South Africa Filmmaking: A Diverse Country Finds its Own Voice

Issue 17 BKLOT Bloom Whitaker Zulu- H 2013
Festival de Cannes/PA

Issue 17 BKLOT Bloom Whitaker Zulu- H 2013

After years in the shadow of Hollywood location shoots, titles like Forest Whitaker's "Zulu" show domestic filmmakers are carving out their own identity.

This story first appeared in the May 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

When Cannes closes its 2013 program with the French crime drama Zulu, starring Orlando Bloom and Forest Whitaker, South Africa will add yet another title to a buzzy film résumé that includes the 2014 release Mad Max: Fury Road, the 2012 comic-book adaptation Dredd and Clint Eastwood's 2009 drama Invictus.

The films represent an impressive spate of work spurred by generous production incentives; cutting-edge studio space; skilled, English-speaking crews; and versatile locations.

Now, it seems the foreign (that would be Hollywood) production boom that has fed the nation for a decade finally is having a ripple effect on domestic filmmaking. While Hollywood long has dominated South Africa's theatrical market -- local releases typically have accounted for less than 5 percent of the annual box-office revenue -- the country's homegrown theatrical market share hit 11 percent last year.

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South Africa's local filmmakers now are looking to make a bigger mark at home and abroad. Case in point: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, a biographical drama about the famous anti-apartheid fighter, starring Idris Elba and Naomie Harris, is in production and likely to get a release late this year. Well-known South African producer Anant Singh, who acquired the rights to Nelson Mandela's autobiography more than 15 years ago, recently sold U.S. film rights to The Weinstein Co. The partners currently are working on a strategy that, given the historical significance of the lead character, is expected to include an awards-season push.

Singh worked on South Africa's first best foreign language Oscar nominee, 2004's Yesterday. A year later, South African production Tsotsi, a drama about six days in the violent life of a young gang leader, won in the same category. Mandela is the biggest-budgeted South African film ever -- its budget of $35 million is massive compared to the $1.7 million average for local productions.

"There are more South African stories being told," says Singh, a producer behind the second-highest-grossing South African release, 2001's Mr. Bones, which made $3.4 million at home. "Hollywood films are still the number-one product here, but indigenous films are growing. With Mandela, I am hoping that we can finally travel into blockbuster territory."

Producer Lance Samuels worked on the biggest South African box-office hit ever -- the 2010 comedy Schuks Tshabalala's Survival Guide to South Africa, which earned $4.1 million theatrically. While Schuks was a rare example of a South African film making a profit at home, it didn't travel well because the film's star, beloved local comedian Leon Schuster, is virtually unknown outside of the country. "We tried to sell it overseas, but his humor is too specific to South Africa," Samuels says.

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Success in the global market is key to the South African film sector because the local market is too small to allow most homegrown movies to make a profit. Competition from Hollywood blockbusters and exporting a culture that has 11 indigenous languages -- from Afrikaans to Zulu -- make it much more challenging to achieve success.

Samuels' company, Out of Africa Entertainment, offers services to foreign productions coming to South Africa, but also finances and makes its own films. It's a symbiotic relationship in which money made from foreign productions can help prop up a local film sector intent on exporting South African content.

"If you make an honest movie, and the production value is good, it can do well everywhere," says Samuels. "Tsotsi is the benchmark. It is difficult for films to recoup their cost in South Africa [from ticket sales] alone."

Samuels' strategy is first to find success at home, then target overseas film festivals to create buzz and, hopefully, international sales. His company's interracial romantic comedy Fanie Fourie's Lobola, for example, opened in South Africa at the beginning of March and has brought in more than $375,000. It also won audience awards this year at home, at Johannesburg's Jozi Film Festival, and abroad, at Arizona's Sedona International Film Festival.

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Still, competing against Hollywood movies can be brutal for homegrown projects. In 2010, 750 South African theaters released 131 foreign and 23 local films. In 2011, foreign films rose to 204, while local releases stayed unchanged at about 22. Last year, that dropped to 19, compared with 184 foreign films.

But industry insiders are hopeful for 2013. "We've exhibited over 50 percent more local films this year than last," says Clive Fisher, general manager of acquisitions and scheduling for South Africa's largest exhibitor, Ster-Kinekor Theatres. "We expect a strong box office from local films this year."

And a busy one: With the Boer War drama Verraaiers, Fanie Fourie's Lobola, the comedy 100m Leeuloop and the thriller Sleeper's Wake, the country has seen four locally made new releases in as many weeks -- a figure unheard of just a few years ago.

"Financially, we can't do The Dark Knight Rises. Maybe more like The King's Speech, which provided exceptional value for the money," says Nico Dekker, CEO of Cape Town Film Studios. "The apartheid years made South Africa very insular. The task now is to find stories that will resonate around the world."

With a $35 million budget, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is the most expensive South African production. The average budget for domestic films is $1.7 million.