Andy Stead reflects

While we all look forward to 2012, let’s take time to reflect on the past year and see what lessons can be learned for the film industry in the coming year.

From a South African sporting perspective, 2010 was a seminal year with the first Fifa World Cup held on African soil. While it may not have boosted the local film and television industry as much as anticipated, it did focus the eyes of the world – and in particular the global media ¬– on South Africa.

As predicted, 2011 was not able to follow up on the hype created in 2010. However, COP 17, the 17th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, held towards the end of the year in Durban, again proved South Africa as an ideal host for international events. Whether or not it stimulated the industry is, however, debatable.

The more things change…

Our national broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), was once again plagued with rumours of political interference and unhappiness among board members. Indeed, some organisations close to the broadcaster blamed the board, saying the crisis is the result of the board’s failure to deal timeously with its many of problems. The situation was further compounded following a Cabinet reshuffle, with the Department of Communications experiencing yet another change at the top as new minister Dina Pule was appointed to replace Roy Padayachee, the now Minister of Public Service and Administration.

Lingering troubles at the SABC contributed to the slow rate of commissions to independent producers and meant that the organisation, unlike most national broadcasters, was unable to offer a sustainable income to the industry at large.

It was also reported that the SABC needs at least another R600-million for the technology and skills needed to meet an international deadline of 2015 for migration to digital terrestrial television, exacerbating an already desperate financial situation.

But it’s not been all doom and gloom. Local On Digital Media's TOP-TV, the country’s second pay-TV satellite broadcaster, reported good decoder sales and an increasing subscriber base. DStv launched more HD channels, mainly focused on sport, and 3D television became the new buzzword.

Local facilities houses, producers and other industry professionals reported a mixed bag for the year – mostly good, but with some still feeling the continued economic downturn and slow recovery.

Tsunami impact

The March earthquake and tsunami may have hit Japan half a world away, but it had a ripple effect on local suppliers of Japanese products.

Sony suspended its manufacturing operations because of the damage caused by the earthquake, tsunami and related power outages. Operations at most of the damaged manufacturing sites have resumed, but the availability of certain Sony products will be reduced for some time to come.

Johannesburg-based Panasonic Broadcast Systems came off somewhat better. “The tsunami in Japan did not directly affect any of the Panasonic factories,” says the company’s Sean Loeve. “We didn’t have much disturbance in supply. There were, however, some parts for certain products that third-party manufacturers couldn’t supply which caused a few delays. We order our products two to three months in advance, so this helped smooth things out.

“2011 was generally a little tougher than previous years for trading,” he adds, “but we still managed to secure a few key deals that helped us reach our targets for the year, so we ended well. We had really good sales numbers for HD camcorders which we attribute to more local HD content being produced for local HD broadcasts.”

(Some) busy producers

Also reporting a good year was Johannesburg-based producer Helena Spring, who says 2011 was busy with a lot of exciting possibilities taking shape: “I recently produced Mad Buddies, a South African film shot on location in and around Gauteng and made with the support of the Walt Disney Company. Disney will also distribute worldwide in 2012.

Mad Buddies is a co-production which allows for international collaboration and on more equal terms which would otherwise be unattainable. As a resource, it is often the crucial factor that allows a film to go into production as opposed to being stillborn. International partners with a solid track record inspire investor confidence as well as raising the bar for local delivery.”

Also based in Johannesburg, Imani Media's Bobby Heaney had a busy year as well. “I produced Erfsondes 4 for SABC 2 and assumed the role of Executive and Series Producer on M-Net's brand new series The Wild,” he says.

The Wild is the first South African daily drama to be shot entirely on location close to Heidelberg, south of Johannesburg. The series production offices are at Sasani Studios in Highlands North, a studio-based complex offering services to the industry across several disciplines.

Changing business models for studios and OB?

Sasani Studios’ Eileen Sandrock explains: “Business is changing and Sasani Studios has taken a completely new approach to our offering to clients. 2011 brought heightened competition and lower production budgets, so we have brainstormed with some of our clients to jointly identify ways of providing a more cost effective offering without, in any way, compromising the end product.

“In fact, the idea is to provide a better solution more cost-effectively. As a result, we have had fantastic support from the industry this year, and we are pleased with our business performance and financial results in 2011.

“We expect the challenging economic conditions to continue for at least a two-year period. During the first quarter of 2012, I hope to meet with many more producers and broadcasters to continue the discussions, and to streamline this solution further.

“The highlights of 2011 were, of course, our soaps: Rhythm City, Scandal and 7de Laan. We are thrilled that The Wild has moved into offices on site. There is always huge excitement around Big Brother, which was bigger than ever this year, and creates a fantastic atmosphere on site.”

Live coverage of sporting events is big business the world over. Broadcasters thrive on it, as the viewing public can’t get enough. Together with its other woes, the SABC saw a decline in their coverage.

