Last year was a landmark one for the local industry with films like 'District 9' and 'Invictus' firmly placing South Africa on the blockbuster map, but the global recession and crises at the SABC severely affected local production. Did the crisis lead to a revitalised and united industry and are Government and filmmakers finally speaking in a language they both understand? Andrew Worsdale looks back on a tough year, seeks out the word on the ground and discovers a grounded optimism that shows promise.

For many South African filmmakers, last year was a nightmare. The financial crisis at the SABC, which admitted to a deficit of nearly a billion rand, led the national broadcaster to freeze, cancel and delay various local productions in order to cut costs. The Television Industry Emergency Coalition (TVIEC) said: "The independent production sector will end up taking the hit for the broadcaster's internal mismanagement." They were right; the broadcaster's meltdown had devastating consequences for the industry.

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TVIEC announces hunger strike protect, Sept 2009

With Gauteng being the place where the bulk of TV production takes place and the national broadcaster dominating output in the province, the industry was unduly exposed and many production companies were forced to retrench and even shut up shop. "In February 2009, we were doing two of the biggest shows on SABC, but by May we shut down and laid off everybody," says Robbie Thorpe of TOM Pictures.

At the time, the TVIEC said: "We believe that an attempt to turn the SABC around by cutting their key product - programming - will cause irreparable damage to the independent production sector and to the SABC's credibility. In our view this can be likened to an airline making a saving by buying less fuel."

Members of the industry marched on Auckland Park and Joburg-based filmmaker Michael Lee became front page news worldwide as the first of several to go on a month-long hunger strike to draw attention to what the grouping called the broadcaster's inhumanity. "Our primary issue with the SABC is simple. It is an inhumane institution. Its actions and approaches repeatedly show that it does not care about the citizens of this country, it does not care about the national heritage it is entrusted with, and it certainly doesn't care about the industry that has helped build it."

Lee, an American who has been in the country for seven years, told me via e-mail that the crisis united the industry in many ways: "Intellectual property ownership is the key and has been something local filmmakers have been pushing on for much longer than the current crisis although the crisis has given an opportunity for new models to be presented more readily."

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Sharlto Copley in District 9

The broadcaster's meltdown is worth examining in detail because ironically the collapse of the national broadcaster had an immediate and long-standing positive effect on making local films and television. An intense and depressing year yielded contact between Government and stakeholders like never before.

Many agree that it united the industry - it seems that it took a crisis of such magnitude to focus the attention of filmmakers and content users alike. Producer John Stodel says: "The chaos opened up some opportunity to force the resolution of some short and long-term industry objectives. Things might appear to have regressed, but in all good faith great progress has been made this year. Perhaps not so much because the industry became united, but in the main because of the weakness of the tottering SABC, brought down by their own ineptitude, ignorance, profligate spending and above all, blind arrogance. It reminded me of the last days of the Senate, before the fall of Rome. Arrogant and yet powerless."

He says that the ring fencing of ownership of copyright by the SABC has been subverted by lobbying the Department of Communications."If the SABC shows interest in commissioning a particular project, but the sticking point is the issue of Copyright which prevents the producer from entering into a co-production or raising 3rd party financing, one can apply for a ruling from the DOC to force the SABC to forego total ownership of the Intellectual Property. In my opinion, this is a major step forward and in my mind, the DOC will force the SABC to change their basic contracts in this regard in 2010."

An industry stalwart with a judicious opinion, Stodel believes that incremental steps have resulted in major advances but, "we are not yet out of the woods, the next step is to table amendments to the Copyright Act to entrench this ownership and bring it in line with overseas norms and best business practices."

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White Wedding delivered at the local box office

The crisis led to intensive meetings and recommendations to Government. In October, the South African Screen Federation (SASFED) made a submission to Lulu Xingwana, the Minister of Arts and Culture, outlining many grievances and issues including, "due Intellectual Property ownership and copyright, dynamic commissioning structures and terms of trade, conducive budget structures, including for development, audience and platform growth and development, effective training and development across the value chain, an effective, policy and operationally growth-aligned public and commercial broadcasters."

