ERIC MIYENI: Focus on business end can light up the local film industry
A strategy is needed to deliver local films to audiences without having to compete with Hollywood
There is a tendency in SA to think of the business of film as the production of film. This thinking is erroneous.
The production of film is like a factory where items are made. It is where the film industry invests money. When you put money into the production of a film, you should expect to and receive a return at some point, just like the factory owner expects to make a living when he finds an outlet to sell the items he produces.
In the film business, that outlet is the cinema. If you cannot generate box-office returns that allow you to make enough money to make another movie, you would never make another movie in any mature movie industry anywhere in the world.
But we are here, not anywhere in the world. If you applied this thinking strictly in SA, you would most likely not have a single movie produced because virtually every SA-made film fails to make enough money at the box-office for the producer to make another film.
This, in essence, means there is no SA movie business yet. On the contrary, SA is crawling with grant-dependent film producers who mistakenly believe they are independent. In a way this is not their fault.
According to the National Film and Video Foundation’s (NFVF) annual box-office report, the definitive guide on box-office performance in SA, this country produces 19-28 films a year. Although at their height of performance these films had an 11% market share at box office in SA, that was down to 4% as of 2018.
The total South African box-office gross revenue has been growing at a steady 4%, year in, year out — from R773m in 2010 to R1.3bn in 2018 — and this trend is set to continue. South Africans love going to the cinema and are loving it more every year. Sadly, though, they are not showing this love to locally produced films. Of the R1.3bn South Africans paid to see films in 2018, only R50m went to South African filmmakers. Black Panther alone made more than double that at a box-office gross of R107m.
Clearly it is only when we can reverse this trend that we can build a South African film industry where producers use box-office returns to make more movies that make more money to make more movies independently. The question is how.
If a film exhibition chain is where the South African film producer should make his money and thus have a real film business, then that cinema chain would be Ster-Kinekor. However, Ster-Kinekor started off as an American-owned company. Twentieth Century Fox sold the cinema chain to Sanlam in 1969.
So it does not matter how you dice it, as per its history and DNA, Ster-Kinekor is geared to promote, sell and exhibit American films. It is the reason over 90% of all films screened in SA are either American produced or US co-produced. I have no problem with this. I think Ster-Kinekor is a brilliant business. The company is just not the right tool for pushing South African cinema to the public here. It’s not built for that.
As per the National Film and Video Foundation report, Ster-Kinekor gave Frank and Fearless 96 screens. That’s a lot, but the film was pulled off circuit after six weeks, having made R7.8m. Ellen — Die Storie van Ellen Pakkies had 35 screens, a third of what Frank and Fearless was given, but although it made about R6m (just under R2m less than what Frank and Fearless made) with this many fewer screens, it was yanked off circuit after six weeks too.
Inxeba (The Wound) had amazing publicity leading up to its release, but Ster-Kinekor gave it only 19 screens, then pulled it off after 10 weeks. Catching Feelings, a film so good it is now on Netflix, was released at the height of the Black Panther tsunami, killing its potential success at birth.
It might be debatable whether this is the fault of those who distribute South African films or Ster-Kinekor, the exhibitor. What is obvious is that there is no strategy to help South African cinema succeed at the box office here. And even if there was, the cinema chain has its theatres in places that are virtually inaccessible to the majority of South Africans.
Finally, why would Ster-Kinekor embark on such a risky mission anyway? It has a business model that works incredibly well. To change course at this stage would amount to business suicide.
This opens up a huge gap in the market for any entrepreneur with a well thought-out business plan that focuses almost exclusively on exhibiting South African films to the majority of South Africans; a parallel cinema chain to Ster-Kinekor, as it were, dedicated to screen local movies closer to SA’s majority. This is what film producers in this country and SA as a whole need to build a profitable local film industry.
I know the government is serious about growing the local movie business. This is why I think it should seek out the best business plan that is geared towards the film exhibition end, the business end of the movie industry, focus it on SA films, and bring it to life.
• Miyeni is founder-director of RapidLion — the SA International Film Festival.