“2011 was a tough year for SABC TV Outside Broadcasts,” says Nic Bonthuys, the unit’s general manager. “We had a drop in utilisation mainly due to a reduction of the sports rights the SABC owns. The situation inside the corporation was also not conducive to growth and further influenced the amount of work we did.”

But there were some highlights during the year that kept them in business. “We have increased the amount of work we do external to the SABC, which gives our staff good exposure,” says Bonthuys. “We also did a very successful coverage of the local elections. The SABC was the host broadcaster for COP 17 and that production, which finished in the early hours of 11 December, went very well for us and gave us good international exposure.”

Supersport, on the other hand, holds the rights to the majority of live sport in South Africa, and expanded its capabilities significantly in 2011. Not only was a new HD multi-camera mega van commissioned in 2011, but just before year-end another order was placed with Sony South Africa Broadcast & Professional Division to supply Supersport Outside Broadcast Division with another new 28-camera HD OB van.

“This van will be similar to the recently completed OB6 HD,” says Johan van Tonder, Supersport’s OB technical operations manager. “The OB van, which will feature the latest in HD technology, will be a replacement van for our ageing OB 4, an SD van. Not only will it be replacing a van that had older technology, but it is also in keeping with our quest to keep abreast, if not ahead, of technology internationally and to ensure that our offering is comparable to the best the world has to offer.”

Top Johannesburg-based sound facility Cut & Paste Generation / Kwazi Mojo Sound Studios says 2011 was tough. “Budgets were under pressure from all sides and in all industries,” says Alun Richards. “That said, Cut & Paste Generation launched Kwazi Mojo to the market and is privileged to have both Sean Jefferis and Jo Darling, two of South Africa's most sought after sound engineers, heading up the Kwazi name.

“We also completed our studio renovations and expansion in early 2011 and have continued to gain market share in both the commercial and long form industries during 2011.”

NFVF develops film criteria

The National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) had a busy year supporting several releases, including Skeem, How to Steal 2 Million, Retribution, State of Violence and My Hunter’s Heart. “Since 2010, the NFVF has been in the process of developing film criteria that would be applicable to both local productions and co-productions,” says Naomi Mokhele, the foundation’s PR manager.

“The criteria are to coincide with the anticipated South African Revenue Service revised tax rebate for the film industry. The NFVF has also signed terms of engagement with the South African Screen Federation, which would establish a forum that will allow for the consultation, debate, lobbying and discussion of various industry policies and strategies that are developed by the NFVF and industry from time to time. We’re also anticipating formulating a workable model for distribution and marketing for SA independent film.”

In 2011, the South Africa-Germany co-production treaty proved to be the most successful in terms of production volumes and the most active partnership for both countries. Of the six co-production projects submitted for advance ruling in 2011, four were from the Germany treaty while the treaties with the UK and France shared one project apiece. The France treaty was concluded in 2010 and became effective during 2011; its first project was Skoonheid, a feature released theatrically in South Africa and the winner of the Queer Palm Award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.

Eddie Mbalo, long-serving CEO of the NFVF, left his position in 2011. At the time of writing, a permanent CEO and new members of the NFVF council have yet to be appointed.

Going local …

The Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) was also busy in 2011. “We have funded five feature films since the beginning of the current financial year, from 1 April 2011, and are anticipating funding another three to five by the end of this financial year,” says Basil Ford, the head of the Media & Motion Pictures strategic business unit at the IDC.

“Most of the films the IDC has funded and the ones we are assessing are low-budget, locally developed feature films. We have funded a number of such films that are in the process of being completed and exhibited in the cinemas over the coming months.”

Johannesburg-based Q Studios offer some of the largest studios in Gauteng, and report having a good year in 2011. “Endemol is back,” says Q Studios John Difford. “We only offer studios on a dry-hire basis but the demand still seems to be there. 2011 saw some large productions using the studios, including musical acts such as the Parlotones, and commercials including those for Trellidor and Guinness North Africa. We also did a games show.”

… while others head north

The TV commercial industry is the lifeblood of many production companies whose end products add a high level of creativity in short duration packages on our television screens. Top local commercial director and DOP, Tai Krige, had a reasonable 2011, with local TV commercials at the beginning of the year, and repeat work from his long-established clients outside of South Africa which, he says, “kept me nice and busy for the most of the year commercials-wise”.

“Then unexpectedly work from further afield which finished off the year with some interesting long-form work, ending with shooting for Coca-Cola in Nairobi and all over Uganda,” Krige continues. “I leave for Lagos now, and will be doing a feature film on my return. So I must say, I can’t complain. Overlapping work seems to be my major problem at present – the bane of a freelancer’s life, I’m afraid!”

It’s a mixed bag but, in general, the South African industry would seem to have weathered the economic downturn experienced throughout the world, and ended on something of a high note.

Definitely encouraging, but what does 2012 have in store – will the economy worsen, will the commercials industry slow down, will international companies use South Africa as both co-production partners or simply as a location? Watch this space in 12 months’ time.