To read Sasfed's full letter go here. And to see the encouraging minutes of their meeting.

In November, President Zuma addressed the film and music industries at the Sandton Convention Centre in an attempt to lend a helping hand to the crisis. For the full text of his speech go here.

"I'm not sure if government recognises the importance of local content and its creators, or not," says Lee. "At the talk President Zuma and much of his cabinet gave in November to the creative industries, there was a whole lot of rhetoric about the importance of local content, and partnership between the industry and government, but it is unclear what they exactly meant, as it sounded to many people a whole lot like a plea or even demand for a sort of happy patriotism, to support the aims of a developmental state, rather than to support the creation of local audiovisual artists whatever they may wish to address and investigate."

(Lee is producer of the feature-length documentary State of Emergency? a collaborative project in which several South African filmmakers take a look at the history of the industry during their lifetimes. To see the trailer go here)

He says: "There is a huge concerted effort to examine and debate what is meant by a public broadcaster and how the SABC should be transformed to become a true custodian of the public interest. There is a huge amount of hope - it is not depressing at all. That is why the community spirit that has been created in the past year must be continued, encouraged, increased and maximised."

Producer Desiree Markgraaf of Bomb Productions says: "I think the crisis enabled many discussions between previously diverse voices to find common ground. We are clearly stronger for it and 2010 needs to be a year to harness this unity to fight the big battle for ownership of intellectual property. What is vital is that our industry, and indeed the SABC, does not lose sight of the lessons learned. We have to fight for a more sustainable business model. We must see the public broadcaster as a lever and not as a one-stop financing source. Intellectual property is at the heart of this. If the SABC owns it 100% it is a dead-end. If IP vests in the creators, as it should, then it will open up all sorts of new ways of doing business and generating revenue streams for the industry and the broadcaster."

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Jozi set for release 26 Feb 2010

In November the NFVF held an indaba and introduced their updated value charter, in an ongoing attempt to make film and TV production an industry sector palatable to government bureaucracy. SASFED Co-Chair, Kgomotso Mtsunyane of TOM Pictures, made an impassioned presentation calling for tangible results from all the discussions, saying that the industry endorsed the value charter but were concerned about its implementation. She called for the Section 24F of the Income Tax Act to be made effective again and pointedly asked: "How much more education of the government do we have to do?"

You can find her address here.

And for the NFVF's new value charter, which concentrates on 'Sectoral Rationalisation' and maps ways forward to 2025 go here.

On Wednesday 13 January, a new SABC board took over and it appears that they are making major amends including prioritising payment of debt owed to independent producers, according to SABC spokesperson, Kaizer Kganyago.

New SABC CEO, Solly Mokoetle, said: "...we can only succeed if we restore the morale of our employees, and our relationship with advertisers and independent producers, and address the core challenges that incapacitated the SABC."

This is after eight years of mal-administration, character assassination and plundered resources, no wonder Muriel Hendrickse of Benoni wrote to 'The Star': "If we have to pay for a TV license, let us watch programmes that are worth the money. Let them spend less on in-house fighting and do the jobs they are paid to do. Entertain us and enlighten us."

Hopefully that will now happen. Last week, head of the board Ben Ngubane said: "Let's put all our problems behind and work together and restore the confidence of the people...Despite the problems, we want to work with everyone, including the independent producers, who are our critical partners, and with international broadcasters and share content with them."

Basically, the upshot of the industry crisis forced Government to finally get round the table with the film industry, something it has been seeking for years, and ironically never got from party minions at the SABC. Producer Jeremy Nathan of DV8 agrees: "We need strategic government intervention. One that forces distributors and broadcasters, by law, to co-finance and distribute local films. They will not do it of their own volition."

In a long piece written for the NFVF's tenth anniversary, Nathan laid down a list of how to re-imagine the future and collectively engineer a larger, more productive and, hopefully, more creative filmmaking industry. He identified the need to support the NFVF and the DTI as conduits to government and praised the DTI and its rebate scheme, "they're efficient, well-managed, and permanently trying to make the Rebate more effective."

