Welcome to Joziwood

International names are flocking to the City of Gold to film their new blockbusters

Cape Town might hog all the headlines and attract A-list Hollywood glitterati to swan around its scenic filming locations, but Joburg is quietly and emphatically staking its claim as South Africa’s true film capital.

Welcome to Joziwood – a colourful amalgam of made-on-a-shoestring-budget indie films that trip the light fantastic at the world’s film festivals and low-budget, straight-to-TV bubble-gum films in the Nollywood style of film making; and the shooting destination of choice for megabudget international feature films and gritty documentaries.

The Gauteng Film Commission (GFC) estimates between 70% and 80% of South Africa’s film and TV content is produced in the province. Gauteng’s filmed content industry contributes more than R2.5?billion a year to the country’s GDP, and directly employs more than 8?500 people, plus many more thousands of freelance workers.

Nationally, the film industry is flourishing, stimulated by grants from local film commissions, the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF), the National Lottery and the Industrial Development Corporation, as well as the department of Trade and Industry’s rebate scheme.

The GFC estimates about eight direct and indirect jobs are created for every R1?million spent on film production. Furthermore, a study commissioned by the NFVF found the audiovisual industry contributes more than R670?million to the SA Revenue Service yearly – more than repaying the R250?million in incentives paid out annually by government.

This local film boom is a recent phenomenon, according to Helen Kuun of Indigenous Films, an independent distributor of African titles.

“A decade ago, you’d see three to eight South African films releasing a year. But Tsotsi in 2006 was a gateway occurrence; psychologically, it showed film makers what could be done. Since then, there has been an uptick in volume and success stories.

Over the past two or three years, we’ve seen 20 to 24 local films being released in cinemas every year – and that’s excluding your eKasi: Our Stories [on e.tv] and Mzansi Magic [straight-to-TV] films. These days, there’s a new local film coming on circuit every two weeks, on average,” says Kuun.

And most of those films are being shot in and around Joburg.

Vuyo Sokupa, the head of programming at Mzansi Magic, says the channel has commissioned more than 300 microbudget movies since 2011 – roughly 50 a year, each with a budget of R300?000.

This is double the initial allocation of a modest R150?000 per film – which might have contributed to Lokshin Bioskop’s reputation as a sausage factory, churning out movies of inferior quality.

But Sokupa says they “have seen a great growth in quality, especially since we have invested more money into each movie”. According to her, “a large proportion” of these films are shot in Joburg.

The channel has pumped more than R60?million into the industry to date, and the Lokshin Bioskop brand has proved such a runaway hit that Mzansi Bioskop, a dedicated 24/7 local movie channel on MultiChoice’s DStv platform, was born.

“It is our passion to tell home-grown stories,” Sokupa says. “We see a lot of young storytellers, new writers and directors joining the productions.”

The key to the success of these bubble-gum blockbusters seems to lie in giving the viewing public what it wants.

“Dramedy is a very common genre that our viewers enjoy. Our audiences love the merger of serious, truthful narratives with a pinch of comedy. I guess this is reflective of how our society handles issues,” explains Sokupa.

But Kuun warns that this finger-on-the-pulse approach shown by the straight-to-TV movie-making machine is not being mirrored by South African film makers in general.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say the industry is robust, because there is not enough variety on the black consumer side. Local film makers are not generating enough feel-good films, like White Wedding and Between Friends,” she says.

“We need to get away from just making political dramas, and Aids and orphan stories. Those films need to be made, but they are in essence art house films. The main problem is we lack the genre variety in black vernacular languages. We need to make more aspirational love stories and family comedies in those languages.”

Universal Pictures recently bought the rights to remake the South African crime thriller iNumber Number, directed by Donovan Marsh. Part of that film’s success was its setting on the mean streets of Jozi. Similarly, the Oscar-winning Tsotsi drew much of its authenticity from the Soweto shackland landscape.

Besides boasting world-class infrastructure and abundant creative and technical expertise, Joburg is regarded as an affordable filming location. According to the GFC, the province is ranked as one of the top 10 cheapest cities (out of 143) offering a good physical infrastructure for making movies.

“Joburg is a capitalist city,” says Kuun. “It’s cheaper to shoot around greater Joburg than around greater Cape Town. Although the story dictates where you shoot, it’s also a budget thing.”

And one of the jewels in the city’s crown is that it is regarded as “home” to the Nelson Mandela brand. In recent years, Madiba-themed biopics Invictus and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom have been partially filmed in Jozi.

It has also been the film location of choice of other major international blockbusters and local productions, pumping millions into the regional economy. Recent examples include District 9 (estimated budget: R333.5?million), Stander (R344.6?million), The Bang Bang Club (R66.7?million), Blitzpatrollie (R8?million) and Material (R22.2?million).

Recently, street and action scenes for the hotly anticipated Avengers: Age of Ultron movie, due for release in May 2015, were filmed in downtown Joburg.

The city is also seen as being “friendly” to independent film makers. Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner Jahmil XT Qubeka, whose film Of Good Report was banned (and subsequently unbanned) by the Film and Publications Board last year, started his career in the City of Gold.

He says: “In that period, I encountered the most generous souls who opened up their hearts and minds to me in order to help me grow.”

Now based in Cape Town, Qubeka says: “The indie world is all about leveraging relationships.”

He is working on his US directorial debut – “a horror film about a boy who sells his soul to the Devil”.

But are any local film makers – apart from Leon Schuster, whose Schuks Tshabalala’s Survival Guide to South Africa holds the local box office record of R37.4?million – actually making money?

Kuun and Qubeka agree that the Afrikaans market is the most lucrative at the moment.

“The Afrikaans segment of the industry is flourishing, yet English-language South African films don’t have a good history at the local box office,” says Qubeka, adding that this shows how “culturally segregated” South Africa still is.

He believes the biggest issue impeding the growth of the local film industry – particularly in attracting black cinema-going audiences and producing indigenous-language films – is distribution.

“We still have the same distribution infrastructure that we had under apartheid. Less than 13% of our population lives anywhere near a cinema, never mind being able to afford the exorbitant prices that are being charged for movie tickets these days. I could make a Xhosa-language thriller, but no one will go and see it. Why? Because most Xhosas are poor and live nowhere near a cinema.”

A case in point may well be Elelwani, South Africa’s first Venda-language feature film and the country’s official entry in the best foreign film category at the 2015 Academy Awards. Released earlier this year, it was mainly screened at art house cinemas.

Having boldly made his films available for free – in essence, pirated – online, Qubeka believes film makers need to find new and innovative ways of getting their films to the masses.

But Kuun cautions against reinforcing the stereotype of “local is inferior” by offering home-grown content for mahala – food for thought in an industry brimming with promise yet clearly still facing many obstacles to growth.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24
Lockdown For
Rand - Dollar
Rand - Pound
Rand - Euro
Rand - Aus dollar
Rand - Yen
Brent Crude
Top 40
All Share
Resource 10
Industrial 25
Financial 15
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes Iress logo
Editorial feedback and complaints

Contact the public editor with feedback for our journalists, complaints, queries or suggestions about articles on News24.