Financing African films has always required equal parts imagination and hustle, and as the global movie industry weathers its own seismic upheaval from new financing and distribution challenges, filmmakers on the continent are learning to adapt on the fly. By Christopher Vourlias
That was the takeaway of a Durban FilmMart panel July 21, where Dayo Ogunyemi, an investor and founder of 234 Media; Chioma Onyenwe, a producer and the director of the Africa Int'l. Film Festival; Todd Brown, head of international acquisitions at XYZ Films; and Michael Auret, a producer with Spier Films, reckoned with the transformation in how filmmakers today are forced to do business.
"The pre-sales market is becoming progressively harder and harder," said Brown, whose company was the North American sales agent for recent South African fest hits "Five Fingers for Marseilles" and "Number 37," and is developing an adaptation of South African sci-fi novel "Apocalypse Now Now." "That model was effectively built in the 1980s. And distribution now is not what it was in the '80s."
New players, like VOD platforms, have so far had a marginal impact on African financing schemes. While citing brand partnerships and government funding as key sources of coin for Nigerian filmmakers, Onyenwe said most producers still finance their movies through a combination of personal investment, and loans from family and friends. Outside of the continent's most prolific film biz, the options are even more limited.
By African standards, South Africa has an embarrassment of riches, thanks to soft funds from the likes of the National Film & Video Foundation (NFVF), the Dept. of Trade & Industry (DTI), and the Industrial Development Corp. (IDC). For young black filmmakers, initiatives like the Emerging Black Filmmakers Fund, and the DTI's 50% rebate for black filmmakers, only sweeten the deal, while broadcaster M-Net pumps roughly R2 billion (around $149 million) a year into local productions.
Still, as ambitions - and budgets - rise, local filmmakers often find themselves looking for co-production partners overseas. "Trying to make a film that's just specifically for this market, or for the African market which is hard to exploit...is just too difficult," said Auret. "The theatrical market here is very small for what films are made for."
He cited examples like the Berlinale's World Cinema Fund and Rotterdam's Hubert Bals Fund as key sources of funding for African projects with international ambitions; for director Etienne Kallos' "The Harvesters," which premiered in Cannes' Un Certain Regard this year, Auret structured a complex co-production with partners in Greece, France, and Poland.
At the Berlinale earlier this year, Neil Brandt, of Fireworx Media, offered a case study on the ambitious South Africa-Brazil co-prod "The Sound of Animals Fighting," a gritty crime drama by South African helmer Sibs Shongwe-La Mer. The producer told Variety that by looking beyond the usual business models that rely on North American and European financing, the film "can give producers from the 'global south' encouragement that we...can look to colleagues around us to tell stories."
Filmmakers in Durban this week can be hopeful that new pathways for financing will emerge. With the 3rd annual BRICS Film Festival kicking off in the coastal city on July 22, all eyes will be on how the trading bloc can strengthen its cultural output through co-production treaties. South Africa is said to be in the final stages of signing a formal treaty with Brazil, while talks with China are also in advanced stages.
There's also the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, which was signed in Kigali, Rwanda, earlier this year. Joining the 55 member states of the African Union into a free-trade zone that removes tariffs on 90 percent of goods, the agreement is said to include a provision for intellectual property in its second phase, according to Ogunyemi. That move could transform collaborations in film, TV and music across the continent.
Still, said Brown, whether they're in Africa or anywhere else in the world, successful filmmakers today have to learn to "beg, borrow, and steal, and do whatever you need to do to leverage public money and soft money as far as you possibly can, and to get the market money down as low as you possibly can."
He drew on the examples of XYZ projects in Chile and Northern Ireland to show how directors working in small markets on limited budgets - challenges familiar to any African filmmaker - were able to maximize their resources by "being realistic about [those limitations] and understanding from the beginning that what your film is worth and what your film costs don't necessarily have any relationship to each other."
He explained, "Your film is worth what the market will pay for it. Your film costs as much as you can spend on it....Where things work on more contained budgets is...when people come in, and they have an understanding of here's where my audience is, here's how I'm going to approach them, here's realistically what it's worth, and then they marshal the resources."