"We need to immediately address local distribution and actively reach more of our audiences with well-financed strong strategies and national outreach programmes. Digitally, immediately and nationally," he wrote, adding: "We need seriously to address the various broadcasters and convince them of the importance of Cinema. As we are currently a predominantly television based culture, we need to encourage ICASA to legislate that ALL broadcasters by law support local films, because they are reluctant to do it themselves - tax them at licence stage and give this money to the NFVF. Like the French do."

Meanwhile, throughout last year the Industry was engaging with the Department of Trade and Industry on the Film Rebate Scheme in the light of the global credit crunch.

Since February 2008, the DTI Rebate has supported 24 local feature films with approximately R83 million and 16 foreign films with approximately R102 million, greatly enhancing local production. Their recent amendment of the local rebate scheme enables financing and cash-flow based on various production milestones from financing through pre-production to a Married Master and final audit.

This was achieved through lobbying by the industry. To see the Production Task Team's report that the DTI responded positively to you can go here.

This is a world first, and will greatly enhance the chances for local producers who previously found financing almost impossible because of the Industrial Development Corporation, who unfortunately had virtually reduced its business plan to cash-flowing the DTI Rebate at exorbitant rates with unrealistic contracts

Paul Raleigh, co-producer of Oscar-winner Tsotsi and now heading up the local offices of completion bonder Film Finances, says: "I think that without the DTI incentive we would be in deep trouble and I think that Government via the DTI is playing a very supportive role." But once again he returns to the SABC: "The piece of the financing puzzle that is missing is that of the public Broadcaster. Whenever I see a finance plan for an indigenous film there is a missing piece of 15-20%. This is where the SABC could play a huge role."

Nathan says: "As we stand here today, the NFVF and DTI Rebate are really the only entities supporting local film in any substantial financial manner. Distributors and exhibitors generally come on board after completion, and do their best to market and promote the films as widely as possible, with audience support for local growing consistently. Broadcasters do buy, but at low rates and generally without strategy. The DTI is efficient, well managed, and is permanently trying to make the Rebate more effective. It has proven its ability to raise and apportion finance effectively, fulfilling its various mandates appropriately, and is willing to increase its commitment to the Industry."

It was a hellish 2009 for film production in most places, and Hollywood's year provides some parallels to our own. Sharon Waxman, reporter for online Hollywood insider 'The Wrap', recently wrote that last year was brutal for the industry, "one of the scariest Hollywood and the world economy has seen in decades... In 2009 Hollywood underwent a vitally necessary correction, one that was painful but which places the entertainment industry on much healthier footing as it faces the future."

To read her amusing invective Hollywood Cuts, Retools and Looks to the Future, go here.

Last year production companies closed, independent movie studios floundered and studios and networks cut over 3500 jobs from Disney to Warner Bros and News Corp. Yet Waxman says change was necessary and "2010 dawns with what should be a sense of optimism...Looking ahead, the companies will be leaner, the budgets will be tighter, the stars will work harder and so will the agents...There's nothing like a strike followed by worldwide recession to focus the mind. And people in this industry seemed to get the message."

For South African filmmakers 2009 may have been bad, but the crisis also focused the mind of players - and finally Government and the film industry were speaking in an urgent, coherent language they both understood. The feeling is that the desire for a viable film and TV industry goes all the way to the President.

Firoz Cachalia, Gauteng MEC for Economic Development, says: "Our vision is for Gauteng to develop a world class film and TV production industry as well as to be the continent's main media and content exchange centre. To achieve this, Johannesburg, in particular, must remain at the forefront of the South African film industry."

To that end, the Gauteng Film Commission came on board this year in the light of the global credit crunch and the broadcasting crisis. "For the past two years the GFC has been working with local independent filmmakers around introducing creative content creation that is linked to an alternative distribution model. This has resulted in projects such as Jerusalema and White Wedding which have shown that local demand not only exists but that local films can be financially viable as a result of this demand," says GFC CEO, Terry Tselane.

Jacques Stoltz of the GFC says: "During 2009 we increased the budget allocation for supporting the local industry from 13% of our budget to 25%. This has meant that to date the GFC has supported 16 local projects (in turn supporting 546 jobs), supported the training of 210 beneficiaries and we have reached out to an audience of more than 3 285 people."

