With the announcement of a new DTI rebate scheme, a wide array of bids from a powerful new channel and the spin-off advantages of labour troubles in Hollywood, things are looking upAndrew Worsdale takes a look at industry hopes and plans for 2008, and hopes the ‘power’ is with you…

With Eskom’s power shedding taking up most of Gauteng’s grudges these days, it’s encouraging that the Film and TV industry have something to feel good about. Justifiably true to form they were miserable about the delays a month ago but finally the DTI is making an announcement about the re-structuring of its rebate scheme that will specifically target lower-budget films designed to increase indigenous product and not just lure foreign projects to the country.

The South African Film and Television Production Rebate will evidently work according to a two-tier structure giving a 35% rebate to films budgeted between R2.5m and R6m; films which cost more will receive a further 25% rebate on the remaining amount.

The rebate was approved on December 13th according to Nadia Sujee director of Creative Industries at the DTI. Application forms will be available on the website (www.thedti.gov.za) at the end of the month and it takes effect from February 1st.

Hopefully this potent financial incentive will inject some much-needed ‘oomph’ into our industry – the trick is to take advantage of it and make projects that people want to see. Already some filmmakers are showing initiative and there are a range of projects lined up that will be happening in Gauteng.

Movies in 2008

This week (January 28th) at the Rotterdam Film Festival, the SABC and the NFVF will announce “The Commandments” a unique project developed with the Maurits Binger Institute to make five feature films and five single filmed plays about the codes and rules that govern a culture and society.  Titles range from Norman Maake’s “Blood Down Claim Street” and Teddy Mattera’s  “Gees” to Nicky Newman’s “Lucky Lady” and Busi Ntintili and Khalo Matabane’s collaboration “Road to Khumbula”. Kethiwe Ngcobo, SABC’s Head of Drama Content Hub, says about the project: “The Commandments is the first large scale fiction initiative that has been undertaken to showcase South African talent both locally and internationally. We believe this project is an ideal vehicle for those wanting to partner with South Africa.”

Other local films that have been waiting for rebate news and are readying up for production include “Stiff” from TOM Pictures and produced by Robbie Thorpe and written and directed by Craig Freimond of “Gums and Noses” fame. The story revolves around a comedy writer who loses his sense of humour, because he just can’t find anything funny in Joburg anymore.  Thorpe says, “The great thing about the lowering of the rebate is that it will help producers who are actually making local films as opposed to those servicing foreigners, and in the long run this is the best way to ensure that we actually have an indigenous film industry.”

Crime and brutality, recurring themes in Joburg-set movies, return this year. “Trainspotting” helmer Danny Boyle will direct “Ponte Tower” an adaptation of Norman Ohler’s novel about drug-dealers in the Hillbrow high-rise later in the year. Screenwriter Michael Thomas, best-known for Beatles biography “Backbeat” and David Bowie’s cult vampire flick “The Hunger”, was in Johannesburg this month to get a feel for the city as he prepares the script which is being funded by the UK’s Film Council and local production company Moonlighting. The story is about a naïve Sowetan girl who moves into Jozi’s famed fifty-four-story skyscraper in the late 1990s only to fall under the influence of a charming druglord. A decade later she returns to exact revenge.

The ethics of vengeance is also the theme of Khalo Matabane’s “A State Of Violence” which is being produced by Jeremy Nathan of DV8 and will go into production in the coming months. It’s the story of a 35-year old black businessman who goes on a journey through the city in a quest to revenge his wife’s rape and subsequent suicide. “The film argues that the solution to violence is a political one, there’s need to recognize our own contributions to violence and that unless we create a just and equitable society, the violence will continue to affect all of us,” says Matabane. “Ultimately it’s a film about reconciliation and those who refuse to forgive. It is not a film about easy answers but choices that people make and the consequences of those choices.”

Award-winning producer Dumisani Phakathi will be teaming up with writer/director Tymon Smith on another film that will involve questions of moral principles. The low-budget film “Wagter” about an ex-agent of the Apartheid state caught in a darkly comic pursuit of a missing child has been in development for eight months with actor Marcel Van Heerden and hopes to start shooting once co-production financing has been locked up.

The Hollywood big guns are also heading this way. Samuel L. Jackson will be playing the chief administrator of a hospital based on Chris Hani Baragwanath whose methods are put into question in “Unfinished Country”.
Mark Wheaton who scripted horror-hit “The Messengers” wrote the film and producers Blue Star Pictures and Inferno Entertainment are planning to shoot on location in the biggest hospital on the continent.

Clint Eastwood will be directing “The Human Factor”, an adaptation of John Carlin’s book about Mandela and the 1995 Rugby World Cup set to star Morgan Freeman as Madiba and perhaps Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar. The amiable and skilled Genevieve Hofmeyr of Moonlighting says that they are in talks with Warner Bros. about the project but as with Boyle’s “Ponte Tower” further developments depend on the outcome of the Writer’s Guild strike as well as negotiations that are taking place later this year with the Screen Actors Guild. “At the moment we’re playing a bit of a waiting game with studio projects but we’re doing a lot of prepping on projects and stuff and this year it looks as if there’ll be quite a few projects shooting in Gauteng, more for us than Cape Town for a change.”

Hofmeyr says Moonlighting fervently embraces the new rebate system; late last year she told the Financial Mail that the DTI rebate scheme operates like clockwork, “A check arrives six weeks after submitting a copy of the completed film and the paperwork. The predictability of this system is a definite competitive advantage. It helps us secure business over emerging locations markets like Eastern Europe.” The company used the rebate for productions ranging from Philip Noyce’s “Catch A Fire” to Edward Zwick’s “Blood Diamond”.

