Donovan Marsh’s acclaimed heist thriller iNumber Number, produced by Quizzical
Pictures, gets its official nationwide release in April. Thereafter it is set for a
North American run and has also been optioned for a Hollywood remake.
iNumber Number began life fairly innocuously as an extension of the first season
of the SABC1 show, Class Act, broadcast in 2010.
This reality competition show, in the vein of Idols or South Africa’s Got Talent,
set out to find a star among scores of aspiring South African actors. The format
was originated by writer-director Donovan Marsh, an established filmmaker with
credits such as Dollars and White Pipes and Spud to his name. In that first
season, the search ended with the discovery of a new talent in the form of
S’dumo Mtshali, an aspiring actor from Durban. One of the prizes awarded to
Mtshali was the chance to star in a feature film, which Marsh would write and
“Part of the object of the TV show was to build an audience around a particular
actor in the hopes that those fans would then go to the cinemas,’ says Marsh.
“What we wanted to do was find a leading man, an action hero, so the film had
to encapsulate that.’ To fill this brief, Marsh wrote iNumber Number, a very
South African story that operated within the familiar parameters of international
mainstream cinema’s heist and “buddy cop’ genres.
Fresh yet familiar
The finished product combines the familiarity of these formats with the freshness
of an authentic South African setting. It was this combination of recognition and
newness, Marsh believes, that led to the film being picked up for North American
distribution early in 2013 by US company, XYZ Films.
“It’s a genre film so Americans are used to the conventions,’ he says. “It’s a
heist film and I think it lives very solidly within those conventions. We didn’t try
to do anything “arty’ or unusual with the genre. So they recognised that and
liked it. But this is also a tired genre. It’s been done over and over. So for them
to see it in the South African context created freshness for them. They watch it
and think, “Wow, I’ve never seen places like this, never seen people like this or
heard people speak like this.’’
From Joburg to Toronto, to the world
iNumber Number was accepted for screening at the 2013 Toronto International
Film Festival, which acted as the portal through which the film accessed the
international market. “It’s the second biggest film festival in the world, so it’s
quite a big string in your bow to be accepted there,’ says Marsh. “And as you’re
accepted you get the attention of a lot of people. People actually compete to
XYZ Films approached Marsh even before the Toronto screening. He sent them a
screener of the film and they immediately offered to sell the distribution rights
for North America, as well as the remake rights, which they duly did. After a
bidding war between three major studios, Universal ultimately bought the rights
to exhibit iNumber Number in North America as well as the option to remake the
film. Another company, Fortissimo, then picked up the rights to sell into other
territories, which it has also done.
All of this was due entirely to the prestige that comes with being accepted at
Toronto. The festival is a trusted platform on which North American distributors
can acquire foreign content, for which they are evidently very hungry. “What I’ve
learned through my interactions with Hollywood,’ Marsh says, “is that they
frown on their own mainstream, commercial content even more than we do. It
pays the bills but they are constantly after something more interesting and
that’s why a film like iNumber Number appeals to them.’
Headed for Hollywood
The international interest in iNumber Number has naturally attracted attention
to its writer-director. Marsh has acquired a Hollywood agent and is assured
involvement with the remake of the film (if it happens, which is not guaranteed)
as an associate producer. He was originally offered the right to direct the
Hollywood version but his agent advised him against it – “you don’t want to
make the same film twice,’ Marsh says. He has been taking meetings with
producers and studios who have been inviting him to share ideas on their
projects. He is also receiving a constant flow of new scripts from his agent.
Hollywood, it seems, is calling and Marsh is happy to answer its call – but with
caution and an open mind.
“I never really had aspirations for Hollywood,’ he says. “I suppose I always
wanted to make at least one Hollywood film and I don’t know whether I will
manage to make it or not, but I’m now playing in that arena. I’m reading scripts,
I’m involved in a lot of pitches – my agent has been amazing. Long may that live.
Whether I am able to compete effectively there remains to be seen – there are
a lot of competent people there – but just the fact that I’m getting the chance is
Locally, Marsh is attached to write and direct the adaptation of Lauren Beukes’
science-fiction novel, Zoo City, which is still in development, a hot property that
has received a lot of international attention.
In the meantime, iNumber Number is about to be tested on its home market,
being released on 25 April. It will be interesting to see if South African viewers
respond as well as the North American distributors have and whether the
audience development strategy at the heart of the Class Act concept will pay off.
iNumber Number is set for local release on 25 April.