Nadia Neophytou

  • This article was originally published in Business Day. Read the original here.

The South African film industry’s efforts to position the country as a world-class filmmaking destination were boosted this week when a group of locals jetted off to New York to rub shoulders with the rich and famous at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Eighteen filmmakers are spending this week in New York City, attending the Tribeca Film Festival and other events as part of a government-sponsored mission to boost South Africa’s film fortunes. South Africa’s burgeoning movie-making industry has been identified as a key area of growth for the local economy, and this working visit to the Big Apple is part of a greater plan to ensure that its potential is fully realised.

Representatives of the Gauteng Film Commission, the Cape Film Commission and the Department of Trade and Industry are accompanying the group to New York, to help facilitate meetings and establish relationships that will prepare for future visits by other South African filmmakers. Cape Film Commission CEO Denis Lille says the aim is to increase the number of South Africans in the trade mission to 30 next year.

“The South African film and TV industry is becoming an important one,” he says. “Just from the Cape Film Commission’s point of view, we’ve seen that close to 35000 jobs have been created in the Western Cape alone over the past financial year and approximately R5.5-billion to R5.7-billion worth of business was being done,” says Lille.

According to the Department of Trade and Industry, South Africa’s entertainment industry is valued at about R7.4-billion, with film and television generating more than R5.8-billion in economic activity each year.

Lille says this figure is likely to be around the R35-billion mark when taking into account the international productions in South Africa. He says the commission has been targeting growth in the film industry to pick up the slack from manufacturing.

As recently as last week, it was confirmed that the City of Cape Town has been in talks to host the Tribeca festival from next year, after the commission teamed up with espAfrika – organiser of the Cape Town International Jazz Festival – to bring the red carpet event to South Africa.

The Tribeca Film Festival was founded in 2002 by award-winning actor Robert de Niro, film producer Jane Rosenthal and her spouse Craig Hatkoff in response to the September 11 attack on the World Trade Centre, and aimed to revitalise the Tribeca district in Lower Manhattan.

It draws an estimated 3-million people – including often elusive celebrities of art, film, and music – and generates $600-million (R4.6-billion) annually.

There are two objectives for the visit to New York – to promote South Africa as a film-making destination to investors and producers in the US, specifically in media-rich New York, and also to form relationships with the film and TV industry to get distribution and investment deals.

A showreel of projects currently on the go, looking for funding or distribution, was displayed at the South African consulate in New York last Thursday, while a networking cocktail event took place the next day.

Projects in the pipeline include Zola Maseko’s feature film based on a Zakes Mda novel, The Whale Caller, and a sci-fi film set in apocalyptic Cape Town called Sweetheart.

Lille drew attention to South Africa’s animation skills, and the film Zambezia, which has made the journey from being a short clip shown at the Cannes Film Festival a few years ago, to being picked up by Sony, featuring the voice talents of Abigail Breslin and Samuel L Jackson, and is due for release in the next month.

He says the challenge is not in selling the quality, but in identifying the right people to take the film projects to their next stage.

“That’s part of the purpose of this delegation – getting a relationship with the department, the consulate and the Tribeca so that our filmmakers will have access to that network,” he says.

Lille says they are working with the Development Bank of Southern Africa through the Jobs Fund to try to leverage more funding to create jobs in the local industry.

A thriving film industry has potential to spill over into other industries. The link between film and tourism is becoming an attractive combination. Recently, after the release of the movie Safe House, starring Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds, the Irish Film Commission sent four Irish filmmakers to visit the key locations where the film was shot, such as Green Point Stadium and Langa township.

There is talk the next James Bond movie will be filmed in South Africa next year. Lille says they are also going back in South Africa’s film history to show the potential for the future by highlighting just how many movies were shot using South Africa as a stand-in location.

“Take a film like Ryan’s Daughter – the classic Irish beach scene in that was filmed just outside Cape Town. How many people know that? There are so many films shot in South Africa, but they are not recognised for that,” says Lille. “If you go trawling through the film history, you’ll be amazed at what’s there. We are reviewing and reworking these films to show them in our cinemas to say this is the legacy of film in this country and show what has been made here.

“It’s a very exciting time,” he says. “We’re working on developing relationships with major festivals.”

The challenge is not in selling the quality, but in identifying the right people to take the film projects to the next stage.

South African film delegation at Tribeca

Gauteng Film Commission acting CEO Mzwandile Masina with local and international filmmakers at the South African film delegation’s networking cocktail event in New York.