibly hard to finance if you do not have an 'angel' stumping up his cash," says David Wicht of Film Afrika, who headed up the IPO's task team in the negotiations. "The only possible way of creating a sustainable local industry is if our broadcasters start matching the DTI rebate as a license/equity fee. Until then, it will continue to be a hand-to-mouth existence and hardly a model for building an industry."

So far, the uptake has been brisk. "There has definitely been a spike in applications," says Julia Nzimande, DTI's executive director of creative industries. From 2004 to 2008, the DTI approved a total of 49 applications for the rebate (26 foreign, 16 local and seven co-productions). In the past eight months, the organization has already approved a total of 22 applications (eight foreign, 12 local and two co-productions). As intended, the incentive seems to be stimulating local content generation.

But despite treaties with the U.K., Canada, Germany and Italy, the news is not so encouraging when it comes to international co-productions. To qualify, shooting in South Africa must take place for at least two weeks and for a minimum of 50% of the total schedule. And the co-production treaties don't extend to postproduction, meaning that while the South African locations are great and the crews are cheap, international co-pros end up taking post and FX work home to fulfill the conditions of their own countries' incentives.

"The DTI thinks 'Blood Diamond' was made here, but it was finished overseas," Tracey Williams of Joburg-based postproduction studio Video Lab laments. "There's not a clear understanding of how postproduction fits in."

There has been some FX work done in South Africa lately, such as Film Afrika's contribution to Universal's "Scorpion King 2: Rise of a Warrior," but in such a small market it can be an expensive luxury for films trying to come in under budget. "The next phase of the rebate should concentrate on animation and VFX," Williams suggests. "It's more sustainable than shoots, which only hire people for six weeks."

Despite these challenges, resourceful local filmmakers are finding ways to make movies that do indeed connect with local audiences, suggesting there is still plenty of potential for the industry to return to the high point of 2006, when Gavin Hood's "Tsotsi" won the foreign-language Oscar.

"The industry is in an interesting place," says Ross Garland of Rogue Star Films, which is currently developing "Spud," based on one of South Africa's best-selling novels, by John van de Ruit, about a teenage boy's experiences at boarding school. "I think expectations here were a bit overcooked after 2006, with the Oscar and other awards. (Some thought) there would be an explosion in higher-budget, quality South African films. But we have never made many bigger films. Although the numbers are small, relative to the small size of the local boxoffice some of these films have had incredible boxoffice-to-budget ratios."

Indeed, a handful of local productions have hit paydirt by marrying small budgets with stories and characters that resonate with local audiences. The latest example is Ralph Ziman's "Jerusalema," a gritty tale of a young man's journey from petty township thief to crime lord that has become something of a cause celebre since its release in May. While the film has been lambasted by critics for glorifying crime, it has also been passionately defended by local moviegoers as a funny, authentic piece of local entertainment.

"The film is real; this is what is happening on the streets of Johannesburg today," says Tendeka Matatu of Muti Films, "Jerusalema's" production company. "I think South African audiences are hungry for good local films, so when a film like 'Jerusalema' -- which has a great story and high production values -- comes out, audiences show their support (at the boxoffice)."

Elsewhere, one of the most anticipated independent films due out next year is a rare thing in South Africa: a light romantic comedy. "White Wedding" was inspired by the experiences of the film's production company -- Johannesburg-based Stepping Stone -- during a local road trip. "We were three urban South Africans traveling through the hinterland, where we became very noticeably two black guys and a white girl," says director and co-writer Jann Turner.

The film was funded by a single private investor -- best-selling novelist Ken Follett, financing his first film -- and utilizes the DTI's new local production rebate. And while it may not boast the star power of an Eastwood or a Damon, it reveals a level of dedication and moxie that bodes well for the future.

"We had a small and incredibly committed and able crew, and wonderful professional actors -- and the result was a fantastic experience," Turner says.

Namibia draws Hollywood's attention

Breathtaking, accessible scenery. Mild weather, good roads and telecoms. English-speaking crews and a stable political situation. These are just a few of the reasons Namibia has become one of the most attractive shooting destinations in Africa. Still not convinced? Brad and Angelina had Shiloh there. What more could you ask for?

Add to this the fact that Namibia is a member of the South African Customs Union and boasts a dollar-friendly exchange rate -- the Namibian dollar is linked to the South African rand -- and it begins to make sense why a number of high-profile recent projects, including Ed Zwick's "Blood Diamond" (2006), the HBO Iraq War series "Generation Kill" and Roland Emmerich's effects-heavy "10,000 BC" (Warner Bros.) all chose to shoot in Namibia.

"Namibia has a greater variety of desert locations than Morocco, and you're paying African crews, so you get more value for your dollar," says Genevieve Hofmeyr of Moonlighting Films.

