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The business of show business

Thirteen years into our fledgling democracy, our film industry has much to celebrate. In terms of awards, available finance, positive government and industry goodwill and incoming service productions, the film industry has been bathing in a particularly positive light.

However, things needs to be turned up a notch. We need to examine a tough question — that of our commerciality — and start to look at the business side of show business. Our films have not been making sufficient money and we have to dig deep to understand the reasons for this. If one looks at all the local films produced in the past decade, only the Leon Schuster films, Yesterday and Tsotsi have made their money back, or gone into profit.

An industry that cannot make back its cost of production in its own country needs to investigate whether it is a viable industry at all. A circular argument then arises, if our films don’t make money, why make them at all?

But below this naive argument lies a deeper problem.

Let’s put the industry in context. After more than 100 years of colonial and apartheid cinema, we have had to start at the beginning; to create an industry that is democratic and one that not only facilitates access to all filmmakers, but as importantly allows all consumers and audiences access to a wide variety of stories, to a cinema that not only bears witness to our past, but one that can enrich our society and provide a powerful sense of cultural diversity and, by extension, a cohesion and unity, a South African-ness worth celebrating.

The geopolitics of apartheid resulted in a segregated cinema-going culture, one that is still present today. Independent cinemas have closed down and the few township cinemas closed years ago and are now churches or furniture stores. Since the early 1980s the relocation of cinemas to shopping malls, which South African exhibitors not only perfected but in fact are leading proponents of globally, has ironically reduced the size of our cinema-going market to outside the top 30 markets globally, especially when one considers the size of our population.

These malls, while excellent in their technological experience, lead to a willing segregation of audiences by owners, based on economics, rather than on the then-racist law of the country, ultimately revealing the inherent racism of big business. But the film exhibitors active in the 1980s, shortsighted and essentially racist as they were, should have been fired for poor business acumen. How can you exclude 80% of the population from going to the cinema and still be in business?

Thus we live today with that geo-political legacy, where mall cinema culture still predominates, even though the new, black middle class has started to attend mall cinemas and, as the statistics show, have started to increase attendances.

The focus of the government, business and the industry in the past decade has been on content creation, rather than on delivery and distribution. Maybe our energies could have been better spent emphasising the needs of both creator and consumer, rather than on merely access to production.

Can it be possible that in 13 years since democracy, not a single new cinema has been built in any of South Africa’s townships?

The advent of television in 1976 in South Africa affected cinema attendances as it did globally. Attendances dropped and we live today with a far more television-based culture. If you have electricity, you will surely have a television and DVD. Television took over from cinema as the primary purveyor of local culture, with cinema left to provide a pipeline for the Hollywood studios.

Television stations globally have been the backbone of the cinema industry. Not so in South Africa, where only recently are there murmurs of an interest in feature films. M-Net has made sporadic and half-hearted attempts at investing in feature films. The SABC occasionally licenses films and has invested in several Dv8 Films, but it still has to nail its colours to the mast. And has a solid zero policy. Feature films do not attract sponsors like cheap reality shows do.

Today cinema must compete with our increasing casino culture, sport and now the internet for the average South African’s entertainment rand.

Exhibitors and distributors, government and the industry, need to address this as a matter of urgency, if we are to really create and sustain a viable cinema culture.

So enough of the problems, where are the solutions?

As John Perry Barlow, ex-Grateful Dead lyricist and Electronic future guru, has said: “We have left the biological evolutionary process. Our evolution has become cyber, digital.”

The world is in the middle of a giant digital revolution, one that is rapidly changing how we create and consume our media and entertainment. While the world is scurrying to digitise its cinemas and squabbling over various cinema and DVD format technologies, the internet and cellphone networks are just doing it.

Just look who won the music wars to see where the film industry will go.

We have a unique opportunity now to leapfrog some of the past and current problems and jump into a brighter digital future. A hybrid approach could provide not only access to all South Africans, but to many more people interested in our cinema globally.

Both Ster-Kinekor and Nu Metro are rapidly digitising their existing cinemas, as well as starting to build cinemas in townships, and should be encouraged to do more. Many more cinemas or multimedia community centres should be built as a priority, using the 2010 World Cup as a catalyst. After the event we could be left with a new digital network of venues outside the norm of shopping centres. The digitising of content and delivery platforms are lowering the cost of distribution, making our films more cost-effective to distribute.

The main audience for cinema today, as it has been since its inception, is the masses of people, most of whom are not financially independent. The so-called primary target market is 12 to 30 year olds. More than 50% of the world is now under the age of 30. They need cheap, if not free, entertainment and hence the enormous growth of the internet and new social networking phenomena, such as YouTube, MySpace and Facebook.

The true convergence of distribution platforms is allowing easier access to the content people want to watch, anytime, anywhere and anyhow. The growth of video over the internet and cellphones is deeply affecting television and cinema as we know it. Content is being programmed in queues and collections, rather than in just television channels. This is changing the nature of the content itself and will open up numerous new types of content.

The answer for both filmmakers and purveyors of content, distributors and exhibitors must and can only be a closer relationship with audiences, one in which the audience really will dictate what and when it wants to consume entertainment. Social networking is a gift to filmmakers to create and nurture their own audiences.

Africans are well-known early adopters, taking to using cellphones and the internet likes ducks to the digital water. The increase in users of both media is growing at more than 200% a year. Satellite technology, combined with the exponential growth of cellphone and internet users, is already changing the way film is being distributed and consumed.

Jeremy Nathan is the company director of DV8 films

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