How romcoms helped the local film industry feel the love

The recent local success of Happiness is a Four-Letter Word seems to herald a new box-office momentum for romantic comedies in South Africa.

Thabang Moleya, the director of the movie, believes this success is related to the relief and escape from the “times that we are living in” offered by such films – and the fact that audiences can journey with “characters they can relate to”.

This seems to resonate with audience research conducted by the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF). It found that the top three aspects that influenced a decision to watch a film were: actors audiences recognise, content they can relate to culturally and characters they can connect with.

“South Africans are saying they want to follow their stars from the small screen to the big screen,” says Peter Kwele, the NFVF’s head of marketing and communications.

“Stories about our past are important for our archive and our heritage, but we are not prescriptive about the scripts we receive.”

The emergence of a black audience for South African romantic comedies may have been catalysed by an earlier romcom, Akin Omotoso’s Tell Me Sweet Something.

Omotoso says that when his team was looking for funding for the film, “we were turned down because some funders said there was no market. Thanks to the audiences that have supported Tell Me Sweet Something and Happiness is a Four-Letter Word, hopefully no filmmaker has to ever hear that again.”

When Tell Me Sweet Something debuted in cinemas in September last year, it steadily rewrote box-office expectations for its audience profile, grossing R1?million in the first five days of screening and accumulating a total of R1?646?085 by the end of its second week.

According to the NFVF, the film declined in its third week, grossing R233??785 – “an issue that can be attributed to the reduction of the number of screens to 28”. The film eventually grossed R3?million.

When Tell Me Sweet Something was still on circuit, Omotoso wrote a strongly worded open letter to Ster-Kinekor’s head of acquisitions and scheduling, Clive Fisher, questioning the distributor’s decision to downscale the movie to fewer screens, given its early success. This resulted in a meeting arranged by Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa.

“What that moment gave us was an opportunity to discuss how local films are treated and marketed,” says Omotoso. “When the minister called all the stakeholders into a room to discuss this very matter, to do with successful local content, that had never happened before – and we received a lot of support for bringing a much-needed distribution, marketing and exhibiting discussion to the table. A love story had brought everyone together.”

Thus, Moleya’s movie may owe some of its success to Omotoso’s intervention. “With Happiness is a Four-Letter Word we started out in 46 cinemas and, in one week, they opened up six more because of the public demand,” says Moleya. “I can’t speak for Akin, but I feel like, in a way, Akin fought my fight.”

As for Omotoso, he feels the status quo is unravelling fast, with worldwide calls for diversity and local audiences realising the difference their money makes to the films they choose to support.

“I think we are in a prime spot to continue a movement that has already started. Hopefully we get to a stage like Nigeria, where Nollywood films stand toe-to-toe with American films, and in some cases beat them outright,” he says.

For producer Catharina Weinek, the effect of the department of trade and industry’s rebate to promote black film-making talent cannot be underestimated: “I think the [department] realised, under immense pressure, that the way the rebates were structured before was only helping white filmmakers make films. The other thing was M-Net’s move away from only buying Afrikaans films.”

The government rebate ensures a 50% return on budget if key criteria are met, such as having a black crew.

About the upcoming romcom Mrs Right Guy (slated for release on April 29), starring Thapelo Mokoena, Dineo Moeketsi and Robert Whitehead, Weinek says there is no golden rule for success, but she hopes the film’s diversity will help it find its audience . 

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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