Paradise Stop
Bouquet distributor Indigenous Films’ next big release is local film Paradise Stop, which sees the return of the successful team of director Jann Turner and actors Kenneth Nkosi and Rapulana Seiphemo, the creators of the 2009 hit White Wedding.

Anton Burggraaf

Three heavyweights have dominated the local distribution landscape for decades: Ster-Kinekor, Nu Metro and United International Pictures. Each does their bit to release films from the major studios – Sony, Warner Bros, Walt Disney, DreamWorks and the like, as well as a host of foreign independents. Nothing prevents them from getting behind local film but past return on investment has not been enticing: five years ago, a foreign art house film could earn more at the box office than a local mainstream release. A sad state of affairs.

But this is changing. Now we have the boutique distributor.

Boutique distributors, smaller concerns with speciality offerings, are the creation of filmmakers who have decided to go it alone and veteran producers who see the value in wresting control in a growing market. Tendeka Matatu and Dumisani Dlamini have done it in the mainstream and Hlomla Dandala with his low-budget features for the home entertainment DVD market has also got stuck in. The Humble Pie Group is new with faith-based films and then there’s Fireworx with Dan Jawitz specialising in straight-to-DVD and broadcast rights.

One stand-out new distributor is Jozi-based Indigenous Film Distribution. The company was formed recently by Helen Kuun, a cinema distribution stalwart. Kuun spent many years at Ster-Kinekor first in the publicity and marketing department and then as acquisitions executive for local content.

Her name is synonymous with local film distribution so it is not surprising this is where she has decided to stay. Her decision to go it alone was based on a simple truth: the number of films being produced in South Africa is on the up and up.

“One can’t start something like this if there isn’t enough content,” Kuun says. “There are just more films being made so more distributors are emerging. It’s is a sign that South Africa is normalising. France has more than 70 distributors and Italy has more local films in their top 10 than foreign films. We are aligning with the world wide norm.” According to Kuun, South Africa is a relatively small territory, so eight to 12 distributors would probably be the ballpark for alignment.

There is no doubt that this phenomenon is related to the exponential increase in local film production since 2000. In the late 1990s, South Africa released one or two local films a year. This is a paltry number when compared to the country’s television output and the plethora of international product that flows incessantly through the multiplexes.

But by 2010, the picture was very different: South Africa’s film output was a staggering 24 local releases. That translates roughly to a new release every fortnight. That’s right, a new film every two weeks.

So how did this happen?

On reason may be innovation in digital camera and editing technology, and in post-production workflows. Any producer will tell you how hours of user unfriendly slog, on unwieldy and slow equipment, has transmuted into a pleasant intimate experience that delivers professional, polished product. Added to which there is the ease with which filmmakers can assemble and print a film for theatres and the lower costs of making a 35 mm print from digital. This has given producers more clout and confidence by shortening timeframes, simplifying processes and levelling playing fields that were infrastructure-heavy.

Another reason may have been the game-changing Tsotsi which won Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2006. The award gave a massive boost to industry morale and put a South African story in the global spotlight. For Kuun, who was still at Ster-Kinekor at the time, it was a seminal moment that at affirmed local filmmakers by encouraging a sense that making a splash is not only possible, it is repeatable.

There were also a number of creative film ventures in the made-for-TV space like M-Net’s New Directions feature film initiative and other commissions from the national broadcaster.

But the most obvious reason for the surge in local film must be the acclaimed Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) rebate. In this scheme, introduced in 2003, local producers are given a thirty-five percent rebate on their cost of production in international co-productions. So at the Sithengi Film and Television Market in 2005 a slate of 10 films was presented. For Kuun, the message that this gave was clear: “Here are 10 local films that show that it’s possible.” In 2008 there was a significant relaxation of the DTI rebate’s qualifying threshold (the ‘international co-production’ part) which opened the door for lower-budget domestic productions from emerging filmmakers.

