The South African Film and TV Industry is Breaking Into The International Market

Here’s an insider's look at the burgeoning South African film and TV industry. As this industry grows, the ties between South Africa and Canada are getting stronger: Canada and South Africa have recently announced a codevelopment incentive.

When one thinks of South Africa, a portrait including mountains, lions and possibly former president Nelson Mandela may spring into mind. Hailed as one of the world’s top destinations, this country has much to offer in terms of tourism. When it comes to the film and television industry, the love affair is just as real.

The local film and television industry has developed a strong reputation in building and establishing South Africa as a primarily service-oriented industry. Evidence of this is several award-winning films and TV series such as Safe House, The Good Lie, Long Walk to Freedom, Avengers, Homeland, District 9 and The Book of Negroes. The country attracts international productions because of its unique location sites, low production costs and favourable exchange rates.

 Photo: Clement Virgo on the set of The Book of Negroes

A mutual relationship between international producers and South Africa has fostered a growing local film industry that injects R3.5 billion (approximately CA$350 million) in South Africa’s GDP and employs over 35,000 people.

As this aspect of the industry is well established and valued, attention must be paid to another element or side to filmmaking, and that is the rise of filmmakers who have made bold moves to showcase South Africa in a different light through their intellectual property (IP) and original storytelling that hold great international appeal.

This group of filmmakers is interested in driving the South African narrative forward, and they do so by creating stories that are authentically local while having universal interest.

South Africa’s new wave

Some would argue that South Africa boasts a long film history. Acknowledgement and recognition of the South African film industry tracks back to the 1940s, when Cecil Kellaway became the first South African actor to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in Henry Koster’s The Luck of the Irish (1948).

However, it is in post-apartheid South Africa that the slate was wiped clean and that the industry grew and garnered notable success. In 2006, Gavin Hood’s feature film Tsotsi won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film which put South Africa on the international map and generated serious interest in the country.

 Photo: District 9

Neill Blomkamp’s 2009 independent thriller District 9 was contextually and culturally South African (having been filmed in Soweto) and it also had a global appeal. It offered a refreshing story to both local and international audiences. South Africans could relate to the narrative, whereas international audiences saw a different side to the country in the sense that it was not a post-apartheid or HIV film like so many other films that had previously come out of South Africa.

Zee Ntuli, a promising local director, said this of his first feature film: “Hard to Get is part of a new wave of films that are coming out of South Africa. By ‘new wave’ I mean films that tell stories about today’s South Africa rather than the past.”

A distinctive South African look

Taking a detailed look at how local filmmakers are moving their art forward is to ask what is the South African look or feel?

“As a filmmaker, one understands how scripts—whether commercial or long form—require a specific treatment that complements the overall tone of the material. I believe, however, that we need to maintain an African aesthetic in our films that contains colour,” says South African filmmaker Zwelethu Radebe. Add to that mix culture and language to make for compelling storytelling.

One notable filmmaker who has understood this well is Nigerian-South African filmmaker Akin Omotoso (Man on Ground and Tell Me Sweet Something). His most recent feature film Vaya was screened at the 2016 Toronto Film Festival.

 Photo: Akin Omotoso on the set of Vaya

Others include filmmaker Zee Ntuli, whose 2014 hit film Hard to Get received a 2016 streaming deal with Netflix. The same goes for films such as Sara Blecher’s Ayanda and the film Happiness Is a Four Letter Word which struck a chord with South African audiences and raked in over $700,000. From a South African viewpoint, that’s a real success.

Today’s Film and TV Industry in South Africa

Notable South African production companies that are doing well in the industry include Bomb Productions, Kalahari, Diprente, Rififi Pictures and Urban Brew. These companies have worked successfully in growing a strong TV and film industry.

Taking a look at television, genres that do really well include soap operas, comedy and sports. The Generations soap created in 1994 by Mfundi Vundla is part of South Africa’s DNA and, at its peak, it drew 7 million viewers. This South African TV show is now airing in Jamaica. Other favourites include Isidingo (The Need) and Isibaya (The Herd).

When it comes to comedy, a name that often comes to mind is Leon Shuster, one of South Africa’s most highly

respected and wealthy filmmakers. His slap-stick comedy film Mr. Bones raked in over $200,000 at the box office.

Animation is also steadily making its way up in the industry. Starring Samuel L. Jackson, the 2012 film Zambezia earned $34.4 million and Khumba, released in 2013, generated $28.42 million. Both these films were produced by Triggerfish Animation Studios. While the studio hopes to deliver its third feature film, Seal Team, in 2019, it currently has six feature films and four TV series in the works at different stages of development.

 Image: Zambezia

As for video-on-demand, there are currently several services available in South Africa, including Showmax and ONTAPtv.com launched in 2015 as well as Netflix and Amazon Prime launched in 2016.

Funding programs for original content

Most of the above-mentioned films and series would not have been possible without the active support of state film agencies injecting funds and providing critical training programs to equip filmmakers and foster original content.

The primary public investors are the National Film and Video Fondation (NFVF), the Department of Trade & Industry (DTI) and the Industrial Developmental Corporation (IDC). These organizations have rolled out programs as well as film incentives and continue to offer local and international scholarships to assist filmmakers in understanding storytelling and level the international playing field.

They introduced slate funding which helps to provide long-term sustainability and viability to production companies by funding selected companies that are developing and producing a slate of projects over a 3-year period.

The funding terms and conditions stipulate that production companies must have an established relationship with a local or international sales agent, a pre-sale agreement with foreign investors or a guarantee from international distributors. This could prove challenging and tricky for filmmakers who have not been able to establish such relationships.

Broadcasters such the SABC, Etv, and digital satellite television service DStv offer great opportunities to content creators. However, they enforce strict policies to retain full rights on all programming that is commissioned and funded, thereby preventing producers from exploiting the IP of the programs they have designed and produced.

Competing with international content

Domestically, 90% of all films screened in theatres are international mainstream films. This has been a struggle for the local industry which has had to compete against enormous international marketing budgets. It puts South African films at a disadvantage with local audiences.

However, the recent pledge made by the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) to cut international content to 10% on radio and television may encourage more South Africans to watch local films. With such opportunities, filmmakers are given a clean canvas to build, create and grow.

As says Senegalese filmmaker Ddjibril Mambety: “It is good for the future of cinema that Africa exists.” His words encapsulate the history and future of the African story. Each film industry is unique to the world and it is that uniqueness that explains part of the universal connection of storytelling.

The South African Industry is young, but it is full of potential and the world is watching. Established first as a service industry, the country now has a group of talented young new filmmakers that are taking the industry a step further to make South Africa the next ‘Sollywood.’

For international producers and production companies looking to get more involved in the South African content industry, there is DIFF and Discop.

South Africa also has film and television co-production treaties with Canada, Australia, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, and the UK.

Furthermore, the Canada Media Fund (CMF) and the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) recently announced the signing of an agreement to establish a dedicated incentive for the codevelopment of audiovisual projects between Canadian producers and South African producers.


To learn more about the opportunities for Canadian producers in South Africa’s English market, you can also read our recent report: Your Market Is Everywhere – South Africa.

Posted in: Industry Transformations

Tags: distribution, entrepreneurship, export, film, production, tv



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