With an increasing number of studio films being made in South Africa, most recently Winnie Mandela and Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom, the country is apparently looking to make an even bigger investment in its film industry. Last week a delegation of dignitaries and senior executives from the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) took a trip to Los Angeles, the first of its kind, to explore Hollywood and potential partnerships there.
Among the groups represented were the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) and the KwaZulu-Natal Film Commission, which took meetings at Columbia Pictures/Sony, the Weinstein Company, the Africa Channel, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), William Morris-Endeavor (WME), Bobbitt & Roberts law firm, L.A. Film School, and others.
Several members of the delegation including South African Consul-General Cyril S. Ndaba, NFVF chair Mmabatho Ramagoshi, KZN Film Commission chair Welcome Msomi, and KZN Film Commission CEO Carol Coetzee, spoke with Shadow & Act about their goals for this trip and the challenges of building a thriving film industry in South Africa.
SHADOW&ACT: Tell us about NFVF and its mission.
MMABATHO RAMAGOSHI: We are a government entity in the Department of Arts and Culture and the mandate is to build the film industry in South Africa. So we’re looking at education, research, marketing and the whole value chain of the film industry. We provide funding from scriptwriting to production to post production. We also provide funding for students to go to film schools and learn the craft of filming. This is a co-mandate supporting the film commissions in the nine provinces, and at the moment we’ve got three film commissions that are established. We are busy now assisting other provinces to establish their film commissions so that each and every province will be able to focus on telling their own provincial stories. We’re also building the capacity of the youth in those provinces in terms of the film industry.
S&A: Can you explain the financial commitment the government has made to growing the film industry? How does funding work?
MR: The National Film and Video Foundation, Department of Arts and Culture, Department of Trade Industry, and other funding agencies in the country are putting money into the developing end of the industry. And we’re saying to the filmmakers that we do have different incentives where foreign productions can come to South Africa, shoot their movie and also get rebates from South Africa.
For you to have a qualifying South African spend, you have to come and shoot your movie for four weeks in South Africa, and after those four weeks then you qualify to get that rebate. You can also come and partner with another country; we’ve got treaties with Ireland, with Canada, with the UK, with Germany, with Australia. An American filmmaker can partner with those purchasers because they are able to get co-production funding that is over 35% of their spend. So in terms of them getting a rebate, they will get the money but after the movie has been shot.
S&A: What do you hope to accomplish with the meetings that you’re taking in L.A.?
MR: Our goal for this particular trip was twofold. At first we came here to showcase South African arts and film. We had a two-day festival where we brought musicians and film producers to showcase their work. We had a lot of participation from the elder community that came to see our films and also consume the music. And the other objective was really to start forming partnerships in the film industry in L.A. We’re looking at meeting filmmakers, producers, distributors so that we can have a comprehensive program that will start positioning South Africa as a global player in the film industry. That is our focus.
CAROL COETZEE: We’re here not only to promote South Africa as a filming destination, but we also want to be able to take our South African product and to ensure that it is of a quality that can be shown anywhere across the world. One of the other important areas is about empowering our local people in terms of skill development with the young people coming through our program exchanges or to improve the quality of our academies that we have back home in South Africa.
S&A: What kind of film education is in place in South Africa now, and what new initiatives are you looking to bring?
MR: One of the challenges that we have is that most of our institutions provide more theory than practical [instruction]. So at the end of the course you find that the filmmakers are not ready to do their own films. So we went to the L.A. Film School, we visited the Oscars to understand their outreach so that we can then bring them to South Africa to come and have programs with the young people and also have a cultural exchange.
S&A: Is the goal simply to bring more American filmmakers to South Africa, or is a formal partnership with U.S. film schools in the works?
WELCOME MSOMI: Both. We are looking at people who are role models, but we need to bring them closer to the young people where there will be a dialogue between them and the young filmmakers. And also to actually have practical experience, not just where they come and they teach but to actually use the equipment to show the kids how it’s done and how they can be involved.
If we build this partnership it has to yield results, where the filmmaker would come and spend time on a particular project working with the kids where they can actually see a finished product. Then the filmmaker may go away having given them some kind of homework so that next time, wherever he is, the work can be sent to him to evaluate how the students have created the project. So that’s what we’re looking at, and we’ve had very good meetings with people like Bill Duke and others who are also very keen to come out to South Africa and participate in this program.
S&A: Tell us about your impressions of Los Angeles so far.
CYRIL NDABA: Everybody knows that Los Angeles is the home to Hollywood, the home to so many film production companies, the mecca of the film industry. Everybody in the world is looking up to Hollywood. What better place for our delegation when they are visiting? We made it a point to set up very useful meetings for them with real players, and the delegation is over the moon.They’ve been visiting other capitals, in France, Germany, Italy, but have never had such good meetings. So we’re looking forward to tapping on this expertise and the skills which Hollywood possesses.
CC: I don’t think there’s any doubt that they’re very advanced in terms of their development. What was very encouraging was their willingness to partner with us, that they see the benefits for themselves not only from a business perspective but also giving back to the industry.
S&A: What are some of the challenges of building the film industry in South Africa?
WM: We want to create our own stories, but we also know that to play in the international platform, we need to work closely with the people who have made it. It’s like with A Long Walk to Freedom, the Mandela story, we would have loved to have all the lead players done by South Africans. But to deal with the international market you have to have certain names, so we do understand that. So there are a lot of challenges that we have to deal with and be practical about what is possible.
S&A: It’s well known that there are challenges getting black films distributed overseas, which contributes to how we’re perceived globally. Is that a subject that’s come up during your meetings here?
CC: That’s been an area for a lot of the discussions that we’ve had since we’ve been out here in terms of improving the distribution not just for African-American movies, but also of South African movies. Because the same perceptions are made of South Africa terms of thinking it’s a backwards country or we don’t have the top technology, whereas it’s a very different situation. So we want to improve that relationship both ways.
S&A: What are some of the solutions being offered?
CC: We see this almost as a first date with us getting to know each other. We’re seeing the credentials of the people that we’re meeting and similarly, they need to know that who they’re meeting with from South Africa come with some form of credibility as well. So I think we’ve made some good contacts, and we’re looking at establishing a meeting in the next 2-3 months to concretize the specific focus areas that we’ve looked at in these discussions.
WM: And then we will also have a summit in South Africa where they will be able to understand what South Africa really requires and also learn from the people on the ground. Not just ourselves as chairpersons, but let the people speak for themselves. So we can see the progress, and we are very excited that we will establish these relationships with our American counterparts.
S&A: What kind of impact is South African cinema having globally, in your view?
CC: We’re probably still on the emerging side of getting our films distributed globally. We certainly are making great strides there. Some very well-known films have been produced in South Africa, so it has quite a large impact on the economy in terms of spill over effect into the other sectors. So it is something that we see as a growing industry.
S&A: What kind of timeline do you anticipate for building South Africa’s film industry to a competing level?
MR: It depends on the partnerships. We’ve had these meetings, we want also to create the conference in South Africa around these issues. But with regards to putting our film industry on the global platform as we anticipate, that’s going to take a long time. We are as capable as what you’re seeing in the U.S. So we certainly have to market South African content as a competing nation in the film industry. We envision that in 2020, hopefully South Africa will have made some mark in the global platform for us to say we are playing in that space.