It is now SA’s time to become a Hollywood attraction

12 November 2021

Christiaan Boonzaaier

If the South African film industry had its own cheerleaders, Wayne Fitzjohn and Simon Swart would be the two liveliest to drive enthusiasm for the industry. The producers of the Netflix hit I am All Girls say that despite the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic there is cause for optimism. Christiaan Boonzaaier listened to their energetic encouragement.

The coronavirus slapped the film industry really hard – no doubt about that.

But, despite the significant job and financial losses there is no better time than now to put in the hard yards, create content for local and international audiences and establish South Africa as one of the most popular destinations to produce feature films.

Wayne Fitzjohn, Chairman of Johannesburg-based production company Nthibah Pictures and producer Simon Swart passionately believe that.

Although local box office earnings declined by R1 billion last year and the SA film industry’s contribution to GDP was shredded by R4.2 billion, Fitzjohn and Swart are not discouraged.

They are excited about the possibilities the pandemic unlocked for the local industry. For instance, the opportunities created by streaming services for local content to reach international audiences.

They experienced this firsthand when their “small, independent little film” I am All Girls reached Netflix via an unexpected detour and became one of the streaming service’s most popular independent films of the year.

“Our initial plan was to release the film at the South by Southwest film festival in the USA, but that would not have ensured that a film distributor would pick it up and release in theatres,” Fitzjohn says.

“Then the pandemic hit, cinemas closed suddenly and there was a huge demand for film content. Streaming services like Netflix were forced to look for contact in places they normally wouldn’t.”

Swart, who manages Nthibah Pictures from Los Angeles, says it was a lucky break when due to the content shortage Netflix asked to see I am All Girls, a fictional film about human trafficking, before the platform eventually decided to broadcast the film on its platform.

“They were brave. They were not scared of the content. They were also not scared of the topic, and it turned out that they were the best partner to show the film,” Swart says.

“It was viewed by more than 25 million households in the first few weeks since its release. It was the second most viewed film on the platform at one stage – results that we are super happy about and what would not have been possible the traditional (in cinemas) way.”

“Informed courageousness”

Swart says their initial strategy was to show I am All Girls at various international film festivals as distributors were wary of the end product’s daring topic and hesitant to take it on.

Streaming services on the other hand, are noy scared, he says. They often accept high quality content that divides audiences and drive opposing views.

Streaming services have a unsatiable demand for content. For that reason, they do not shy away from controversial content because they know there will always be millions of viewers who will want to see it.

“The algorithms also give them power – they know what people watch and what they want to see. They use this to empower themselves.”

“We have incredible film industry skills in South Africa but there is a tendency to say, ‘this is a great programme for a South African audience’ or ‘this film is of a South African standard’. I must correct them and tell them: “Get rid of the constraint ‘for South Africa’; rather create ‘for the world’.

Simon Swart “

The courageousness also makes it possible for producers to break the ‘rules’ in the production process, something that was not possible previously.

“We exceeded the standard budget – our budget was much larger than the typical budget for a South African film. We looked at human trafficking, a global problem, that people tend to shy away from.

“We not only had two South Africans actors in lead roles that we hoped would be popular worldwide, but we also had two women (Erica Wessels and Hlubi Mboya) in this action drama who are both older than 40.

“On top of that it is an independent film (not connected to any big film studio).”

Despite that the end product impressed Netflix, he says.

“And you know what,” Fitzjohn adds, “after our collaboration with Netflix we can confirm that they did everything they said they would. Every promise was honoured. It was just wonderful to work with them – Ben Amadasun and his team at Netflix – and to rely on what is being said.

“We will collaborate with them again in a heartbeat.”

“Hollywood is just a postal code”

This international collaboration and the creation of content for an international audience is the future, according to Fitzjohn and Swart.

“We now operate in a global economy,” SA born Swart, who qualified as an accountant at the former University of Natal but then gained two decades of experience in the film industry mostly at the US film giant 20th Century Fox, says.

“Hollywood is just a postal code – films are produced all over the world. We in South Africa need to start making films for the global audience. We have incredible film industry skills in South Africa but there is a tendency to say, ‘this is a great programme for a South African audience’ or ‘this film is of a South African standard’. I must correct them and tell them: Get rid of the constraint ‘for South Africa’; rather create ‘for the world’.”

He notes that South Africa is the Rainbow Nation with a diverse audience. Film and television producers restrict themselves by creating content for a small portion of this audience.

