South Africa’s Screen Industries Face ‘Beautiful,’ ‘Chaotic’ Period of Transformation, Reinvention Three Decades After End of Apartheid

Rexa Vella

South Africa’s Screen Industries Face ‘Beautiful,’ ‘Chaotic’ Period of Transformation, Reinvention Three Decades After End of Apartheid

As South Africa marks three decades since its first democratic elections, a historic moment that dismantled the apartheid system and ushered in Black-majority rule, the country is at a crossroads. Inequality is rife. Crippling blackouts have pushed the economy to a tipping point. The ruling African National Congress — the party of Nelson Mandela — is in crisis, at peril of losing nationwide elections this year for the first time since it swept to power. For many South Africans, the heady promises of that democratic transition have largely been left unfulfilled.

It is a moment of reflection and uncertainty, too, for the country’s film and TV industry, which amid the broader soul-searching is still striving to find its identity. “In many ways, you can say the industry is growing. It’s booming,” says Layla Swart of Yellowbone Entertainment, whose credits include the Canal Plus-Showmax epic fantasy drama series “Blood Psalms,” co-created by producing partner Jahmil X.T. Qubeka, as well as Qubeka’s Toronto premieres “Knuckle City” and “Sew the Winter to My Skin.” “But then, in many ways…I think it’s been unstable and chaotic.”

On the surface, there is much reason to cheer. No country on the continent has benefited as much from the disruption of global streaming platforms as South Africa, where competition between Netflix and homegrown rival Showmax has fueled a surge in production. The Los Gatos-based streamer — which entered the South African market in 2016 and released its first African original, the Pearl Thusi-starring spy thriller “Queen Sono,” in 2020 — continues to make South Africa a focal point of its pan-African expansion, inking deals with many of the country’s top creators and production houses.

Showmax, meanwhile, has continued parent company MultiChoice’s three-decade investment in boosting the local industry, raising the bar for domestic commissioning with a slate of high-end shows including the anticipated 10-part crime series “Catch Me a Killer,” starring “Game of Thrones’” Charlotte Hope, which has sold wide for Abacus Media Rights ahead of its competition berth at Series Mania later this month.

The upsides for local producers are clear. “It’s completely changed the options for the independent producing sector. Budgets have gotten better. You’re finally able to pay people a decent wage. You’re not asking for favors,” says Stan Joseph, whose Ochre Moving Pictures has a multi-title deal with Netflix to adapt multiple books for the streaming service alongside filmmaker Akin Omotoso (“Rise”).

“There isn’t a pressure to turn a 10-part series around in three months,” he continues. “You have the time to develop stuff, you have the budgets to add skills to the value chain. You can have script editors, you can have consultants. Suddenly, you’re able to do the kinds of things that most people take for granted anywhere else in the world.”

The lure of deep-pocketed streaming services, however, has shifted the priorities for many in the industry. “We have to lean more towards making a certain type of fare for the streamers. We’re pushed even more into the commercialization space,” says Swart. Fewer filmmakers are taking big creative swings on the kinds of movies that have global reach not because of streaming platforms, but due to prestigious festival berths and critical buzz. “In the last decade, there’s been fewer and fewer titles made that are high arthouse, partly just because it’s so difficult to get them funded,” says Helen Kuun, of indie distributor Indigenous Film. “There’s certainly a motivation to make commercial content, or that can have wide appeal.”

“Catch Me a Killer,” starring Charlotte Hope, will compete at Series Mania. Credit: Inge du Toit | Af

“Cash flow-wise, immediacy-wise, there is no way to sustain oneself without making these major deals with the streamers,” says Swart. “In terms of creating an authentic auteur or authentic directorial voice, it’s not going to happen. I can’t finance something like that.”

She adds: “It’s dire. I think we’re a bit directionless at the moment.”

COVID, economic crisis stunting industry’s growth

The coronavirus pandemic escalated the move to streaming platforms for audiences in South Africa, where authorities implemented one of the world’s strictest lockdowns in 2020, and cinemas were shuttered for six months. In the four years since, the theatrical market has hardly made up any ground. After total box office approached close to $100 million in 2019, according to Box Office Mojo — the industry’s best performance in nearly a decade — total B.O. tumbled nearly 85%, to $15 million, in 2020. The market has been struggling to claw back since: Last year, South African exhibitors grossed just $35 million.

The pandemic, however, only tells part of the story. “You cannot discount loadshedding [rolling blackouts] for us. It is a significant setback here,” says Kuun, who estimates that just 60% of South African cinemas have generators to keep the lights on during the country’s regular, rolling blackouts. Combined with the shift to streaming, “audience mentality becomes, ‘Is it worth going out?’” she says.There’s a chunk of people that will not go back to cinema.”

