After the recent announcement of hikes in permit rates for film production in Gauteng, many filmmakers are questioning the municipal authority�s commitment to filmmaking. Andrew Worsdale discovers the problems facing filmmakers and the GFC as they try to create a film friendly region.

Last month the GFC was notified that the Johannesburg City Council had made a resolution to increase the tariff for filming on public roads from R400 to R450 per hour with effect from the first of July. The Commission sent out a release saying, �the GFC has expressed our concerns to the City of Johannesburg as it appears that the film community has yet again not been consulted on permit increases. Such tariff increases undermine our efforts of positioning Johannesburg and Gauteng as a film friendly region. We trust that our request for a meeting will be honoured to discuss the latest increases.�

Late last year the GFC commissioned a Film Permit Process Review, which was prepared by respected industry consultant Martin Cuff, and it identified numerous problems. The questionnaire results are particularly gloomy - 84% of respondents felt that the process of issuing permits was significantly problematic and expressed the need for a centralised film permit office. But perhaps the biggest problem outlined was the complete lack of response from ANY (the report�s emphasis) key city departments to initiatives being put forward.

It�s becoming increasingly clear that what we have here is a �failure to communicate� (remember �Cool Hand Luke�?). Services such as Metro Police, Provincial & National Roads Authorities, SAPS, Parks & Recreation, Disaster Management, Fire Department and Tourism have no idea how to operate with the film industry, and it seems that the industry is not helping things either.

Cuff says the situation is like �a square peg in a round hole. �The Film Permit Process Review uncovered a general lack of understanding by City Line Departments about their integral role in the film production process. Departments generally know they have a role to play, but servicing the needs of the industry is seen as being a secondary concern to their �core business.�  �We�re responsible for parks, not for film shoots� (um, no, if you run parks, then you are responsible for film shoots in those parks�) We need to impress upon every government department in the country that Film (like Tourism) is everybody�s business.�

The Commission�s CEO Tselane said the same thing to me last month, �For us to significantly grow our competitive position as a prime film location we must work as one. We need to ensure that film becomes everyone�s business in Gauteng and that can only happen if we significantly increase the profile of the sector within our community.�

Steven Sack the City's director of arts, culture and heritage services says,
�The Directorate of Arts and Culture has no dedicated film budget or staff
designated to manage the film sector. Our only involvement in the sector
is within the broader audiovisual sector where we support the screening of student audio-visual production through the CIT: Y Festival as well as the inclusion of the SABC African Film Festival which was staged as part of the Africa Day Celebrations last month.�

Sack says that the matter of a strategy for film was on the agenda of his Directorate about three years ago, and a strategy was being developed but that things changed when the Gauteng Film Office changed into a Commission. �It appears initiative was never brought to finality and might have been reviewed when the GFO appointed a new Head. Film policy within the City of Johannesburg has been recently reviewed by the Economic Development Department and they have just completed a fairly lengthy policy review including extensive consultation.  They are in
discussion with various players around possible development projects.�

As they hold discussions, filmmakers on the ground are getting frustrated. Robbie Thorpe of T.O.M Pictures is pretty incensed about how the City is hampering film production and not facilitating it, �I have to shoot much of the second series of our internationally acclaimed television series �A Place Called Home� which is set in the streets of downtown Jozi & Hillbrow, outside of Joburg because we simply cannot afford the ridiculous tax.� Thorpe insists it�s a tax: �We receive no services for the R450 an hour they charge and that we're forced to pay. It is anti-business, it's anti job creation and it�s certainly anti helping formulate a sustainable film industry. It just makes no sense!!!�

Harriet Gavshon of Curious Pictures is slightly more positive. �The city has been extremely helpful with some of our projects like Hard Copy and in some respects there seems to be a genuine effort to be or at least become film-friendly.  But on the other hand, things happen like road and traffic permits quadrupled in price overnight last year which makes life difficult - particularly for fiction producers who need to spend a lot of time on the streets�I suppose the key is for the GFC and the City to work together to make it more friendly. This often means taking very practical and small steps to make it so.�

Cuff says steep hikes in permit fees have multiple ramifications for the local film industry. �Firstly, it puts basic services out of reach of new, young (often black) production companies that are being nurtured and supported by other government departments (such as the NFVF). Secondly, for international producers (many of whom come on repeat business) it really feels like we are ripping them off�Permit fee increases for use of public space and services need to be carefully considered, and not unilaterally applied.�

But what exactly makes a place �film friendly�? It�s a term that the New Zealand government has entered into law. After the boost in production from Lord of The Rings and the like they instituted a Film Friendly status that gave �formal recognition that local authorities have the necessary processes and policies in place to meet screen production industry needs as they arise, without compromising the councils' statutory obligations.� The requirements for each city and province are detailed in a �local government filming protocol�. Their website (www.filmnz.com) states, �The ability to have consistent and transparent (my emphasis) treatment for screen production activity throughout the country is considered desirable for promoting the continued growth of this industry in New Zealand.�

Cuff says that internationally there are big differences in the way diverse cities view and handle film production. �For some it�s a burden they can�t be bothered to deal with. Some realise that the film sector offers opportunities for the economy but they try to make the film sector fit into existing bureaucratic processes. Some, like New York, go out of their way not just to attract filmmakers, but also to make the entire production experience efficient, effective and welcoming.�

New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg introduced the �Made in NY� film production tax scheme in 2004, which has seen a huge increase in production. Only two years after its introduction it reached its $50m allocation and ploughed $1.5bn into the local economy and Bloomberg signed a bill expanding New York City's 5% tax credit on below-the-line production expenses. What's more, New York State has expanded its existing tax incentive to 2013 and increased credit to 30% from 10%.
If you shoot 75% of your studio stuff in NYC you can claim 35%.

