South African producers have struck a string of international co-production deals in recent months that are poised to push scripted drama series from the Rainbow Nation onto the global stage. By Christopher Vourlias
"We're very excited about the opportunity to take African stories to the world," says Yolisa Phahle, CEO for general entertainment at the MultiChoice Group, which includes pay-TV heavyweight DStv and the M-Net group of channels. "It's all about finding the biggest, best and leading producers of drama in the world to help us distribute our stories."
MultiChoice is planning to develop three to four scripted drama series with international partners per year. In development are "Trackers," a six-part TV adaptation of the novel by bestselling South African author Deon Meyer, which is being produced with German broadcaster ZDF; and "Reyka," a crime series it's producing with the U.K.'s Serena Cullen Prods. and Emmy-nominated South African production company Quizzical Pictures, which will be distributed by Fremantle Intl.
In a show of confidence in the local TV biz, Netflix has commissioned its first two South African series: "Queen Sono," starring veteran actress Pearl Thusi ("Quantico") as a secret agent, and the teen drama "Blood & Water." It also swooped up global rights for "Shadow," a locally produced series about an ex-cop with super powers searching for redemption while fighting crime in the underworld of Johannesburg.
Gareth Crocker, "Shadow's" writer and co-director, says that the raft of new buyers entering the South African market "is providing some welcome and long-overdue competition for content." In the case of his show, that meant executive producers could bypass local broadcasters -- the most surefire way to finance a series in South Africa -- in order to retain rights for a show they believed had global potential.
"Producers have more of an option and can be slightly more discerning as to where they place their shows," he says. "Now that we have established our own credentials ... we're certainly looking to expand our own horizons."
With the spate of recent deals, Quizzical's Harriet Gavshon says there's been a noticeable shift away from South Africa's established locations biz, which has serviced the likes of Starz's "Black Sails" and Netflix's "Black Mirror," toward homegrown stories.
"South Africa has always been a good playground for service provision ... because we've got very good skills here. But people have had to compromise the product to cater for a global audience," she says. "Whereas now, we're talking about work that's generated by ... South African writers, which I think is a very important development."
One prime example is "The Girl From St. Agnes," a murder mystery series set at an elite South African boarding school, which was produced by Quizzical with MultiChoice's Showmax SVOD service and is being repped by Red Arrow at MipTV.
Another highly anticipated project is "Resolution 418," an apartheid-era miniseries based on the true story of the sabotage of a nuclear power plant. Developed by South Africa's Known Associates Entertainment in partnership with Gaumont and L.A.-based Ideas for Film, it will be directed by acclaimed helmer Oliver Schmitz.
The surge in outward-looking series comes at a natural time in the era of global drama. But it also comes as local networks struggle to spread their own wings. Public broadcaster SABC has been mired in scandals and budget woes for nearly a decade, while cash shortfalls at private networks have diminished the ambitions of an industry that once served up powerful dramas in the early years after apartheid.
"I don't think [local broadcasters] have ever seen themselves as people that could finance content that not only sits on their platforms but [also] can travel -- that they can monetize across the planet," says Kagiso Lediga, creator and director of "Queen Sono." "The content has become quite narrow in its scope."
For an industry that's known for making the most of the limited resources at its disposal, the arrival of Netflix and other global players will offer a much-needed boost, both financially and creatively. But it might also offer an opportunity for local broadcasters to reboot and rethink their own content strategies.
"These global deals take so long to get off the ground," says Gavshon, who's also developing a series with an American cable network. "We're still obviously very interested in our own audiences, too. More and more, those audiences are going to merge."