Fitzjohn agrees. “If you create content only for this or that South African audience, the chances are good that you will reach only 0,02% of the global audience. Why would you want to do that?”

They believe it is more important to create content with an eye on the American market as 90% of the world market is found there. The content can be in Afrikaans or any of the other official languages.

“South Korea is a great and inspiring example,” Swart says. “Content from there and the rest of Asia is widely streamed. All of it with sub-titles but it is great content with engaging stories and millions of viewers are watching it.”

They are convinced: If the South Koreans can do it, so can South Africans.

SA can follow New Zealand

Fitzjohn and Swart says their ambition is not only encouraging local film producers to create content for international audiences, but also to lure Hollywood to South Africa. This is part of Nthibah’s DNA since its establishment in 2017 – “Nthibah’ is a Hebrew word that roughly translates to “we stand on the shoulders of giants and learn from them”.

Fitzjohn, who has worked in the financial services and technology sectors for two decades before he realised his dream to create a production company, says he and Swart and the rest of the Nthibah team were students of the “Peter Jackson story” (Jackson is an Oscar-winning director from New Zealand) from the start.

“Before Peter Jackson there was nothing in New Zealand. After The Lord of the Rings (which Jackson directed and filmed in New Zealand) 2 800 micro, small and medium sized enterprises were created, and the New Zealand film suddenly started contributing $3bn per annum to that country’s GDP.

“If New Zealand can do it so can we!”

Swart says there are South African producers who create content for local audiences and international producers who come to SA to produce content for mostly international audiences but that there are no role players who build bridges between local and international producers so that together they can build a ‘virtual film studio’ and create content for international audiences in SA – Nthibah wants to take that on.

They say they cannot emphasize enough how “world class” South African talent in front of and behand the camera is, and the scenic beauty that is by far the best in the world.

There are, however, a few challenges to create a “satellite office” for Hollywood in SA, amongst others the fact that there is a shortage of direct flights between world cities like Los Angeles, New York, London, and SA, the delays with payments of the department of trade and industry’s film subsidies and the limited space in SA studios.

“You can only find a slot at a Cape Town film studio in 2023 but this is not going to deter us to make an effort to make the local film industry five to ten times its current size,” Swart says.

“We do need space,” Fitzjohn adds. “There are only so many places in SA where a film set can be built. For our next feature film, we need to build fifteen sets and it is a logistical nightmare.”

“There are enough spaces in Cape Town that we believe can be converted to five or six additional studios with sufficient investment. We now know from our experience with international film bosses that they will come to South Africa if such studios are built.

“If the government wants to create 500 000 job opportunities it must build these studios; the world will come.”

According to them the realisation of this dream will boost the SA economy hugely. They experienced this on a small scale when the feature film Redeeming Love was filmed in SA. The film’s production took 40 days and was done days before the first lockdowns came into effect.

“With only a handful of studios in Cape Town the SA Revenue Service will go crazy with the money flooding in” Fitzjohn chuckles.

“Nina Dobrev (who plays a leading role in Redeeming Love) visited a cheetah reserve during the filming, took a photo of herself and shared on her Instagram profile. The reserve’s followers doubled within 12 hours. The publicity that superstars with between 8 and 25 million followers can generate, cannot be equaled.

“Just think what will happen if 1 000 films are produced in SA and superstars come to the country in droves!”

Follow your film dream

Fitzjohn and Swart says although the film industry is currently under strain, they will encourage anyone to pursue a career in the industry.

“Get involved, take any job you can find, even if you are only a driver – this will help you create a network to develop your career,” Swart says.

“If you are a content creator, create content. Every little project is experience that will bring you closer to your dream.”

“And refine, refine, refine,” says Fitzjohn. “The more you practice the better and more resilient you will become. We have seen that resilience.”

Swart says there is unfortunately no silver bullet to accelerate career development in the industry. “It does happen, but it is rare. Nearly all the big Hollywood stars build their careers slowly but surely. We absolutely want more South Africans to achieve that. Africa has always had some of the best story tellers in the world, it is high time that the international spotlight shines on that.

“I know the pandemic has confused many and that no one is certain what the future holds but believe me there is no better time than now to create content.”

Fitzjohn agrees. “I have no doubt that SA can become one of the biggest film destinations in the world. But we must do it together – the government, the film industry, the media, and movie lovers.

“Let’s be enthusiastic. Yes, there are challenges but damn we can do it – of that I am certain.”

Afrikaans original, as published by Netwerk24, 12 November 2021: Dit is nou SA se kans om Hollywood-trekpleister te word.