National Film and Video Foundation

In an overview of the South African film industry's performance in 2010, the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) finds, among other developments, that in spite of the gloom surrounding the SABC, feature film production doubled in a single year.

The South African feature film industry appears to have reached a tipping point over the past year, which is indicated by the tripling of entries in this category for consideration in the annual South African Film and Television Awards (Saftas), which take place in February each year, from six in 2009 to 18 in 2010. This increase in the number of films eligible for nomination is a direct result of the unprecedented increase in the number of films being produced in the country considering that not all feature films submit applications for nomination. The reasons for this increase are two-fold.

On the one hand the impact of the continuing crisis at the public service broadcaster, annually responsible for commissioning approximately R1-billion in independent original programming, can be considered a major factor. The financial woes at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) resulted in a steep decline in such commissions, the loss of hundreds of jobs and the closing down of production companies. The surviving companies have increasingly had to turn towards feature film development and production as well as non-commissioned documentary development and production.

On the other hand, the amendments to the South African Film and Television Production and Co-production Incentive and the Location Film and Television Production Incentive and their efficient administration by the Department of Trade and Industry have resulted in a massive stimulus to economic activity in the sector.

This is demonstrated by a decrease in the ratio of provisional certificates issued against the number of productions which confirmed commencement of principal photography and or claimed from the incentive. In the 2009/2010 financial year as many as a third of projects granted provisional certificates failed to confirm commencement of principal photography or claim against the rebate. So, in spite of the gloom surrounding the SABC, feature film production, which has been stuck at around nine films per annum for almost a decade, doubled in one single year.

However, the number of documentaries produced over the same period declined with the SABC the main commissioner of films in this category. In spite of this setback, there has been an increase in the number of feature-length documentaries aimed at theatrical release. Titles such as My Hunter’s Heart, The Battle for Johannesburg, The Cradock Four and Surfing Soweto battled to come to fruition with the limited funds available for documentary production from the NFVF and a variety of other equity and angel financiers.

Watch a clip from Surfing Soweto:

Two of these films debuted at the Durban International Film Festival to critical acclaim. These films all then went on to engage audiences at Encounters and the Tri-Continents festivals. However, documentary filmmakers will continue to struggle as a result of the world recession and a decline in funding by a number of international funders and broadcasters. Theatrical distribution also remains a challenge for South African distributors as documentaries continue to attract niche audiences.

The prospects for theatrical fiction film are much more positive even though the offerings over the past year represented a mixed bag of genres, stylistic approaches and audience appeal. Between January and August 14 South African titles were released theatrically garnering 10% or R50-million of box office revenues of achieved by all releases during this period. This represents a massive increase in the South African share of box office from 0.8% on average between 1994 and 2008 to 10% in 2010, with the numbers still climbing.

The year began with the release of Skin, a UK-South African official co-production which was distributed by the New Ventures department of the NFVF as a pilot to test the waters for new thinking in distribution. In spite of fairly pessimistic forecasts, this apartheid-era story based on the life Sandra Laing, who was born black into a white Afrikaans family, found an audience with respectable box office returns on a limited print release.

The year kicked off with the annual Saftas celebrating the highest achievements in film and television production by giving first time director, Oliver Hermanus, the award for best director and his film Shirley Adams the Safta for best picture. This harrowing story of a mother’s struggle to give her son a reason for living after being reduced to quadriplegia by a gangster’s bullet garnered the best actress award for its lead, Denise Newman. These awards followed hot on the heels of the film’s similar achievements at the 2009 edition of Durban International Film Festival. Inexplicably, its theatrical release was delayed until August 2010 after all the hype had subsided resulting in a poor box office performance for this NFVF-funded project.

However, the year’s box office was dominated by South African comedies, starting with Jozi, a collaboration between Video Vision and Tom Pictures. This story of a sitcom scriptwriter who had lost his sense of humour achieved modest numbers. This was followed in quick succession by White Lion, a fantasy starring John Kani and shot on HD which had disappointing numbers in spite of the high production values and the great special effects. Video Vision followed with the release of Outrageous, a concert film of South African stand-up comics along the lines of The Kings of Comedy.

Jakhalsdans by Darryl Roodt, I Now Pronounce You Black and White, Bakgat 2, Liefling and Die Ongelooflike Avonture van Hanna Hokeom did fierce competition, but none could do the numbers of the latest Leon Schuster film. Schucks Tshabala’s Survival Guide to South Africa, released in time for the South African Fifa Soccer World Cup, took 81% of box office revenues garnered by SA titles on 110 prints. Indigenous Film Distribution, which cornered the market with this year’s comedies in the first year of its operations, accounted for 90% of South African revenues at the box office.

Watch the trailer for Schucks Tshabala’s Survival Guide to South Africa:

Of course there are lessons to be learned by the producers of those films which did not attract the expected audiences for fare that was dominated in release patterns by dramas. South African audiences are voting with their pockets and saying quite clearly that it’s not enough for subject matter and stylistic approaches to be unique and important to the national discourse about who we are as a nation; films also have to provide entertainment and a modicum of escape from the harshness of daily life.

The year ends with the Rogue Star Pictures comedy, Spud, based on the book by Johan van de Ruit about the coming-of-age adventures of a young boy at a private boarding school in the early 1990s, which has garnered R6-million in the first two weeks of its release.

Not to so happily, industry was dismayed by the announcement that the chief executive officer of the NFVF, Eddie Mbalo, would step down from the helm of the organisation in March 2011 marking the end of a remarkable contribution to the rebirth of the South African feature film industry. However, Mbalo leaves in the wake of a successful bid by the institution to Treasury to increase its annual allocation to the NFVF to run its operations and programmes.