In April, Melanie Rodier of Screen International wrote: �New York tries to make shooting on its streets as comfortable as possible. The Mayor's Office of Film, Theater & Broadcasting issues free permits to productions, with access to public locations and street parking for essential production vehicles. Projects shooting at an exterior location which require traffic control, or include a scene with prop firearms or actors in police uniforms, can request that the New York Police Department movie and TV unit be assigned to their location.�

But the hottest new place to shoot in the US is Detroit and Michigan, which recently introduced a 40% refundable or transferable tax credit for producing films in the state, with an added 2% for films produced in �core� communities. Tax credits are also given for building production facilities in the state and for hiring and training Michigan workers in the film industry. The legislation provides for loans and allows filmmakers to use state and, potentially, local property free of charge, including parks, roads, buildings and landmarks.

Bob Brown, a consultant to the Michigan Film Office, is quoted on a Denver-based website as saying the key to their success has been the fine-tuning of local authorities to the needs of film and television production, �There's real world speed. There's business world speed. And then there's the entertainment industry speed, which is �we need an answer right now�. Our sense of urgency is a thousand times greater than the real world because it costs us so much money to make a movie. �I'll take a couple of days to get back to you� just doesn't work. You can take a couple minutes to get back to me but otherwise we're moving on."

I�m afraid things are different in Gauteng where the city seems to be paying no heed and has very little sense of �entertainment industry speed� or budgetary prudence. Paul Raleigh, co-producer of Tsotsi and now head of completion guarantors Film Finances SA says: �Spend a week of 12 hour days filming on public roads, throw in a couple of traffic officers and see what this does to your budget? The GFC has spent much time and effort in beginning the process of making Johannesburg a film friendly location and when the City should be reducing location fees they do just the opposite.�

Raleigh does, however, say via e-mail, �I think its fair to say that the GFC does what it can to assist producers and goes the extra mile to smooth things over, but ultimately it�s the City and the Province who have the power to REALLY make the City Film Friendly. Sadly, we�re not there yet.�

Vlokkie Gordon of Cape Town-based Film Afrika is an advocate of shooting here. �For me, Johannesburg is still the more cost effective city, due to Cape Town�s high tourist and conference going visitors the hotels and living cost are high; and due to the international commercials, the location fees are high. I find Joburg to be between 10 and 15% cheaper across the board and this makes a big difference on a small budget film.�

For her it�s one of the biggest selling points for shooting in Johannesburg. �It is very difficult to get international producers and cast to feel safe and comfortable working there. It will be unfortunate if they consider a hike in prices, or changing the permit structures that was in place, as it worked well and it created a feeling of a �film friendly city��.

Her view is echoed by Genevieve Hofmeyr of Moonlighting, who has done two films recently in Joburg Catch a Fire and Skin.  �From my experience on these two pictures, Johannesburg is a great place to shoot but could attract far more film activity if the authorities were more film friendly and if they understood the bigger picture and economic value of supporting film projects. The feeling I have had from the Joburg authorities, is that we are a hassle rather than an integral part of the city and its core business.�
This feedback is supported by Bobby Am, executive officer of the Commercial Producer�s Association, who says that Johannesburg has traditionally been very film friendly and flexible. �But the CPA is concerned by the recent trend which has seen the implementation of new regulations and tariffs without any consultation with the film industry or the GFC.  To maintain a conducive production environment, it is very important that we lobby the relevant authorities now to ensure that prohibitive costs and legislation do not hamstring the industry. Over the last few years we have seen more Cape based commercial production companies shooting in Johannesburg because it is far easier to film here than it is in Cape Town.  The authorities need to understand that film-friendliness is a key factor in selecting a location.�

Cuff says, despite the GFC�s efforts and the problems that the City seem to have in coming up with an effective film friendly system, filmmakers aren�t making it easy and that pointing fingers is not the answer. �The other side of the coin of course is that the industry consistently fails to provide South African film commissions and offices with the kind of statistical information that they can use to lobby government for greater co-operation.�

There is light at the end of the tunnel, however. The City�s Economic Development Department is investigating ways to get an efficient �film friendly� system together. I mailed Monique Griffith, director of Sector Support, a bunch of questions about the seeming stubbornness of the city in embracing film production and she replied: �We recently had stakeholder engagement with the film industry and, similar to your protests, we were advised that the City is engaging very little with them. We are currently shaping a way forward to address many of the very poignant issues that were presented.�  

Johannesburg is a young city, only seven years younger than the movies. To many it�s the face of South African movies from Sarafina! to Tsotsi. Most of the city�s old movie-houses have been demolished, and now the city authorities are having problems becoming �film friendly�. The moment has now come for filmmakers to tell the City what they need and City to work with them to create the best strategy. And make it in �entertainment industry�- not �African�-  time.