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Will Cinema Just Disappear?

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South Africa’s local film industry is becoming a serious economic player, but for all the advances in technology, film distribution has become far more complex. We delve into whether theatrical releases are still feasible.


There’s the old ADAGE that “there must be money in film”, but research and interviews this reporter conducted recently revealed a complex and tricky new system that needs to be simplified and explained.

The biggest question remains, why do it? What are the models for making money?

There must be money being made somewhere since the South African and African film industry and box office seems to be thriving. The time has come to demystify one very specific area of the business of film and this is distribution.

A brief explanation of distribution is in order before we delve into the technological advancements that have disrupted the entire industry over the last few years.

Distribution is defined as the release of a completed film. Back in the 1980s, 1990s and up until the late 2000s, the process was fairly simple; write the script, get the funding or studio backing, shoot the film, post-produce the film and have a distributor release the film to cinemas, then video or DVD and ultimately television.

The process is no longer that simple. One of the major reasons for the more complex distribution model these days is the advent of high-end digital technology.

Back in the day, about a decade or so ago, all films were projected on 35mm film. The origination format was irrelevant but the final product was always 35mm projection. Now, although 35mm has its advantages, it also has its flaws.

It was both cumbersome and expensive. Prints of film cost anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 per print, then there was the delivery costs associated with the prints, as well as the fact that after a certain period of time, the prints would be damaged and/or ruined – due to their organic nature, film as a medium does degrade over time.

The advent of high-definition cameras in the early 2000s and ultimately 4K and 5K cameras in the last five years changed everything.

Cinemas decided to adopt a new standard, the Digital Cinema Print (DCP). A DCP is a digital file that, much like a film print, consists of a variety of digital stills and sound files that are sequenced and recognized by the digital projectors that cinema owners have now equipped their cinemas with.

The file can be either in 2K or 4K depending on the projection system that’s available.

The cost of the digital conversion from the old 35mm projectors was astronomical, so much so, that the cinema owners, locally and internationally, had to be subsidized by what’s now become known as a virtual print fee. This has effectively replaced the old 35mm print fee and is cheaper, ranging from $750 per screen to $2,000 per screen.

Helen Kuun from Indigenous Film Distribution in South Africa has some insights on this.

“When the world converted to the DCP system, all that equipment had to be funded by two banks in the world who funded it because it was around R1.5 million ($110,000) per screen to the software and hardware conversion.

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“So the exhibitors put up as much money as they could and then Arts Alliance Ventures put up the rest of the money; everywhere in the world, they are there for digital conversion as a bank, so that digital print goes straight to them to pay off the digital equipment. But there is an end in sight, it’s November of 2020.”

The financial burden has now been placed on the distributor who owns the film to pay the virtual print fee to screen it. This has become an additional rather large expense, thereby reducing profit margins for the filmmakers and their respective distributors.

If you want to put your film into 100 cinemas, at $650 per cinema, that’s $65,000, and this is more than the entire budget of some South African feature films.

Also, the exhibitors are keeping on average 55% of your box office receipts on top of all these fees and this excludes print and advertising costs.

The burden of profit is far greater than it used to be, even though it’s become cheaper than ever to produce a film with 4K production and projection available to almost all.

“You have to structure your funding. You need to source money from more than one place in the world. You can tap into various structures of soft funding and then you can have two environments of recoupable funding. If you’re spending, say R10 million ($732,000), you should be able to, quite easily have not more than 60% of your budget recoupable due to soft money,” Kuun says.

Due to the complex nature of the business structures behind the independent film world, this is often times why the cinema market is flooded with mainstream Hollywood releases and not local independents.

We spoke to Ben Crowley, CEO of Gravel Road Media in Cape Town, who’s a South African and international distributor, about the merits of a theatrical release. Is it still feasible?

“Releasing a film theatrically is not necessarily the start and the end of the film. It’s a very important part of the life of a film, certainly if you’re wanting to drive other sales because a good theatrical performance will drive your home entertainment sales, it will drive your pay TV price, it can influence your initial batch of marketing that happens, creating awareness around the project, so it is important especially with the higher budget films. One shouldn’t be naïve thinking you can do a high budget film and then release it straight to TV or VOD (video on demand) platforms,” he says.

The truth is this money is being made in the process of windowing.

It would be remiss of me not to mention that South Africa’s local film industry is becoming a serious economic player, having contributed R5.4 billion ($395 million) to the GDP during the 2016/17 financial year.

The research was gathered from an economic impact assessment study commissioned by the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF).

With the Department of Trade and Industry’s filmmaking incentive schemes and rebates in place, production has been taking place swiftly in South Africa over the course of the last four to five years. Let’s face it, a 40% rebate on all local revenue spent is an attractive offer to any producer, because it’s soft money.

There are also various regional film commission incentives around the country and the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) Film Commission is one such office making a viable swing for the stars in terms of what they’re offering for development in the province. We spoke to Carol Coetzee, the CEO of the KZN Film Commission.

