Filmmakers must wise up to reality

Right way: Mukunda Michael Dewil and Joe Mafela on the set of Retribution, a highly praised commercial flop.

Right way: Mukunda Michael Dewil and Joe Mafela on the set of Retribution, a highly praised commercial flop.

Although I was not mentioned directly by name in Roger Young’s article “A car chase too far: What SA film can’t learn from Hollywood” (Friday, May 24), Young cited two movies that I wrote and directed, so I thought I would respond.

I’m currently in Los Angeles taking meetings about my next movie. It’s called Drop — a $10-million action thriller set on Table Mountain. It’s going to feature an American lead.
Why? Because if it features a South African lead nobody will come and see it. They would rather go and see one of the many other competing films featuring famous movie stars.

This is a fundamental truth of the filmmaking business. A movie star attracts an audience and if you don’t attract an audience your movie will be a flop. My first movie, Retribution, was nominated for five Safta awards, including two best-actor nominations for our two South African leads.

Do you know how much money Retribution made at the local box office? R65 000. No, that’s not missing a few noughts. It was an unmitigated flop. Creatively, it was the second-most nominated film that year, but from a commercial point of view it was a flop. Nobody wanted to see a South African thriller with two “unknowns” in it, no matter how good they are. (And hats off to Joe Mafela and Jeremy Crutchley for stellar performances.)

Filmmakers have to understand: unless your movie makes money you can’t have a career. This is the movie business, and the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) has wisely seen this. You can’t have a sustainable film fund if you keep making movies nobody goes to see. The people at the NFVF and the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) know what they are doing: they are trying to ensure that they can continue to help filmmakers. They can’t ignore that reality and plunge ­billions into projects the South African public doesn’t want to see. They know that, side by side with creative integrity, you need to have a commercial model that will keep the industry alive. They are, after all, not charities.

Audiences vote with their feet and the NFVF is listening. I’ve worked with Clarence Hamilton, Eddie Mbalo, Basil Ford, Zama Mkosi, Thandeka Zwana, Neiloe Khunyeli. These are sharp people, and they want what we all want: more good South African films. They are working to that end and should be applauded for all they are doing to help us.

The reason I set Drop in South Africa is precisely because of the NFVF and IDC’s programmes to help South African filmmakers, encouraging them to stay here and make films here. That kind of support helps to sustain and grow our industry.

As for the complaint that they are stifling creativity with their notes on scripts — welcome to reality, my friend. There are always notes. From Hollywood to Parkwood, if people are giving you money they will also be giving you notes. A Hollywood producer’s notes are no better and no worse than what you will get from the NFVF. I know; I’ve received notes from both. Few filmmakers like to get notes, but the more experienced ones know it’s a fundamental part of the film’s development.

So, when Young says “there is no quicker way to remove a filmmaker’s love for a project than to tell them that they don’t know how to make films”, you have to understand that if you want the creative autonomy afforded to the likes of Martin Scorsese, David Fincher and only a handful of other directors, then you need to have made movies like those directors have made.

Until then, you’re going to get notes on what the people who are giving you money think will make your movie better. If you don’t like that, you’re in the wrong business.

I suspect a slight case of sour grapes in the grumbling about the NFVF. You’re selling a product; you have to make films people want to see. The numbers don’t lie.

The NFVF is aware of this, and the sooner we as filmmakers start making movies that not only mean something to us creatively but, crucially, also mean something to potential audiences, the better for the state of our industry.

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