/ 17 June 2011

We don’t get the picture

We Don't Get The Picture

I was asked to write a piece about where the local film industry is. This is a challenge because I never knew such a thing existed. OK, before you get offended, read on.

I am no expert on the ‘film business”. The only person I know who truly understands the business of buying and selling films is Anant Singh. For the rest, there are a few people who understand how to make a film. Yes, there is a world of difference between making movies and the business of films.

Shooting a film and selling a movie are two very different things and I maintain that making the film is the easy part — just like any other industry.

Take software, for example, which I know a lot about — there is a big difference between writing software and selling software. Anyone at home with a PC can learn how to write software programs but try going out into the world and selling those programs — Good luck!

Not great adverts
In South Africa we have a busy and exciting production environment when it comes to commercials and television but, when it comes to feature films, we have the Leon Schuster phenomenon and a few Afrikaans films that have made a return on their investment. Then we have had some art-house groundbreakers, such as Tsotsi and Jerusalema (which I was involved with), but these films are niche and they are not great adverts for our beautiful land (not that that was the objective).

In short, when it comes to locally made films, commercial success is almost nonexistent. In my view I don’t see much changing. There was Crazy Monkey, which lost money — and, yes, I was involved in that too. And recently there has been Spud, which, if the rumoured budget of more than R30-million is correct, will also lose money. This is a gamble of a business and you need to have a world-class product to win — and a lot of luck.

My view is that we are not making films that stand up to world standards. We have had some very good attempts but we are not getting to eights and nines and, in the arts world, a seven just doesn’t cut it. You can have an average pizza and you will be satisfied but, when it comes to music, books and films, it has to be close to a nine for it to succeed.

But there is another side to filmmaking. As a destination South Africa has what it takes to service foreign films. I imagine this can only do good. It brings in foreign revenue and it helps our local crafts people gain experience and to network with international counterparts, but it doesn’t help our local storytellers.

The writers and directors are what we are in short supply of. It is not easy to write a world-class screenplay and the majority of these failing local commercial attempts at feature films are undermined by half-baked scripts. But, like any industry, the more films we make, the better we will get at it and learn from our mistakes. I have had many painful lessons. But, until then, this so-called local film industry is going to ­continue to lose money.

Many gambles, little success
A big milestone coming up is the animated version of Percy Fitzpatrick’s classic, Jock of the Bushveld. If the rumour mill is correct, the film will cost even more than Spud. It’s a big gamble and we will soon see whether it works. But not since 1980, when we saw Jamie Uys’s The Gods Must Be Crazy grace the screen, have we had any follow-up commercial successes. There have been so many gambles but nothing has shaped up since.

This country is waiting for a commercial success, something that will capture the world’s imagination again. The timing could not be better. Since the World Cup our global presence has been elevated and we are ready to contend but, alas, with lots of misses.

With my commitment to the local industry I have embarked on a project titled Material.

The experience has found me working with the best team of people I have collaborated with since the establishment of my internet company. This includes Tom Pictures’s Robbie Thorpe and team, as well as director Craig Freimond, who also wrote the script.

A diamond in the rough

Here is my rationale on why this particular gamble may just succeed. The timing seems right. The film is a contemporary Indian film celebrating the gift of a very special and talented South African artist, Riaad Moosa. There is a massive audience across the globe for a film like this and the script, which seems to press all the right buttons, took more than seven years to write (I hope that was enough time). The budget is tight and the team is hungry and humble. There is a strong sense of purpose and a healthy respect for the process.

We shot the film during March-April and we are currently in the edit. I have called the first cut, which I saw last weekend, a diamond in the rough.

But there are other important considerations. One is government support, which is highly welcome. In the past few years the department of trade and industry has offered an attractive rebate to filmmakers, which is comparable with many overseas film initiatives in other countries. This certainly helps to take some of the sting out of financing a film. I think the department has done a significant amount to stimulate the local filmmaking landscape.

Celebrating mediocrity

At the end of the day, though, even if filmmaking was free, the fundamental challenge would lie with the script. Without a solid, compelling screenplay, nothing can happen. I maintain that this is not as much a function of money as it is a product of passion, talent and commitment. South African artists are spoilt and we continue to celebrate mediocrity. This is the only country where struggling artists get into fancy cars and drive home to upmarket apartments in Sandton.

So as not to offend, I had better leave it at that.