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The State of Our Film Nation - Observations on the South African Film Industry

While we only officially got television in 1976, the South African Film industry is one of the oldest in the world. Moving from the system of Apartheid to the new South Africa means that our political landscape and social structures have been fragmented and in a state of flux for several decades. While great strides have been made towards integration, there are still a number of industries and platforms that haven't been as radical and the South African film industry has remained largely "untransformed". The movie industry as a whole has been criticised for its lack of gender and racial equality with campaigns such as #MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite highlighting some of its internal power struggles. The South African film industry wrestles with similar socio-economic disparities. In a broad overview and attempt to encapsulate the state of our film nation, Spling makes some observations on our strengths and weaknesses.

Positive Outlook

Writer-director Paul W.S. Anderson, who recently shot Resident Evil: The Final Chapter praised South Africa as a film-making destination. We've got some of the best locations and most professional film crews, who make the film-making process a pleasure. While there are a few niche areas of specialisation that require advanced training, forcing productions to recruit key crew from outside the country, it's an excellent destination for international film-makers. His sentiment was echoed by City of Violence director, Jérôme Salle, who only had good things to say about filming in South Africa. "Two of the four projects I have, are scheduled to shoot in Cape Town not because it's a Capetonian story but just because it's a great place to work with great crew."

In terms of growth and economic progress, South Africa's film industry is one of the best performing national sectors, which deserves more focus and funding. A four-year Economic Impact Assessment study conducted by Urban Econ from 2013-2017 revealed that our local film industry contributed R5.4 Billion to the GDP during the 2016/2017 financial year. The study concluded that more than 21,000 jobs had been crafted with "an increase by a multiple of 4.9 in the employment multiplier for every R1 invested". This positive trajectory and job creation means that more TV, commercial and film productions are making South Africa this destination of choice and we should be harnessing these opportunities and leveraging the system for our own needs.

Great Talent

Salle went on to heap praise on our local film industry saying that "From a practical and technical point-of-view I think you're at the top. I've spoken with many directors from all over the world and we all think shooting here is wonderful." We've got the human tools: the crew, the directors and some promising acting talent. One missing component or unknown seems to be screenwriters. Some screenplays take more than a decade to reach the actual film-making process and there's a misconception that scripts can be written to completion in a few weeks by just about anyone with half an idea.

The screenplay isn't given as much gravitas as the rest of the production, making it a malleable afterthought rather than the time-honoured blueprint it should be. While screenplay incubators and workshops are seeking to improve the overall quality of screenwriting talent in South Africa, we're still not up to international standards. Adding terms and conditions, doesn't make it any easier as funding is largely tied to adhering to the safety of genre and formula. While arguably a good launch pad for debutants, screenwriters are undervalued in South Africa and this perception doesn't encourage screenwriters to specialise or dedicate themselves to script-writing for film as a full-time pursuit.


South Africa has a good reputation when it comes to direction with a horde of established and up-and-coming directors working on big budget international features. While these talents are certainly making us proud in Hollywood and at esteemed film festivals, the majority have emerged from international film schools. Local film schools such as AFDA have a good reputation, are unearthing a new generation of film-making talent and are opening their doors with campuses at major centres across the country. When you look at our most prolific directors, most of them have received their foundational education in Canada, the United States or the United Kingdom. With mounting accolades, experiential knowledge and an ever-broadening collective of local and international experts in their employ, our local film schools are quickly bridging the gap.

Skoonheid director, Oliver Hermanus, who trained at the London Film School believes "...we are still not educating ourselves as film directors, we do not watch enough cinema and we do not broaden our horizons as feverishly as I believe we all should." There's a naievty to our films that holds us back from achieving the depth and breadth of what's possible. While our focus has been on the concept of South Africa according to the world, we've got a wealth of amazing South African stories waiting to be turned into feature films. Our diversity, rich history, state of transition, social issues and status as a country with major societal imbalances makes us a hub for rich storytelling, great conflict, thematic gravity and an array of potential. From in-depth character studies to crime sagas, South Africa is ripe with possibilities and it's quite surprising that more international film-makers aren't taking inspiration from our beautiful country and its melting pot of cultures.

Amazing Locations

Cape Town is frequently listed as a top 10 city by many travel magazines and websites. Table Mountain, the Cape winelands, pristine beaches, beachfront promenades, informal settlements, varied architectural styles in the CBD, incomplete freeways, varied suburban dwellings, farmlands, forests, mountainous regions, rivers, quarries, lakes, game reserves... it seems that you can emulate almost any part of the world within a 2 hour drive. Just one region in a country with many characterful metropoles, natural environments, plenty of fair weather days and a stable climate, makes South Africa a major contender and world class film-making location.


There's a drive to introduce the "star system" so that local acting talent can be better aligned with international cast members and win more acclaim. For many years, local actors have been overlooked in favour of international stars. The excuse of hiring bankable name stars is justifiable when you consider these productions need to win over an international audience, but with the likes of Charlize Theron and Sharlto Copley, who are set to co-star in Gringo, one feels there needs to be a shift of belief. We've got the raw talent that converts to Hollywood material, but how do we leverage and sharpen our offering?

In a film workshop discussing District 9 at the Cape Town International Film Festival & Market in 2017, Copley said that he believes acting is our country's weakest link with much of our shared knowledge evolving from our country's strong tradition of theatre and television. His refreshing honesty did rattle some members of the audience, but having gone through the meat grinder and worked on both sides of the camera, he's in a position where we can't simply ignore this sentiment, however tough to swallow. While it seemed like an affront and treacherous blow to our pride, it was more of a challenge to quash the air of naivety that is still perpetuated by many local productions.