Tselane says: "With the DTI rebate now in place, many more opportunities exist for local filmmakers working in the R2.5 - R10 million budget bracket. It is in this area that the GFC will increase the scale of its support to low budget independent filmmakers who do not qualify for the DTI rebate and low budget filmmakers working in the R2.5 - R10 million bracket that need support in order to develop, complete or distribute their projects.

"The GFC will of course also continue to develop and position Gauteng as a globally competitive African centre of excellence. This will require that we reduce the cost of filming in the province and that we change from a local importer of content to a global exporter of proudly 'Made in Gauteng' work," adds Tselane.

So...what's up for this year?

At the beginning of the year local trade mag 'The Callsheet' conducted a Q&A with members of the industry about a very mixed year and the prospects ahead. The results were uniformly positive, to see the piece go here.

I asked the editor Kevin Kriedeman, who also acts as 'Variety''s African correspondent, what his thoughts for the year were. "I've only been back in the office for three days, but already there's been a flood of good news, like five Golden Globe nominations for Invictus, Endgame and District 9, which also had two Oscar nominations already. 'Variety' have asked me for two pages of content on South Africa for their Berlin dailies, and both 'Shots' and 'Boards' have already featured South African commercials this year, so it seems there's still a large amount of interest internationally. Maybe it's just the New Year syndrome, but everyone seems more positive.

"While not ignoring the obvious local and international challenges, South Africa has massive opportunities this year. We now have a viable long form animation industry for the first time; we'll have Hollywood style studios for the first time by mid-way through 2010; we've got the eyes of the world on us for the World Cup; and we've earned international respect for our work on hits like District 9, Invictus, Endgame, Generation Kill, No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency and 24: Redemption, so we can sell on quality rather than just price."

Then he weighed in with New Year's wishes - "that the SABC earns the industry's trust; we use the World Cup to link up meaningfully with the rest of Africa; Internet speeds increase so we can finally live in a country without buffering; our local box office continues to deliver R4 million plus local hits like White Wedding and Jerusalema to build a sustainable local industry; and our expat success stories now entrenched in the top echelons of Hollywood develop more commercially successful projects like District 9 with a strong local flavour but international reach."

Raleigh also believes in the associated value of the success of District 9. "What these films did was to pique the interest in South African content even if we cannot claim them as 'ours'. District 9 was largely a local crew and entirely a South African cast. To hear Sharlto Copley speaking in his ultra-strong accent was an incredibly brave decision for a $30 million dollar film. I spoke to an associate who watched the film in a cinema in Los Angeles and she said that the reaction was brilliant; the audience got it and understood most of the subtleties and the local flavour. With Invictus, the sheer gravitas of Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood is a tribute to Nelson Mandela's nation building efforts in 1995 and again raises the bar around South African content. Films like this do make it easier for local producers to stimulate interest from foreign investors around good local content."

And he's upbeat about the year ahead: "It seems that 2010 is off to a much better start and I expect to see a host of smaller indigenous films being produced, all of whom will take advantage of the DTI milestone payment option. The outlook for bigger local films and co-productions is also looking positive." Film Finances expect to see Smoke and Ochre, a Dutch co-production about Apartheid-era poet Ingrid Jonker starring Carice van Houten and Rutger Hauer, going into production in the first quarter. They are in prep on A Million Colours, the follow-up to South Africa's classic 1976 flick E'lollipop and the film version of local hit novel Spud is also prepping for a start in the next month, with Ross Garland producing and Donovan (Dollars and White Pipes) directing.

Lance Samuels of Out of Africa had a great year last year. "We've just come to the end of Strike Back for Sky TV and Left Bank pictures. We are in series 5 of Wild at Heart. Last year, we completed The Prisoner for ITV and AMC, which we are very proud of. In this economic climate, producers are looking for alternative ways to make shows on limited budgets and that's where South Africa comes to the fore." In addition, Samuels is producer on Leon Schuster's new opus Shucks Tshabalala's Survival Guide to South Africa which he assures me is "a classic... it's intelligent Schuster" he says, referring to South Africa's king of lowest-common-denominator farce. The film comes out in time for April fool's day on a wide release.