Adds Joanne Reay, a producer with English production house Sheer, which recently worked on the Wesley Snipes supernatural thriller "Gallowwalker": "In search of the wild landscapes and rolling deserts that 'Gallowwalker' required, we scouted Mexico, China, Turkey and Spain. All these places paled in significance once we saw what Namibia had to offer."

Filmmakers also have at their disposal all the skills of the South African industry, which is how the Namibian film sector is resourced. This, however, has been a bit of a sticking point between the two industries.

"There's tension over skills development," admits Bridget Pickering of South Africa's Luna Films. "But (Namibia's) local industry is small, and it's difficult to develop unless you're also making your own films."

Nevertheless, local crews have an in-depth understanding of Namibia's inimitable landscape, and they don't need to be flown in or deal with the bureaucracy surrounding work permits. Local companies like Media Logistics Namibia and Namib Film will work with foreign productions to ensure their shoots run smoothly. "We've just finished nine weeks shooting a 3-D feature film (working title 'The Magic Tale') in association with the Spanish production company Orbita Max," says Namib Film's Guy Nockels.

Despite its growing reputation as a cost-effective, stress-free destination, there are still some kinks to work out. Industry players are calling for the implementation of co-production treaties and rebates, as the lack of financial incentives is one of the few drawbacks to filming in Namibia.

-- Michelle Matthews

In the pipeline: latest projects from South Africa

Written and directed by Joburger Ralph Ziman, the controversial "Jerusalema" follows a likable township kid named Lucky Kunene as he discovers the perks of "affirmative repossession" (read: carjacking), tries to reinvent himself as an honest taxi driver, and eventually becomes a daring crime lord nicknamed "The Hoodlum of Hillbrow." The film has reached No. 4 on the local charts despite only being released on 10 of South Africa's 623 theater screens. Produced by Tendeka Matatu of Muti Films, the film's North American rep is ICM's Peter Trinh. International sales are by Moviehouse Entertainment.

Richard Gere and Hilary Swank were recently in Cape Town filming parts of Mira Nair's ("Vanity Fair," "Monsoon Wedding") feature about the legendary aviatrix Amelia Earhart. "Mira was just incredible," says line producer Genevieve Hofmeyr of local outfit Moonlighting Films. "There are not many women directors at her level, and I'd always hoped I'd have the opportunity to work with her." "Amelia" is produced by Ted Waitt, Lydia Dean Pilcher and Kevin Hyman, with Ronald Bass -- who wrote the screenplay -- and Hilary Swank signing on as executive producers. Distributed worldwide by Fox Searchlight, "Amelia" is scheduled for a fall 2009 theatrical release.

The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency
Film Afrika is currently filming this TV series in Botswana until Christmas, after completing the film (starring Jill Scott and directed by the late Anthony Minghella) late last year. Based on the novels by Alexander McCall Smith, the series tells the story of a Botswanan woman who launches the country's first-ever female-run detective agency. Charles Sturridge ("Brideshead Revisted") is directing the first three episodes, while HBO will be screening the film, followed by the series, beginning in the spring of next year. BBC1 in the U.K. will also be screening the series early in 2009.

24: Redemption
Scenes from a two-hour seventh season "prequel," airing in the U.S. in November, were shot around Cape Town in June with Moonlighting Films. Members of the international crew, including assistant director Nick Heckstall-Smith and director of photography Rodney Charters, also spoke to young students at the local film school AFDA.

District 9
Peter Jackson, with South African protege Neill Blomkamp, just finished shooting this hush-hush project -- reportedly based on Blomkamp's short film "Alive in Joburg" -- in the Joburg township of Soweto. "It's one of the most important projects to come out of South Africa," says Steven St. Arnaud of the film's production company, Kalahari Pictures. "D-9," which is the first feature film shot using high-def Red One technology, is being supported by an ambitious "Cloverfield"-esque viral marketing campaign that was launched at Comic-Con in August. Peter Jackson is producing "District 9" under his WingNut Films banner, while Sony has North American and all English-speaking territory distribution rights.

Based on the moving story of a black girl born to rural white Afrikaans parents unaware of their black ancestry, "Skin" premiered at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival and stars Sophie Okonedo ("Hotel Rwanda") and Sam Neill ("Jurassic Park"). The feature was the first official international co-production to come out of the South Africa-U.K. treaty signed in 2006. Directed by Anthony Fabian and produced by Fabian, Margaret Matheson and Genevieve Hofmeyr, "Skin" has been sold in a number of major international markets, including France, Germany, Scandinavia, Brazil, British TV, the Middle East and Mexico. Distribution in the U.S. is still in negotiation.

Mr. Bones II

Producer Anant Singh cashes in on the commercial success of the original film featuring local funnyman Leon Schuster as a white sangoma (medicine man) in this recently wrapped follow-up.

-- Michelle Matthews