The growth spurt experienced by the South African film industry is leading to changes in the local distribution landscape. While Ster-Kinekor Pictures, Nu Metro Films and United International Pictures (UIP) have traditionally dominated the distribution of both local and international releases, independent and boutique distributors are now working to carve out an increasingly bigger piece of local box office income for home grown filmmakers.
Helen Kuun, known for the role she played in supporting the South African industry as local content head at Ster-Kinekor, formed Indigenous Film Distribution in 2010 to help local filmmakers get their films distributed on a platform suited to their content.
This boutique film distributor assists South African and African filmmakers with contract negotiations and marketing strategy.
Kuun says there are now more options available to local filmmakers, although distribution will never be easy and requires a lot of resilience. She says as films get better, distribution will also become smoother. “The fact that there is volume in the local industry is changing the landscape.’
She attributes the greater volume to the revolution brought about by digital filming and editing, and the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) Film and Television Production Incentive, or DTI rebate.
Kuun stresses that while theatrical release isn’t the best distribution option for all films, broadcasting in South Africa is expanding and there are now more DVD options available.
Indigenous Films is keen on distributing films that are a first of their kind, like the local horror movie Night Drive. They look for movies that are authentic with high production value, including basics like a good script and story, convincing acting, competent directing and professional cinematography. However, she says quality is often not the only good indication of box office success. “In the end we have to look at which films are financially viable. Ultimately it’s about entertainment.’
Indigenous Films recently released Liefling die Movie, Night Drive and Paradise Stop, and will also release Platteland, How to Steal 2 Million, Mad Cow and Visa Vie in the first half of the year.
More support for distribution
Dan Jawitz from Fireworx Media has been involved in film distribution and marketing for at least 15 years and is actively lobbying for distribution in South Africa as part of the Independent Producers Organisation (IPO) executive committee.
He feels strongly that local films need to be protected from non-indigenous movies at the local box office. “All distributors need to work together so that our film landscape isn’t completely dominated by overseas films with huge marketing budgets,’ says Jawitz.
He proposes a subsidy from government to ensure that local films are distributed more effectively, similar to the DTI rebate that encourages local production. “Distribution needs to be supported as production has been,’ he adds.
Fireworx Media is also not a traditional mainstream distribution chain, but specialises in straight-to-DVD films and broadcast deals. Among the titles distributed by Fireworx are the South African feature comedy SWOP and documentaries such as Reflections on Xenophobia and Sea Point Days.
Jawitz explains that Fireworx is not a full distribution chain, but is planning to release three feature films in cinemas this year, either independently or working with Helen Kuun.
According to Jawitz there are different markets for different films, whether DVD, Internet, television or theatrical release. “Once you establish the audience for the film, you can usually find the suitable platform.’
He also emphasises that films need to be financially viable, but says distribution in South Africa is definitely getting easier. “There’s more receptivity from theatres and more media support for local films. There’s also a bigger choice of distributors now, with more independent distributors and more successes at the box office.’
A remaining challenge for distributors, according to Jawitz, is that cinema audiences are still quite fragmented along racial lines, with only few examples such as Tsotsi that have successfully crossed over.
Another change in the local distribution landscape is the recent involvement of the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) that has traditionally only played a role in the development and production of films.
The head of production and development at the NFVF, Clarence Hamilton, says they noticed that many NFVF funded films had very short runs at the local box office. Despite attempts to sensitise filmmakers to what audiences want to see, there were no returns at the box office.
The NFVF decided to intervene by using the 2010 film Skin as a distribution pilot project. Due to the heavy subject matter of the film it was expected to earn about R200 000 at the local box office. Hamilton says they started thinking outside the box and tried to tap into audiences not reached by normal distribution chains.
The film accumulated R1m at the South African box office.
According to Hamilton they learned valuable lessons from the pilot project and will attempt to replicate the success by distributing a very different film – the psychological thriller Retribution – in 2011.
“We’re still experimenting to help our films recoup at the local box office,’ says Hamilton. “We’ve got to get more South Africans to see South African films.’
Traditional distributors, however, are still playing their parts in the South African industry. According to Nu Metro Films general manager Debbie McCrum they are in discussions with many local producers to represent their content, not only theatrically, but for home entertainment and television exploitation.
In 2011 they will be representing Trevor Noah’s new title, Crazy Normal, taken from his Goodbye For Now Show and will be releasing a single DVD version of the Best of The Pure Monate Show in June.
At the cinema Nu Metro recently released the critically acclaimed Life, Above All and also distributed local films Egoli – Afrikaners is Plesierig, Susanna van Biljon, I Now Pronounce you Black and White and The Race-ist in 2010.
McCrum says a great success for last year was the release of Spud in December 2010. The film was released across all circuits and grossed just under R17m at the local box office.
“It’s very exciting and encouraging to see film projects which cover various genres in film, from comedy to drama to musical, which truly bodes well for the future of local content,’ says McCrum.
“It is important to note that the films that are successful at the local box office are so because they have been made with a specific target market in mind – a market that the producers of these films have carefully targeted not only in language but also in culture.’