The beginning of 2014, in contrast to the same time last year, finds South
Africa’s film and television studios in a generally expansive mood, even though
the past few years of economic recession have seen several fall by the wayside.
The future seems bright for those who remain, although there are one or two
challenges on the horizon.
As 2013 began, South Africa’s studio facilities, like many of their colleagues
around the world, faced tough times. With the economic downturn, not only did
the number of local productions demanding studio space decline, but so did the
number of international productions taking place within our borders. The
economic conditions meant that facilities in other countries – including inside the
US itself – dropped their prices, making themselves more attractive to Hollywood
production houses, who also saw the opportunity to cut back on the
considerable travel costs of bringing their units out to Mzansi.
Of course business still went on and several major international shoots came to
our shores, including Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Dredd and many others.
Now the country’s major studios are not only still standing but have actually
grown stronger, if the spate of infrastructure expansion recently seen in the
business is anything to go by.
Defying the recession
During the course of 2013, as the entire world struggled to ride out the
recession, several major South African studios found themselves in a position,
not only to survive, but actually to expand their facilities. Studios such as Sasani
and Telemedia, for example, built brand new, fully equipped studio spaces of
over 900m2 each. Both identified a demand for large studio spaces and took
steps to cater to it.
Sister pay TV broadcasters M-Net and SuperSport took this expansive spirit
beyond South African borders with the construction of an integrated production
facility in Nairobi, Kenya. The new studios provided space for the production of a
new drama series called Kona and also for the coverage of various east African
sports. The complex includes four studio spaces, four edit suites and five sound
editing suites (one of which can also be used for final mix). It also has space for
a multichannel control room (MCCR).
Majors versus minors
These are some of the success stories. However, one unfortunate characteristic
of recent years in the studio facilities industry has been the relatively high rate
of attrition, with several smaller studios having to give in and shut up shop. This
inadvertently turned out to be beneficial for their larger competitors, who were
able to take on the markets previously catered to by the minnows and thus
sustain their own growth.
The collapse of smaller companies and the absorption of their business by the
larger ones, is one of the factors that has led to the emergence of a handful of
major studios who are sufficiently competitive to snap up the major share of
work in their particular field. Sasani once again serves as a good example. The
studio now produces most of the country’s best-loved soap operas, as well as
major reality series like Big Brother Mzansi, putting it ahead of the pack in terms
of television production.
On the film side of the industry, Cape Town Film Studios still stands monolithically
unopposed in its particular field. While it is certainly not the country’s only film
production facility, Cape Town Film Studios is still alone as the country’s only
major Hollywood-style dream factory, with the infrastructure and market share
to cater to huge international productions at a very attractive price (by global
With Sasani taking a big bite out of the television market and Cape Town Film
Studios dominating international filmmaking in the country, these two appear to
be emerging as the country’s biggest complete-solution production studios.
One-stop shops versus specialists
Looking at studios around the country, there is a general distinction between
those that offer the full scope of facilities, from studio space to admin offices, to
all the necessary gear, and those that offer space only. Obviously it would
appear that the more comprehensive, better equipped ones – some of which
enable crews to set up self-contained production units that can see their
projects through from pre- to post-production within the facilities provided –
would be in a better position than those that only have room for rent. This is not
necessarily so; it depends on the needs and budget of the production company
in question. The offerings of studio facilities are fairly varied and between the
two extremes are a number of differing combinations of services.
On the whole, South Africa remains an attractive production destination. We
have the perfect climate, a varied array of exterior locations, modern
infrastructure, well-trained, capable and famously hardworking personnel and of
course, the Department of Trade and Industry’s (the dti) rebate system. The
recent decline in the value of the rand will only make the country even more
alluring to international producers. It is likely that the year ahead will see an
increase in international productions for this very reason. Film and television
studios, like other exporters of goods and services, are thus not likely to be too
unhappy with the exchange rate crisis. A spokesperson from the City of Cape
Town’s mayoral committee was recently quoted as saying that the Mother City
had received 907 bookings for film shoots around the metropolitan area in the
first 10 days of 2014 alone. All things considered, the forecast is good for the
There is one possible challenge to this prospect however. As of April 2014, the
United Kingdom is set to change its system of incentives to make it more
attractive to international filmmakers. Alarm bells have gone off for those with a
stake in the local industry, including the dti, who are reconsidering their own
rebate scheme in order to stay competitive. Among the amendments on the
table is a change in the minimum requirement of the percentage of the
production budget spent in the UK from 25 per cent to only 10. This is opposed
to the dti’s prerequisite of at least 50 percent of principal photography having to
take place within South Africa in order for the production to qualify for a rebate.
While the exchange rate has the potential to offset the competitive edge that
the UK may gain, developments will have to be watched closely by government
and local studio heads to make sure that the recent gains in South Africa’s
content production sector are maintained and built upon.