Anton Burggraaf

The weekend of 17 to 19 February 2011 will go down in South African cinema annals as a first. Two wholly local films took one third of the box office takings. This has never happened in an opening weekend before. The films are Semi-Soet and Material, at number two and three respectively in the top five high-earner rankings (see table below). While the films are completely different genre offerings, their combined success on a single weekend is grist to the mill in the positive evolution of our industry.

Of course, it’s not all about the money, right? People make films for all kinds of reasons. Well, kind of. Earnings – from the box office to DVD sales – are the single most important factor in measuring success. Especially when you are pitting yourself against a sea of high-end, easy-to-come-by international product. That’s something no serious filmmaker can deny. After all, it’s a numbers game: feet through the door affects the bottom line. It would be true to say that recent gems like Skoonheid (2011), the Oliver Hermanus psychological drama and winner of the first Queer Palme d'Or, might shift and shape a national cinematic discourse. But it is the popular box office that often determines the direction the industry will take. If only because it keeps filmmakers in the game – and gets their backers in business.

There is something else formidable about the weekend’s results. Two other films in the top five were filmed in South Africa, both in Cape Town. They are Chronicle, a US teen sci-fi thriller, which took fifth spot, and Safe House, with Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds, which went straight to number one on 10 February. Together these four films, all linked to South Africa, account for around 60% of the takings. This is unprecedented.

Top 10 films in South Africa, February 17 to 19

The top-earning commercial films for the weekend of 17 to 19 February 2012. The date of release is in brackets.

1. Safe House (10/02)
2. Semi-Soet (17/02)
3. Material (17/02)
4. Jack and Jill (03/02)
5. Chronicle (17/02)
6. Hugo (10/02)
7. Star Wars Episode 1: Phantom Menace (10/02)
8. The Iron Lady (10/02)
9. My Week with Marilyn (17/02)
10. The Descendants (03/02)

Source: The Writing Studio

Helen Kuun from Indigenous Films is the distributor of Semi-Soet, and she’s over the moon about her film’s opening performance. “This is a great result for us and extremely positive for the industry. We always expected Semi-Soet to be big, the question is always how big. It’s a decent film. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what kind of film you’re making – it will do well if it convinces the audience. This one is very competent in a really popular genre. To have it perform like this on the same weekend as another local film like Material is amazing.”

“Popular” is no understatement. Semi-Soet is an Afrikaans-language romantic comedy set in the Cape winelands and has all the ingredients that we expect from this stock Hollywood genre. What’s more, it’s the first Afrikaans romcom in decades – hard to believe, I know. Add to that some thoroughly home-grown themes and a crop of TV talent, and the potjie is guaranteed to be smullekker.

According to Semi-Soet producer James Alexander, this is conscious engineering. “We identified a market, and looked at high-grossing films [for South African audiences]. Romantic comedy came out tops. The film’s investors were willing to take the risk because of this. We’ll see where it gets to, but people might well look back and say that was so obvious.” That they might. Getting to the number two spot on an opening weekend, out-performing the most recent other Afrikaans hit Liefling (2010) while you are at it, is no mean feat. Prepare ye South Africa for more romcom.

Material was a close third in the rankings. It took around 16% of the weekend movie dosh. What both films have in common is comedy. Material leans on it in a big way because it’s about a wannabe comedian, played beautifully by the not-so-wannabe Riaad Moosa. But there’s also a serious side to the film. The main character has to grapple with reconciling his desire to entertain and his restrictive Islamic upbringing (or perhaps more accurately, his oppressive father). Material’s themes are loftier and its resonances have gravitas. Critics don’t usually go viral on YouTube and this film had one of them gushing public tears. Director Craig Freimond put his finger on the character of the film when he compared it recently to Bend It Like Beckham (2002) and East is East (1999). Laugh, cry and go home feeling really good.

But Material was also a calculated risk. The local English-speaking cinema audience is a notoriously difficult lot, and producer Robbie Thorpe’s previous Freimond film Jozi, did not perform this well. For Thorpe and Ronnie Apteker (the film’s originator and chief champion), it was a matter of balancing the potential of a niche audience – South Africans of Indian and Malay origin – with the broader English-speaking public.

That both films ride on the crest of comedy must account for only some of the success. They are also honest films in the way that they speak respectfully to their audience. They are true to the spirit of their intentions. There is a refreshing clarity, perhaps even purity, in their understanding of the market. Now that’s something to celebrate. Producer Alexander has an astute rejoinder to the eternally patronising polemic from some critics and the public who continually urge us to support the local film industry: “We are past saying, ‘Go and see the film, it’s local.’ What people should and will be saying is, ‘Hey. That looks like a South African movie. I’m going.’”

What is fascinating to understand is the marketing of the two films.

The campaign for Semi-Soet spoke directly to the core market, one that Kuun knows well. “We did a lot of outdoor marketing, billboards, and we went to KykNet, SABC2, and, of course, the Afrikaans papers,” she says. And it paid off handsomely. Top of the pile for attendance was Kolinade in Pretoria and the best performing region was northern Gauteng. No surprises there. “It’s what you would expect,” she adds. “Smaller towns also did well in the Cape, Bloemfontein and other Afrikaans-language centres like Vereeniging, and independent sites like Witbank did well.” She also picked out a trend for more audiences in Afrikaans-language university towns like Potchefstroom. Interestingly, the film released with a moderate 65 prints – less than both Liefling and last year’s other Afrikaans movie-musical Platteland.

Material released in fewer sites (41) which makes its relative success a real surprise. That means it easily scores as the number one film by screen average. Is this due to marketing? Thorpe believes it is. “The campaign was so large that I’m struggling to encapsulate it now,” he says. “Any [corporate] brand that showed interest we showed the film to, and we had a 100% success rate. They all loved the film. They then came on board and helped us: Steers, Exclusive Books, Absa, FNB, Independent Newspapers, 94.7, Glaceau, Europcar, MultiChoice and others. As you can imagine this wasn’t an overnight thing and took months and months of hard work.”

At the marketing helm was business entrepreneur and film investor Ronnie Apteker. “Ronnie did most of the marketing and we’re still trying to figure out how the hell he did it,” says Thorpe. “Social media played a huge part. Anybody who’s been near a computer in the last week has been hearing about Material.” And anyone listening to radio, watching television, surfing the net and driving around the city, he could add. The campaign has been nothing short of brilliant and there something to be said for taking one’s time and winning people over behind the scenes before you go public.

What will be interesting to see is how the films perform in the coming weeks. Film distribution is a tough game with simple rules: the worst-performing film in any cinema is off the bill tout de suite, to be replaced by a new release. There is no grace and no second chance.

When the dust settles, one thing is certain. These two films, on this amazing weekend, prove that focused marketing, a respectful product and filmmakers who really believe in what they are doing can get you to the top. What they disprove, thankfully, is the tired argument that only crossover films will make it big in South Africa. Here are two unique films with a clear vision for niche markets and they have done it.

Hurrah. I, for one, am thrilled.

Anton Burggraaf is an executive producer at Ochre Moving Pictures and lover of all things good. He writes in his personal capacity.