Still with crime - Ralph Ziman’s hard-hitting thriller “Jerusalema”, a gritty thriller with Rapulana Seiphemo as a small-time gangster who climbs the crime ladder to become a landlord dubbed ‘the hoodlum of Hillbrow’ after he sets up a people’s “Housing Trust”, shot in downtown Joburg a year ago and is readying for release. The film has its World Premiere in February as part of the Panorama selection at the Berlin Film Festival. “Jerusalema” producer Tendeka Matatu of Joburg based Muti Films has several other projects in development including “One Last Look” by Philip Roberts, a high-concept thriller that he’s setting up as a South African/Australian co-production, that is currently casting in Sidney and will be up and running by June.

As for the rebate Matatu says, “I think it will be a definite boost for the local industry. If we are serious about developing an industry then proper government support is crucial.  It’s important that we start producing more films, but it is also critical that we focus on audience development. Last year’s attendance rate and box office for local movies was shockingly dismal, it was a loud wake up call for all of us and we need to start thinking very carefully and creatively about our distribution and marketing strategies.”

Where to Hollywood?

With the Writer’s Guild strike still unresolved, many local filmmakers believe it could benefit them with runaway productions. That remains to be seen, but with the rebate ‘issue’ resolved filmmakers can make clear headway. So it’s very significant that the Annual MediaXchange will take place in Los Angeles and New York in April. During the five-day session of meetings South African media professionals will meet with the leading decision makers in Hollywood to procure business (facilitation or co-production) for South Africa, as well as learn about upcoming trends in film and broadcasting.

Dezi Rorich, of Joburg-based Metal Moon, who is one of the organisers, says “The first five places were reserved before we even commenced marketing it, this is obviously due to the fact that the Writers Strike has virtually brought production in Hollywood to a halt, and as they seek production alternatives so we can help out.” She emphasizes that the marketing exercise, “in no way resembles a generic marketing platform like trade fairs and festivals such as Cannes. (It) is a very personal, strategic arrangement that enables delegates to access leading players on a personal level…The hosts are heavyweights; studio bosses and show runners who are impossible to access at festivals and markets.”

Broadcasting Boom?

So feature production looks set for a return to the heydays of the late-1990s; but it’s going to be local broadcasters that really give the industry a kick up the proverbial. M-Net is commissioning more local content than ever before, with more than 100 local productions in 2007. Carl Fischer, Head of Original Productions at the Channel, says, “In the past year we have generated over 2000 hours of finished programming which involved more than 5500 shooting days. And, best of all, with so many new shows we have created over 10 000 jobs.”

With three new mini-series taking a dedicated slot on Wednesday nights starting with the Boer-War Drama  “Feast of The Uninvited” and then the 1960s set “Ella Blue” which will be followed by the funky ‘couple-on-the-run’ thriller “Innocent Times” which was shot entirely round Gauteng, M-Net are showing a genuine commitment to high-quality local drama.

“We’ve increased our entertainment quota across the board and are doing far fewer chat shows and the like,” Fischer says, “The new slot will allow for mini-series or one off dramas of the week lasting an hour, budgeted at around R1.5m that are high-concept in terms of content and that will carry on throughout the year.”

There are no specific briefs but producers and creative teams with scripts are encouraged to approach the channel. Fischer says the rebate is a “spectacularly good move for the industry. Every other industry in the world other than America has some kind of government intervention with incentives for local investors because the domestic market in most places, like in South Africa, is just not large enough to commercially sustain a large film industry.”

Perhaps the most exciting prospect for 2008 is the introduction of four additional pay-TV stations that will end MultiChoice’s 12-year sole reign and mark a television renaissance in the country which is sure to see existing broadcasters forced to up their game. Telkom Media starts broadcasting in June and hopes to offer 40 channels, Walking on Water Television (WOW) will be an affordable Christian-based channel and E-Sat and On Digital Media that will launch their plans later in the year.

Flush with cash, Telkom Media was first off the bat sending out a range of briefs in December, which were unusually user-friendly. The documents (which can be downloaded at www.telkommedia.co.za) emphasise that the new player is looking for “local content that will distinguish us; programmes that will first make people want to subscribe to our service, and then to make them feel it’s worthwhile.” They say their target-market is “The SA middle class of today, and, especially, tomorrow” and that they want entertainment that resonates and connects “not only us with consumers, but also consumers with each other.” To that end Telkom Media is especially interested in properties that live on more than one medium, thus fully embracing the expanding digital world. The idea was to garner as many ideas and proposals as possible and then invite producers to pitch, after which the broadcaster will pursue the projects they like.

On the other end of the scale Gauteng-filmmakers are embracing the options of ‘no-budget’ filmmaking. Writer/director Vusi Twala of Seleke Cinema in Soweto completed production of “uMamazala” late last-year. Modelled on the Nigerian school of independent filmmaking the movie follows the trials and tribulations of a young bride, her tyrannical mother-in-law and carefree husband. The company aims to produce upwards of three films a year and are currently in prep for their latest venture.

Whether you decide to take the high or the low road – it definitely seems that 2008 is going to be a better year – there are real opportunities out there, the lines of communication seem to be clearer and there’s financing that can be found.  As Oprah Winfrey, who herself is about to create a new global satellite channel, said, “Cheers to a New Year and another chance for us to get it right!”