How Knuckle City found the key to unlocking film finance


The combination of a commercial storyline, an experienced production team and a solid ‘empowerment dividend’ paid off for Yellowbone Entertainment.

Anyone who has produced a film in South Africa will tell you the most difficult task is raising money to pay for the production and marketing. Even those who have several titles to their name may find it almost impossible to raise the money required. But it’s not just a local issue. The vast majority of film projects today are independent, meaning they do not receive funding from the big studios (Sony, Disney, Fox) or mini-majors (Netflix, Amazon). Instead, they receive the majority of their financing through a combination of tax incentives, pre-sales, licensing and private individuals looking to invest in motion picture deals.

That’s what makes ‘Knuckle City, named as South Africa’s Oscar choice for the 2020 Academy Awards, a unique success story. The film, directed by Jahmil X.T. Qubeka, was funded in large part by the National Empowerment Fund’s (NEF) uMnotho Fund which provides new venture expansion finance for entrepreneurs. The deal team was led by the NEF’s Thobile Papadakis who worked closely with the producers in unpacking the deal and presenting it to the NEF investment committees where it was approved. The NEF funded the transaction out of the Venture Capital Fund, a partnership with the Department of Arts and Culture.

The gritty crime-drama film tells the story of an aging, womanising, professional boxer from the Eastern Cape and his career-criminal brother who take one last shot at success and get more than they’ve bargained for.

“The opportunity to be part of ‘Knuckle City’ arose when producer Layla Swart approached the NEF to close the gap left open by one of their investors to ensure that the movie was fully funded,” says Papadakis. “She and the director were also shareholders in the film, and both have an established track record.”

Swart and Qubeka are co-owners of Yellowbone Entertainment production house. The NEF previously approved a venture capital facility of R3,5 million for Yellowbone, for the production of ‘Sew the Winter to My Skin’ (2018), a reimagining of the story of John Kepe, a legendary outlaw of pre-apartheid South Africa. The film was selected to participate in the Cinéfondation’s Atelier at Cannes, the biggest film festival in the world. In addition, the film was nominated to represent South Africa at the 2019 Academy Awards (Oscars) in the Foreign Language category. It went on to screen at festivals around the world and won many awards.

Prior that Yellowbone produced ‘Stillborn’, a Xhosa science fiction film which premiered at the second annual BRICS Film Festival in June 2017. It won the Panda Award for Artistic Merit, the Best Short Film award at the Durban International Film Festival, and the best short film at the 2019 SAFTAS. It is being used at universities across the globe as a study piece on Afro-futurism and is still touring international festivals.

“Both Swart and Qubeka have proved they can deliver dynamic, quality films and thought-provoking storylines,” says uMnotho Fund Manager Zama Khanyile. “As part of the NEF’s mandate, we are tasked to support black-owned businesses while also ensuring a socio-economic return – what we call the ‘empowerment dividend’. The NEF invested in ‘Knuckle City’ as it presented an empowerment dividend that provided the opportunity to support young entrepreneurs in the creative sector; supported a black owned and managed business that has woman ownership; provided tangible socio-economic benefits by creating job opportunities for more than 200 people; and provided employment for people living in the Eastern Cape and supported economic activity in the province, which is one of the country’s poorest. It also tells a South African story, showcasing the country on international platforms and boosting the profiles of South African directors and producers.”

Eastern Cape Premiere Oscar Mabuyane, says the government is proud to have provided funding for ‘Knuckle City’ given the role that Jahmil Qubeka is playing in the advancement of the film industry in the province. “The film pays tribute to our local heroes, while also delving deep into the reality of their lives.

‘Knuckle City’ stars Bongile Mantsai, Siv Ngesi, Faniswa Yisa, Awethu Hleli, Nomhle Nkonyeni, Zolisa Xaluva, Owen Sejake and Angela Sithole. The film was produced by Yellowbone Entertainment for Mzansi Magic Movies. It was funded by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), the National Empowerment (NEF), the Department of Arts and Culture, the Eastern Cape Development Corporation and the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) with the support of the Buffalo City Municipality and the Eastern Cape Provincial Government.

‘Knuckle City’ is distributed in South Africa by Indigenous Film Distribution (IFD).

‘Knuckle City’ opens in cinema in South Africa on 28 February 2020.