Ralph Ziman’s Hillbrow-set gangster movie Jerusalema opens nationwide on August 29th through an independent distribution deal that involves producer Tendeka Matatu, UIP, Metro FM and the Gauteng Film Commission. Andrew Worsdale looks at how the filmmakers are exploring different distribution models to get their movie out there.

Disney Studios’ Bob Iger recently pointed out that there are too many films out there in the global marketplace. Trade mag Screen Daily wrote: “What Iger alludes to is a simple fact: that cinema has physical restraints on what money could potentially be recouped in the limited number of screens available worldwide… What’s more, an increasing number of films are being produced with almost no chance of any significant distribution and hence with financial failure written into the script.”

After its Berlin Premiere, ‘Variety’ reviewed Ralph Ziman’s Jerusalema calling it “a propulsive, glossy, Johannesburg-set actioner charting the rise of an ambitious ne'er-do-well a la Scarface, City of God and virtually every other rags-to-riches-to-ruins underworld epic, Jerusalema overcomes derivative genre clichés and daunting length to punch home its crime-doesn't-pay message on chutzpah alone.”

South Africa’s new Tsotsi movie, part of the nation’s definable genre from Mapantsula through Yizo! Yizo! is set in Hillbrow and revolves around ‘flat-jacking’ – the hijacking of entire apartment blocks.

Ziman says: “I’d been looking to do a crime story based in the city of my birth for some time and then I found out about criminals literally stealing buildings… I wanted Jerusalema to take a harsh but realistic look at Johannesburg, the city, the people, the place but also to reflect the hopes and aspirations of its citizens. In effect, Johannesburg was to become a character within the film itself.”

Karen Van Schalkwyk reported from the shoot for Screen Africa in August 2006 and wrote that it came in at roughly US$2m with most of the finance being sourced from the US. Producer Matatu is quoted in the piece saying the philosophy of the shoot was “to spend everything on the screen. We are aiming for exceptional production value and believe that we achieved this.” Ziman told the magazine they used up to seven cameras on the action scenes and shot both 16mm and Super 35 for added detail and texture in the look of the movie.

Almost two years later the film is getting its local release, and I caught up with Matatu to discuss the distribution strategy. “We spoke to Ster-Kinekor. I showed the film to Helen Kuun (marketing manager for local content). She really liked it and has been very supportive but because of the way we financed the film I insisted on holding onto the DVD and Broadcast rights, and unfortunately Ster-Kinekor couldn’t go into a theatrical deal only.”

Kuun says: “We did like the film, and wanted to distribute it correctly. But it doesn’t make business sense for us on independent titles to pick it up if we cannot secure at least the cinema and DVD rights. I have no doubt that the film will do solid business though, it’s well worth releasing.”

With the marketing help of MetroFM and the Gauteng Film Commission, Matatu is distributing Jerusalema through United International Pictures (UIP), who in addition to dealing with titles from Universal, Paramount and Dreamworks, take all of Anant Singh’s movies out to theatres across the country. “UIP are a great company and the deal with them is a lot more flexible,” says Matatu. “I hold onto DVD and TV rights but take more risk on theatrical. We also make sure the film is positioned across Ster-Kinekor and Nu Metro theatres.” He says by no means is this the best way to go on all local movies, but this deal worked best for Jerusalema, which by all accounts should enjoy a healthy box-office run in the home market especially on DVD.

Matatu stresses that the key is marketing and promoting the flick. “It’s fine to have a distributor, but you need to make sure people are going to the cinemas. That’s where MetroFM and the GFC and our own efforts as producers come into the game.” Unlike many local movies that are projected digitally, Jerusalema is going out on 13 35mm prints (at over R10 000 each), “then you have the promotional materials like posters, banners and stuff. It all adds up. The main thing is to try and get as much press coverage as you can. This way you keep your P&A costs down, but make sure you get maximum impact in terms of market exposure. Also, it helps to have a good film, which we believe we have here.”

Commenting on the GFC’s involvement, Matatu says following discussions with the Commission, who really loved the film and adopted the project, the GFC committed funds as well as mobilising their contacts to assist in marketing the film.

Matatu approached MetroFM because he felt that they had a similar target audience – young, black and urban, “They immediately understood where we were coming from and how they could add value to the film, and how we could add value to their brand.”

Terry Tselane, CEO of the GFC, says, “The GFC’s involvement in Jerusalema reflects our strategy of identifying and proactively seeking to be involved in projects that display originality, diversity and creative ambition.” The Commission says it is supporting the release of locally made content through marketing support, as it has done in the past.