Money, Money, Money

The South African film industry has by-and-large depended on the Department of Trade and Industry (dti), the NFVF as well as the Industrial Development Corporation for funding. However, some of these traditional channels have been criticised for not being viable or open enough to fund local films. Their policies preclude many film-makers from making the films they want to make in order to safeguard box office returns instead of recognising talent. Adapting screenplays, adjusting production crews and changing characters to meet these guidelines is meant to work towards effecting transformation, but is actually diluting ambition, stunting creative freedom and stifling the artistic pursuit. It is ultimately a business, but in a fragmented film industry where we don't have a national film identity, the terms and conditions are making it increasingly difficult to get worthy films to market. As a side effect, this has led to "a rise in funding from the private sector".

This is probably why many film-makers are turning to film investors like KykNet to get their films made. With Afrikaans as the main proponent and what appears to be a hungry film audience, this segment seems to be growing with more and more Afrikaans films being produced each year. While "romcoms" have probably been the most profitable in terms of box office returns, there's a growing maturity as more varied genres are getting their time in the Sun. Despite these allowances and several outstanding South African productions, many local film-makers are still not satisfied and are relocating to Los Angeles to continue their pursuit and hone their craft.

Jérôme Salle believes our industry's greatest challenge is money. His advice for our country is to take a page from France, where they create a tax for every ticket sold, saying: "You take a percentage and you give it back to make movies. We still make 150 movies a year in France thanks to that." Local cinemas are currently reinventing their offering to keep patrons interested and stay ahead of advances in home theatre. While the cutting edge technology of IMAX and luxury cinema experiences are creating some renewed interest from film goers, locally produced films are struggling to crack the Top 5 at the box office. There are one or two exceptions, but there's not enough hype around local releases going into the critical opening weekend. Without the support of local audiences, these films aren't getting the attention they deserve, dropping from the circuit after a week or two.

Decline in Media Exposure, Publicity and Interest

Film-going has been downgraded from being regarded as a regular entertainment activity to an occasional pursuit. While advances in home theatre technology, the prevalence of piracy, economic recession and rising movie ticket prices are contributing factors, the bottom line is that less media presence means less awareness and front-of-mind decision-making. This has led many South African news media channels to condense or downsize their entertainment divisions, meaning that gossip columns, theatre, television and film are sharing the same stage. Generally-speaking, this means movies have been relegated to simple synopsis style write ups, rehashed press releases, syndicated reviews and of these, most are centred on Hollywood content or superfluous celebrity. This media downgrade means that there's not enough local publicity, awareness of film offerings, national releases or promotion of local talent in an already under-represented marketplace.

With film releases relying more heavily on the ability of their PR/marketing agency and traditional film news broadcasters drying up, it's becoming increasingly difficult to service the hype. Partnering with corporates is opening doors in terms of garnering a pre-existing database of prospective audience members, but it's not enough. Guerilla film marketing is becoming more prevalent and inspiring creativity in terms of getting the loudspeaker crackling, but it seems unfair for the onus to fall on the film-makers to create, market and distribute in their own capacity when they're already operating on a shoestring budget by international standards. South Africans have been traditionally influenced by mainstream media and as a fairly conservative nation, aren't as predisposed to fostering self-made fandoms through discourse and strong opinion. Latching onto mega franchises that are already achieving on a global scale seems to be the norm. With a limited pop culture for our arts and culture segment, many South African projects need to be "discovered" and loved overseas before they resonate locally.


While South Africa's film industry is showing remarkable growth, moving from a GDP contribution of R3.5 Billion in 2013 to R5.4 Billion in 2017, it's leaving behind much of its human capital. The industry is admittedly fragmented and while there's a slow increase in the demographic make up of actors, crews and film-makers... for the most part, it remains untransformed. NFVF CEO, Zama Mkosi, says: “There is a strong need for transformation in our industry. If the industry is to continue the same growth trajectory that has been witnessed in recent years, it should focus on transformation. Gender representation in particular remains low." There's a need for a skills development programme geared towards young, black film-makers. Aifheli Makhwanya, Head of Policy and Research at the NFVF says the view that “film-making is just an art" is limiting growth in this sector.

While there are many pre-existing socio-economic factors at play, we're sitting on the cusp of a film renaissance in South Africa. Our industry is already showing positive growth and we haven't even activated the full extent of our human capital. If government entities can commit more funding to growing our film industry through education and attracting more productions, it seems that the demand for jobs can increase, the notion that "film is art" can be smashed and more young film-makers can find their place in the ever-widening local film market. If government isn't willing to support this initiative, one would hope that local film schools, film-making mentorships, like-minded corporates and guerilla "Nollywood" style film-making would rise up to take full advantage of the radical growth.

The insights expressed in this opinion piece have been gathered from observations, conversations, workshops, press releases and industry articles. Being a living document, Spling would encourage you to express your views from the point-of-view that this is an on-going conversation rather than a once-off statement, designed to stimulate debate and brainstorm to solve pre-existing perceptions or inherent problems. Let's aim to make our film industry great with continuous improvements and self-reflective dialogue between all players from a corporate level to individual basis.

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The State of Our Film Nation - Observations on the South African Film Industry


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