Loadshedding has added to production costs in a country already hit by the double-whammy of global inflation and a local currency in a tailspin. Financing for independent features, meanwhile, is an uphill battle. The Dept. of Trade and Industry (DTI), which administers South Africa’s struggling rebate system, has only recently begun to address a backlog of payments that has seen some producers waiting as long as two years to be reimbursed for expenditures covered by the cashback scheme.

“For a small company, that’s impossible to sustain,” says Swart, who estimates that Yellowbone Entertainment is owed roughly 16 million rand ($840,000) for “Blood Psalms.” “That’s a never-ending battle that you just can’t understand. This is a good industry that has a significant economic impact. Why the struggle?”

Onke Dumeko, head of operations at South Africa’s National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF), notes that “the state of the industry would be far better than what it is now if, at a national level, there was enough investment — if at a country level it was perceived as an industry that has the potential to be just as good of an economic driver as any other industry.”

The NFVF is widely praised for its efforts to address some of the shortfalls in achieving the government’s stated goal of economic transformation that would see a more equitable distribution of wealth in Africa’s third-largest economy. The foundation has launched a number of financing slates meant to jumpstart the careers of young, Black and female directors, while also implementing a COVID relief fund that helped keep the industry afloat amid the widespread havoc wrought by the pandemic. Dumeko says the NFVF has created 30,000 jobs in three years.

Fantasy epic “Blood Psalms” was a co-production between Showmax and Canal Plus. Courtesy of Yellowbone Entertainment

There’s still more work to be done, however, to get policymakers to sign off on big-ticket initiatives that could have a transformative impact on the screen industries. Dumeko says that the film and TV business contributed an estimated 7.1 billion rand ($371 million) to the South African economy before the pandemic, an amount that dwindled to just 2.9 billion rand ($152 million) in its most recent study.

“It shows that you have an industry that contributes quite significantly to the economy of South Africa. But because it’s a creative industry, in a country like South Africa, it’s not necessarily prioritized,” she says. “The difficulty is selling the idea that to believe in an industry like this and have it go where it needs to go, you need two things: you need time and you need investment.”

The long road to transformation

It would be wrong, however, to discount the enormous strides taken in the three decades of Black-majority rule, and the impact that’s had on South Africa’s screen industries. Many of the country’s film and TV bodies, broadcasters and top production companies are Black-owned or -run — often by women. The inroads made by both regional and global streaming services, meanwhile, has given South African filmmakers a reach they’ve never enjoyed in the past. “There’s more places to go to with local content than ever before, and there’s more interest in local content than ever before,” says Indigenous’ Kuun.

For a country that once celebrated its first Black president’s long walk to freedom, local filmmakers insist that the full-scale transformation of the industry can’t happen overnight. “There are certain departments, for instance production design — it’s very hard to find a Black head of department because there’s not enough training happening at the ground level,” says Ian Gabriel, whose Toronto-premiering political thriller “Death of a Whistleblower” played this week at the Joburg Film Festival.

The director highlighted some of the differences since he launched his Giant Films production banner in 1998, when he was the first director of color to open an independent, director-owned film production company in South Africa. “In sound, grips and lighting there’s quite a lot of Black personnel in those roles. So there are certain areas that need more development than others,” he says. “The production department is getting much better in Black representation and there are also a lot of talented Black directors, which is great.”

Ian Gabriel’s Toronto premiere “Death of a Whistleblower” played at the Joburg Film Festival. Courtesy of Known Associates Entertainment

As South Africa heads into an election year, the potential for political turmoil and social unrest is on the minds of many. Global economic headwinds could easily push the country off-course as it continues its staggered post-COVID recovery. South African filmmakers, too, know that they’re at the mercy of the very streaming platforms that are driving so much of the industry’s growth — as evidenced by Amazon Prime Video’s abrupt pull-out from the African market in January, less than a year after trumpeting its ambitious plans to become the continent’s top streamer.

Nevertheless, the country has at least one formidable factor on its side. “South Africans are generally resilient people,” says Tshepiso Chikapa Phiri, CEO of Known Associates, which includes the production company Known Associates Entertainment and the production services giant Moonlighting Films. “Every five to 10 years, we go through this space of reinventing the industry. And obviously, reinventing comes with a lot of chaos. It feels like, after a little bit of a pause, we’re sussing out which direction to go, re-strategizing. And then we’re going to shoot off again.”

“In every challenge, there’s always an opportunity,” adds Swart. “We’re at a breaking point with this industry. Things are exploding in a beautiful way.”

The Joburg Film Festival runs Feb. 27 – March 3.

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