Matatu adds that as the GFC is involved in audience development and outreach programs, he and his colleagues are happy to associate Jerusalema with an organisation like the GFC

MetroFM is the largest National Urban Commercial station in South Africa with over 3.1 million listeners. Matatu says that they have teamed up as the film’s media sponsors. “Basically we do a trade exchange. Exposure of their brand in return for airtime on their radio station and across SABC’s television channels for our trailers and spots, and other media geared efforts. They get to be associated with the film and we tap into their broad audience and massive marketing machine.”

 

I believe this is a breakthrough model for independent distribution; Matatu’s avoiding the majors and has more control over the release of his movie. But he denies it’s a new model. “Both Nu Metro and Ster-Kinekor are doing a really interesting and good thing with these small releases. It works if your film can go out digitally on a small release. This method is just an evolution of what Ronnie Apteker and myself did with Crazy Monkey- Straight Outta Benoni and Footskating 101. When it comes to local films neither the distributors nor the filmmakers can afford to take a classical approach, we’ve tried that and failed. When it comes to local films we have a much bigger mountain to climb. Not only do consumers have less disposable income at the moment, but we have to rise above the Hollywood fare on offer and above the stigma that local film has with audiences.”

What they’re trying to do is make sure the film is positioned correctly, keep the P&A super low and use all their efforts to market and promote the movie. Matatu is sympathetic to the majors:  “The Ster-Kinekors and Nu Metros of the world are corporate companies, they have shareholders to answer to and so it doesn’t make financial sense for them to invest in and release every local film that comes along. What we are saying is that we will share the risk. You book it, and we will sell it.”

Kuun, who spearheaded the release of local films with Forgiveness and Promised Land says: “In my view, it is not in the best interest of the South African consumer for local films to be exclusive to one theatrical circuit. The content must be available where there is a viable ‘play-option’ regardless of who owns that screen.”

She points out however, just like Disney’s Bob Iger, that there’s a universal problem occurring in movie distribution. “It’s getting increasingly difficult for all films to garner the number of attendances they’ve had in the past. The market is changing everywhere in the world. Certain kinds of films have always been more suited to DVD distribution, but often filmmakers don’t acknowledge that it would be a more profitable route and they still attach a heavily weighted value to a cinema release.”

She believes that many local films would turn out more profitable if they went straight to DVD, especially considering geographical limitations in terms of theatrical sites. “South Africa as a territory especially has fantastic advantages. We have consumer research available confirming that South Africans perceive local content in the DVD arena. That is their preference. It’s not our point-of-view, it’s straight-forward feedback from the market.”

She says despite the decline in local production, and disappointing box-office results Ster-Kinekor remains committed to the local industry and will continue to release South African movies. “It’s always been our long-term strategy. We never expected the industry to be on its feet in less than a decade. I’d say we’re not even halfway there yet, but this was our expectation all along.”

She points out that Bakgat and Poena is Koning were hits, that Bunny Chow achieved its target and Confessions of A Gambler performed beyond expectations. Her advice to local filmmakers is that they must do the best thing they can for their own film to ensure profitability no matter what the model is, but she’s a firm believer in local movies that are delivered in the vernacular. “We should be focused on films in local languages. The success stories – Yesterday, Carmen e Khayelitsha, Bunny Chow, Tsotsi, Bakgat – all show a significant trend in making successful local content.”

Kuun’s favourite quote comes from AFDA’s Garth Holmes, who said at a recent film indaba: ‘We tell good stories badly’. “I’ve never heard it described more aptly. When we tell our stories well, without losing authenticity, the success ratio will increase. Our screenplays are not on an acceptable level and much more attention needs to be paid to ensure the ‘foundation’ of our films improves.” Most importantly she says that South Africa needs to work towards increasing the volumes of local content: “Ten odd films a year is not enough. We need closer to 40 or 50 to make a significant impact”

As for Jerusalema, Matatu says that they will check out the film’s performance theatrically before the DVD release but “it will be released straight after the theatrical run. No long window period. We understand that it’s important to get it out there quickly so we can make use of the marketing and promotion that the cinema release has created.”

The film is represented by talent agency ICM in North America and London-based independent sales company Moviehouse Entertainment throughout the rest of the world. Matatu says they have had interest from most major territories since its first screening in Berlin, some deals are bubbling but they are waiting for its domestic release because he believes that will help push international sales.

For more info on the movie go to: www.jerusalementjha.com