South African cinema: Bums on seats, at last?

It was reported this week that the new South African release, Otelo Burning, had made only about R80 000 on its first weekend on screen, which is not hopeful over the longer term.

It was only the other day, though, that two South African films were being touted as successes in the local marketplace: Semi-Soet, a frothy romantic comedy in Afrikaans, and Material, a heart-warming family drama.

The former has had a box-office take of about R9.5-million and the latter raked in about R8-million.

But these figures must be measured against what it cost to make such films. Producers and financiers of movies are notoriously reluctant, in South Africa at least, to say how much they cost — there is a feeling that if they are seen to be too low-budget that will dent their chances in overseas markets.

Still, many in the film industry are well informed about their competitors and can provide a good idea of the likely budgets of such movies. Also, documents submitted to the department of trade and industry (DTI), which provides rebates on monies spent making films, can be revealing.

It’s possible to say, then, that the average budget for a South African movie today is about R4-million to R7-million. The budget of Semi-Soet is said by industry insiders to have been about R4.5-million to R5-million, and Material cost about R5-million. Hence these movies can be said to be box-office successes in South Africa.

By contrast, Spud and Jock of the Bushveld made more money in box-office terms (about R18-million and R11-million respectively), but their budgets were much bigger than the South African average. Spud cost about R25-million to make, and Jock may have cost as much as double that.

Success stories

Helen Kuun of independent distributor Indigenous Films says that every time a local film is successful it helps to build the industry. “It boosts investor confidence, builds exhibitor confidence in the films and strengthens audience perception of the quality of
content.”  

Kuun says the industry is normalising. “In the past we had a number of success stories — with Tsotsi, followed by White Wedding, How to Steal R2 Million, Liefling and Platteland … The list of successful films is getting longer and that should indicate to us that the films are starting to hit their mark with audiences.”   

Material producer Ronnie Apteker says: “What Material did was build greater trust for local films with those people who saw the film. But we need another dozen films like Material for this trust to grow.” Overall, Apteker predicts: “English-language films will continue to lose money and it will take generations before that changes.”

James Alexander, producer of Semi-Soet, says: “Although both Material and Semi-Soet appear to have great box-office figures, the fact remains that, on average, a producer will only see between 10% and 20% of that profit.

“Success at the box office in South Africa is really nothing more than great publicity at the moment. It helps to create awareness for DVD and television sales. Still, we are pleased with the total box office for Semi-Soet of over R9.2-million.”

Ancillary sales (DVD, TV, video-on-demand) can push up the receipts for a movie considerably, but those are in turn driven by the initial box-office success of a film and thus the amount of publicity and good word-of-mouth it received.

Even so, the years of work that go into making movies can often mean that the ultimate box-office takings feel like too little, even if the film has been relatively successful. The makers of Material, says Apteker, spent seven years on the project. Alexander says Semi-Soet was in development for more than two years.

 “Great ideas take time and unfortunately time is money,” says Alexander. “The DTI rebate is working wonderfully, but we need support once films hit the screens — incentives to help local films hold screens for longer.”

 “The more successful the local film industry,” says Kuun, “the more films will be made, because it makes financial sense to investors and it becomes a real industry. I think that both Material and Semi-Soet proved that, and both of them offered a great movie-going experience.”     

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