Another local comedy worth catching is TOM films' Jozi, an affectionately cynical love-letter to the anxiety of living in Joburg that focuses on a comedy-writer who has lost his sense of humour. Co-produced with Anant Singh's Videovision, the film is set for a wide release on 26 February 26 through UIP. For more info go to here.

Samuels says that 2009 was "one of our busiest years" adding that the global economic downturn has been a blessing in disguise for the South African service business: "From our point of view, the financial crisis was one of the best things that could have happened, because of the cost effectiveness of South Africa, especially with the DTI rebate. We can also offer high quality crew, with a strong work ethic, favourable locations and the ease of shooting in South Africa. A lot more work is coming our way and this year is going to be one of our best years yet."

Already confirmed for 2010 by Out of Africa are the feature Africa United, a UK/SA co-production together with Pathe and Footprint films, low-budget local feature Lucky, The King's Ransom with the BBC, The Runaway, a series for Sky TV, The Seeing a horror feature and African Fever a mini-series that is a Canadian/SA/UK co-production.

Bomb's Desiree Markgraaf is equally upbeat: "This is going to be an exciting year. On the TV side we are doing our third series of Zone 14, our sweet, sexy street soap and we are in production on the fifth season of Soul Buddyz. We are producing a trilogy of documentaries Halakashe on soccer and culture through the decades." The company is also co-producing a doccie in Columbia with South Africans Angus Gibson as director and Megan Gill editing in Johannesburg. In addition they have four features that are about to go, Black Diamond, based on the novel by Zakes Mda to be directed by young hot-shot Thabang Moleya, Hotel Kalafornia, a near future feature co-executive produced by acclaimed artist William Kentridge, The Black Prince, based on a 'slice of' soccer supremo Jomo Sono's life to be helmed by Teboho Mahlatsi who will also be directing The School, a thriller written by Rohan Dickson.

Jeremy Nathan at DV8 is also optimistic as he sorts out the local and global release of the award-winning Shirley Adams, completes post-production on director Khalo Matabane's long-awaited fiction feature debut Violence, which shot in Johannesburg's Alexandra township late last year, and finishes the prep on How To Steal Two Million, Charles Vundla's Gauteng-set neo-noir that promises to be a Joburg version of a Coen brothers flick I'm told.

Other films lined up to begin soon include Jozi Forever, a new film by writer/director Michael Raeburn (Jit, Triomf) that is a co-production between Johannesburg-based Zing Entertainment and GH Films of France. According to Screen Africa the film is a comedy thriller and is set in the world of Johannesburg's new black middle class. "It shows Africa as a diverse and glamorous world; it is the La Dolce Vita of Africa," says Raeburn.

Of course, one of the most highly anticipated shoots will be Winnie, the Winnie Mandela biopic from producer Andre Pieterse and director Darrell James Roodt starring Jennifer Hudson. Roodt, one of the country's most accomplished filmmakers, says that last year was indeed tough. He's busy putting the finishing touches to Jakkalsdans, a low-budget romantic comedy written by novelist Deon Meyer, starring Afrikaans singing sensation Theuns Jordaan, which will be released in April.

The director says that no matter the budget, getting films financed is still a slog: "It's an uphill battle getting any film made, small or big," and he's brutally honest about the state of a South African 'cinema': "Unfortunately there's still not an industry as such, every film is like a shot in the dark and comes together for a variety of reasons that you actually can't quantify. It's actually a tragedy; we don't have a film industry. Algeria has a bigger industry. They make seven 35mm films a year, and we make virtually zero. How is that possible? We're the powerhouse of Africa and we can't even make one proper film."

He does concede that, "the truth is that real cinema is dying all over the world. The small guys are battling all over the world - not just here."

Finally with the crises of last year, it looks like things will change for the better and South African filmmakers will be getting the leg-up they've been crying out for. As Roodt says, it's a battle out there, but perhaps we now have the ammo to forge ahead.