It's an industry most people never get to see in action but brings millions of dollars into Africa each year. Movies are fast becoming big business with the value of the rand making it even more attractive. American producer Dexter Davis is here to find African talent and turn them into Hollywood stars. By Jay Caboz
Every day, there is a small corner of Africa that is Hollywood. The economy of South Africa may be struggling, but its movie industry is on the up. This is because the weakness of the rand is making production costs cheaper to shoot big budget films.
A string of blockbusters were made here: The Dark Tower; Avengers: Age of Ultron;Maze Runner: The Death Cure; and Tomb Raider, all made amid Africa's rolling scenery, state-of-the-art studios and by skilled homegrown technicians. It could be so beautiful except...
"[The] trouble is international producers are not casting African talent in their films, so African and South African actors are not participating or benefiting from the exchange... It's high time for South African talent and stories to get out of the shadow of their American and European counterparts."
So says Dexter Davis, American-born producer and founder of D Street Media Group, who has produced a number of movies in South Africa. He believes Cape Town could be the training ground for a new generation of homegrown stars, destined for Hollywood, in the footsteps of Lupita Nyong'o and Charlize Theron.
"I call South Africa the new frontier, especially when it comes to an abundance of under-saturated talent. Being so geographically far from the US, the world has not been exposed to the level of amazing South African talent that I have. There are many more Charlize Therons, Dave Matthews, Pearl Thusis out there waiting to be discovered," says Davis.
Davis is here with his latest film The Blue Mauritius. The movie, which echoes Ocean's Eleven and The Italian Job, is about five international thieves who meet in Cape Town planning to steal one of the most valuable stamps in the world, believed to be worth $11 million.
"The idea for the film came from me actually... I was living in Berlin to set up our German subsidiary of D Street. One day I met with my accountant and he mentioned he was going to The Museum for Communication in Berlin after our meeting to see a famous stamp called the Blue Mauritius. He talked about the history and mystery behind the stamp and because I had been thinking about one day producing a heist film, I immediately went home to research the stamp."
The location was to be Canada, Davis switched to Africa because it offered more bang for his buck.
"I met a couple of South African producers in Cannes in 2015 who wanted to work with me and vice versa. We were planning to shoot The Blue Mauritius in Canada, but the budget was too high. They suggested shooting the film in South Africa as it would be less expensive. I was thrilled with the idea and thought not only would we shoot the film there, but I would change the script to be very South African in terms of the story," says Davis.
"The story could take place in any big city with a skyline, museums, chic hotels and restaurants. Cape Town definitely has all that. The beauty of Cape Town is really one of the stars in the film and I can't wait for the world to see it through our lens."
Every movie has its fair share of glitches; The Blue Mauritius also has its low watermark. Filming was set for August, but was pushed until 2018 when lead actor Eric Dane, 'McSteamy' from Grey's Anatomy, withdrew because of depression.
"I can talk about it openly because he was very public about it. He took time off to get better so that obviously affected our production. We're recasting now and looking at March 2018 as our new start date."
Back on track with its California-based production partner, Benaroya Pictures, the film has a new member of the cast - Anthony Mackie, the American superstar from the The Hurt Locker as well as Captain America and Avengers.
"Anthony Mackie, who I consider a real movie star, brings such a fresh perspective to the cast and the character, he's an incredibly talented, versatile actor who truly takes the project to the next level."
The Blue Mauritius will test D Street's promise to identify stars in Africa. The producers cast South African actors Deon Lotz, Pearl Thusi and Nicola Breytenbach in principal roles, alongside international stars John Rhys-Davies, Gerard Depardieu and Thomas Kretschmann.
"Think about Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o in Twelve Years a Slave No one knew who she was before the movie, but by being in a film with Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender and Chiwetel Ejiofor, she not only got the attention of the Academy voters which ultimately lead to the Oscar, but that film alone catapulted her to instant stardom," says Davis.
What goes a long way for African actors is speaking English. Davis says their accents, regardless of race, are much more palatable to American ears.
"With these advantages, I feel there is no reason why South African talent cannot do what British, Australian or New Zealand actors have done for decades. They drop their accents, do very convincing American accents, star in American films and become household names around the world."
Davis, who came to South Africa in 2009, was hooked by its beauty and its people. Eight years on, he has produced South African-based film Musiek vir die Agtergrond, and his distribution arm, D Street Releasing, acquired another Afrikaans film, Roepman, for the US market. He has also signed up for the long haul with plans to build a movie studio in the small town of Port Shepstone, 120 kilometers south of Durban, currently undergoing a feasibility study
"I decided on Port Shepstone to fill in for Mauritius and Cape Town for most of the production, because I absolutely love that city. It's probably my favourite city on the planet and it so leans itself wonderfully to a sexy, international heist film."
Davis intends to develop even more content with South African storylines, while utilizing American and African talent in leading roles. The company's relationship to Hollywood is imperative to the success of the model.
"The way we see growth happening in the South African film industry is from the outside in. Indeed, creating a star system will be a huge part of that, but more importantly we think utilizing America's more than 40,000 screens as a home for South African films is strategic and central to the plan. If France can generate an almost $100 million annual box-office take in America, there's no reason why South African films can't do at least half that business," says Davis.
As African companies catch up to the US film industry, South Africa needs to prove it is an attractive destination for international filmmakers. According to the PwC report 'Entertainment and Media Outlook: 2017-2021', South Africa's film sector presents a mixed picture.
While incentives for filming in the country are positive, the report says short-term economic issues are beginning to take effect, one of them being the financial crisis facing the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). The SABC is a pillar of African content creation.
It also needs more bums in cinemas watching locally produced films to fuel the market. Trends are predominantly upward despite a forecast decline in box office in 2017, down from a record high of R1.2 billion ($85 million) in 2016 to R1.1 billion ($78 million) in 2017. One of the reasons for the slight dip was a reduction in films released. Local film releases were down by nearly a third in the first half of 2017 compared to the same period in 2016.
"South Africa has a population of nearly 60 million people I believe, and only has 800 screens to serve the population. If you compare that with the UK which has about the same amount of people, but has over 4,000 screens, then one can see the disparity," says Davis.
The report says overall revenue, including box office and cinema advertising, will continue to rise and is forecast to reach R2.2 billion ($156 million) in 2021, up from R1.9 billion ($135 million) in 2016, a compound annual growth rate of 3.7%.
"South Africa in my opinion is a service industry, and a wonderful one with a lot of talented people who know how to make movies with very high production value... it's the quality and talent of the labor that keeps international producers coming back to make movies in your backyard."
Davis also believes it won't be long before movie lovers can see a film shot completely in Africa, using African actors, becoming a worldwide blockbuster.
"There are a number of amazing South African directors, like Gavin Hood and writer, director Donovan Marsh, who are working in the United States and elsewhere that are very capable making films entirely shot in South Africa, with African stars. Directors like Sallas de Jager, Daryne Joshua and Jahmil X.T. Qubeka are waiting to take their place in the international arena and have the directing chops to get the job done," says Davis.
It's all about Africa thinking bigger and wanting to be a global player.
"The country has the talent and the knowhow. Hopefully it has the will to be bold as it has in other industries. Obviously, D Street wants to be a big part of that."
From Port Shepstone to Hollywood, to infinity and beyond.