It is fascinating to plot local film releases along a 10-year timeline to see the effect the rebate has had on growth:

  • 2001 – Three films: Boesman and Lena, The Long Run, Mr Bones
  • 2002 – Three films: Lumumba, Ma-Afrika (a compilation of African short films from FRU), Yellow Card (a soccer film from Zimbabwe)
  • 2003 – Seven films, including Promised Land, Stander (one of the first films to benefit from the DTI rebate), Highjack Stories, The Wooden Camera, State of Denial, Amandla!
  • 2004 – Eight films, including Oh Shucks I'm Gatvol!, Yesterday, Forgiveness, Story of an African Farm, A Boy Called Twist (with a unique investor funding model), Cape of Good Hope, Drum, Gums ‘n Noses
  • 2005 – 12 films, including The Flyer, Max and Mona, Crazy Monkey, U-Carmen eKhayelitsha, In My Country, Red Dust, Mama Jack
  • 2006 – 9 films, including Tsotsi (Oscar-winner Best Foreign Feature), Bunny Chow, Faith Like Potatoes, Straight Outta Benoni, Son of Man
  • 2007 – 10 films, including Tengers (animation), Ouma se Slimkind (the first Afrikaans film since Paljas in 1998), Peona is Koning, Big Fellas, Footskating 101
  • 2008 – 11 films, including Jerusalema, Bakgat!, Mr Bones 2, Hansie, Skin, The World Unseen
  • 2009 – 16 films, including White Wedding, District 9, Invictus, Jozi, Long Street, Shirley Adams
  • 2010 – 24 films, including Bakgat 2, Eternity, Spud, Liefling, Stoute Boutjies, Schuks Tshabalala's Survival Guide to South Africa… the list is long.

Kuun is enthusiastic: “Of the 24 features, about 17 were rebate films. It’s the best thing the government could ever have done.”

What is more, December 2010 saw huge box office from local films with a combined take of R30-million. This was against stiff competition from fresh instalments of the Harry Potter and Narnia franchises and a host of Christmas animated films.

It is interesting to note the content diversity apparent in 2008, the year of the rebate relaxation. Films start deviating from the standard socially conscious sturm und drang or slapstick ersatz and suddenly there are niche films that appeal to a spread of languages and cultures. This will be something to watch: the rise and rise of Afrikaans film demonstrates that a loyal audience is one who feels its values and culture are being reinforced. Peona is Koning and Bakgat! exploded the myth that the large distributors held dear, that local films need to be American or in English to be popular. It marked, in a way, the beginning of authentic, popular niche film. Jock of the Bushveld, the animated feature, will be released this year and it too is evidence of this newfound diversity, wholly South African with major international connections.

This does not mean that serious (read: meaningful) films won’t be made. After all, Oliver Schmitz’s Life Above All was selected as the South African entry for the Best Foreign Language Film for this year’s Academy Awards (it made the shortlist of nominations but not the final list).

It is Kuun’s belief current growth will deliver films with the kudos and depth of films from Brazil and Mexico, like City of God (2002), Amores Perros (2000) and Y Tu Mamá También (2001). “These are the best countries to compare ourselves with,” says Kuun, “but it will take time.” And the world takes note: like Alfonso Cuarón, director of the award-winning Y Tu Mamá También, Gavin Hood was snapped up by Hollywood after Tsotsi won the Oscar.

The next big release for Indigenous Films is Paradise Stop. This film sees the return of the successful team of director Jann Turner and film and TV stars Kenneth Nkosi and Rapulana Seiphemo. Their debut feature was the extremely popular White Wedding which earned R4.3-million in 2009. And there are plenty more films on this boutique distributor’s plate, to name a few: Night Drive, from Danie Bester’s prolific Film Factory, Platteland from the actor-cum-boyband singer Sean Els, and How to Steal Two Million Rand from the DV8 stable and Charlie Vundla (his first feature after a slew of features for the DVD market).

Perhaps this welcome development in the distribution landscape is just a response to volume. But it may also be a sign that we are finally getting a movie industry that takes itself seriously.

Normal is good.

Watch The Making of Paradise Stop: