Five Takeaways From the Joburg Film Festival and JBX Content Market: ‘What a Time to Be Alive in Africa’

Rexa Vella

Five Takeaways From the Joburg Film Festival and JBX Content Market: ‘What a Time to Be Alive in Africa’

The sixth edition of the Joburg Film Festival wraps Sunday, putting a bow on a week that saw many in the host nation reflecting on South Africa’s long journey in the three decades since the end of apartheid. But among the filmmakers and executives taking part in the second JBX content market the focus was squarely on the future, as Africa’s streaming wars and an eye toward global dealmaking highlighted how the tide has begun to shift in how the world perceives the continent. “What a time to be alive in Johannesburg,” said festival founder Timothy Mangwedi at Saturday’s award ceremony. “What a time to be alive in Africa.”

Here are five takeaways from a busy week in Johannesburg:

Streamers shift strategies but still drive growth

Amazon Prime Video’s abrupt pull-out from the African market in January has left many local producers frustrated and confused. “It was really devastating when they just up and left us,” said Yellowbone Entertainment’s Layla Swart, who was set to get the streamer’s greenlight on an ambitious crime drama series and described the sudden about-face as “perplexing.” Still, there was little doubt this week in Johannesburg that competition among rival streaming services is driving the local market. “The streamer war between Netflix and Showmax is good for us, that’s without a doubt,” said Emmy Award-winning director-producer Dan Jawitz, of fast-growing shingle Known Associates Entertainment. Both streaming services are ramping up investment in local content and inking top talents to output and licensing deals, while breakout hits — such as Netflix’s Nigerian thriller “The Black Book” and South African teen drama “Blood & Water” — highlight the power of international platforms to get African stories to global audiences. Many South African filmmakers are nevertheless wary that the shift to streaming has precipitated a rush toward commercial-leaning and IP-driven fare, even while it leaves them at the mercy of sometimes fickle streaming strategies. “It feels much more like a studio system,” said Swart. “It’s a lot more of a ruthless space.”

Show us the money

There’s no question that the streaming wars have raised the bar for African creators. “It’s completely changed the options for the independent producing sector,” said Stan Joseph, whose Ochre Moving Pictures has a deal with Netflix to adapt multiple books for the streaming service alongside filmmaker Akin Omotoso (“Rise”). “Suddenly, you’re able to do the kinds of things that most people take for granted anywhere else in the world.” But many African filmmakers are still frustrated that the amount of investment in the content market — whether from local, regional or global platforms — has hardly scratched the surface of what’s needed. “The buyers dictate the value of what gets created,” said Mayenzeke Baza of boutique global sales and distribution company AAA Entertainment, which helps finance content from Africa for global export. While the prices paid for African content are “significantly better” than they were just a few years ago, said Baza, “there’s still not big enough appetite from the buyer to create the content at the speed that we want.” “In terms of the local market, we feel like we’ve…proven that we can do it and do it well,” added Bradley Joshua of Gambit Films, the Cape Town-based production outfit behind the hit Netflix teen drama “Blood & Water.” “We’re trying to work with bigger budgets that allow us to do the lovely things we want to do.”

Locations, locations, locations

In news that Variety broke this week, Viola Davis and Julius Tennon’s JuVee Productions, which recently wrapped shooting the action-thriller “G20” for Amazon Studios and MRC Film in Cape Town, will be returning to South Africa to shoot a refugee drama based on the true story of a soccer prodigy who made it to the U.S. after fleeing war in Sierra Leone. The company’s head of film production and development, Melanie Clark, announced the award-winning shingle’s plans to return to South Africa “often” — a huge vote of confidence from the award-winning team behind “The Woman King,” which was also shot in Cape Town. With Ghana this week launching a 20% tax rebate in an effort to lure more international productions like the upcoming Idris Elba action-thriller “Infernus” and the star-studded ensemble comedy “Girls Trip 2,” efforts to ramp up production around the continent are on the rise. Speaking at the Joburg Film Festival, “Diggstown” producer Amos Adetuyi, who’s developing a slate of projects in Africa, noted that the conversations have “shifted” in Hollywood. “The continent is being focused on right now, and I think it’s becoming hip,” he said.

Afrofuturistic series “Iwájú” dropped on Disney Plus Feb. 28. Courtesy of Disney

Africa’s toon boom needs a boost

On Feb. 28, Walt Disney Animation Studios rolled out its hotly anticipated Afrofuturistic Disney Plus series “Iwájú,” a collaboration with the pan-African entertainment company Kugali that marks the Mouse House’s latest investment in the continent’s surging animation industry. Last year, the streamer dropped “Kizazi Moto: Generation Fire,” a 10-part anthology series executive produced by Academy Award winner Peter Ramsey (“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”), Anthony Silverston of South Africa’s Oscar-nominated animation house Triggerfish, and Tendayi Nyeke. Tapping a pan-African roster of emerging talents, the series was heralded as a game-changer for Africa’s toon biz. Yet it also points to some of the challenges that remain on a continent where infrastructure, talent development and investment lag far behind most of the world. “Not a single cent of post-production [for ‘Kizazi Moto’] was spent in Africa,” noted Eduardo Cachucho of Digital Lab Africa this week in Johannesburg. “It’s a problem. It’s not that Disney didn’t want to do it, but there’s just zero capability to do that at international quality.” That hardly dims the ongoing optimism over Africa’s ascendance in the animation world, however; though the continent might be at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to capacity, noted Cachucho, “where I know we can compete is with ideas.”

MultiChoice makes epic moves

Festival partner MultiChoice was out in force this week in Johannesburg, with company execs showcasing upcoming projects in the pipeline, presenting case studies behind their biggest success stories and offering tips on how local filmmakers can land commissions with the most prolific producer of African content. Perhaps the most buzz, however, followed the announcement that production is underway on the epic historical drama “Queen Modjadji,” which the company will be launching on its Mzansi Magic pay-TV channel this year. Produced for MultiChoice by Rhythm World Productions, the series follows on the heels of “Shaka iLembe,” the company’s big-budget period drama about the iconic African king, which MultiChoice has described as South Africa’s “biggest ever primetime drama series.” “‘Shaka’ was a great success for us, and it really moved the needle in storytelling and showed exactly what Africans can do when telling their own stories,” said MultiChoice’s head of scripted content, Tebogo Matlawa. “MultiChoice has always been committed to being Africa’s most-loved storytellers. Telling a story like ‘Queen Modjadji’ — and we have others in the slate — just cements that legacy and commitment to telling our stories in the best way. A story told about Africans, done by Africans.”

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