“We are a fully-funded government organization, funded by the Department of Economic, Tourism and Environment Affairs and we have a very clear mandate. First of all, we look at promoting the region (KZN) as a destination for productions and secondly, we focus on the KZN film industry and how we facilitate the development. One of those areas is through the funding of film productions so we fund right from the beginning of development through to production right through to marketing and distribution and we’ve got about 160 projects on our portfolio at the moment.

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“We’ve had about 26 productions that have been completed in the last four years, that’s how long we’ve been around. We really have quite an interesting selection process. We want to have a balance of historical artistic films but we also want to have a balance of films that are going to be commercially viable but our focus is KZN stories so they get priority,” Coetzee says.

But where are these films being seen?  They’re certainly not all at your local cinema complex. You also can’t find many of them on physical media (DVD or Blu-ray) but where you can find them is the new on-demand platforms like Amazon, Netflix, Showmax, DSTV Box Office, Cell C Black and many others and across specialist local television channels like Mzansi Magic and KykNET.

With the death of physical media, the video-on-demand platforms have become the go-to for independent filmmakers and, let’s face it, all African filmmakers encompass the word independent.

We spoke to Crowley of Gravel Road about their distribution arm.

“We work with all the major VOD platforms, so your Netflix, Showmax… there’s a plethora of VOD platforms that are popping up. Some are better than others, some pay more, some pay less. When you’re trying to build a relationship with anyone, you’ve got to get to know who the buyers are.

“VOD is all about volume as well, so the amount of content and the quality of content that you’re pushing through to them as well. Eventually you become a reliable supplier of good quality content.

“It’s not something that anyone can do and it’s not something that a filmmaker should want to be doing. Filmmakers should concentrate on making movies and let distributors who have these relationships deal with it because it’s a very complex side of the film business, when you’re dealing with rights and how they’re carved up amongst the different platforms. It’s really not for the faint-hearted.”

We also asked Crowley  as to whether or not he thought film was still a viable revenue stream or business model.

“I think film is still viable, it just really comes down to doing your research and knowing who your market is. What you find is that filmmakers often go and make a movie without thinking about their market.

“You have to take the reverse approach. So, first think about your market, what does the market want and then produce for that market and also know what the buying power of your market is. So, if your market is a hundred people strong you can’t go and make a movie that’s going to cost a hundred million rand.”

A logical approach, but there’s a conflict of interest with exhibitors. Exhibitors want big box office returns and instant gratification and they seem to propagate the myth that only Hollywood or big action adventure superhero films can deliver these numbers with an attractive young cast, which you’ll have to compete directly against.

Crowley offers another solution – local content quotas.

“Local content quotas would be a good idea from a local circuit perspective because what that will do is it will open up the market to a lot more South African content because we need to get our audiences used to watching more local content theatrically.

“I think more so what should actually happen is also to have a levy or a tax on all the international films that get released in this market, where a small percentage of that box office taking actually gets allocated back into the industry by some sort of fund that’s administered by the NFVF or some other body so we can further develop our industry. It’s worked excellently in France.”

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So what then do you do with your finished film to pay back those investors to whom you’ve promised the earth. This is where the term windowing comes into play – it is the gradual platform release of your film to various forms of media over a period of two years. This is the life of the film.

Step one is to secure your theatrical release and prepare yourself for the fact that you’re probably not going to make any money at this stage. Your exhibitor is going to take a minimum of 55% of the receipts, which leaves you with about 45% of the box office gross, then your distributor is going to take off their expenses for releasing your film off the balance before you see a cent.

These figures can amount to millions; including things like advertising and virtual print fees per screen. You’d need to try and keep the costs down and secure as much free publicity as possible but the chances of you actually making any kind of return on investment at the South African box office are slim to none, unless you have the kind of hit that transcends all markets locally, it’s highly unlikely though.

You’re left with the video-on-demand platforms and television stations, which your distributor will approach for you. The key to making money seems to be to get an international buyout from one of the big international on-demand platforms like Netflix, Shudder, Hulu and Amazon.

Research reveals even these license figures vary wildly; anywhere from $10,000 to $250,000.

VOD platforms are broken down into several sub -categories: TVOD (Transactional Video on Demand). This is a service like iTunes, where you rent or buy a specific film; SVOD (Subscription Video on Demand). These are subscription-based monthly services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Showmax and so on; then there’s AVOD (Advertiser Video on Demand). Free video on-demand services that have commercials peppering their content, an example of this would be TubiTV.

Windowing reveals that an ideal strategy would be to keep a two- to three-month gap between releases on each one of these services for maximum impact. After you’ve hit the VOD platforms, there are hundreds of TV channels crying for content, again the figures aren’t big in terms of rights but if you take the sheer volume of platforms available today, windowing your film can become a potential goldmine.

All the VOD platforms and TV stations take into account whether or not you’ve had a theatrical release in your country of origin since that automatically pushes the value of your film up. So although you won’t be making any money off the theatrical release it’s still something important to secure since it increases the value of your film down the line in the distribution window chain.

Kuun has some encouraging but sobering words.

“The good thing is volumes of content are increasing across the board worldwide because there are so many more places to host it but it doesn’t mean that every single piece of content that goes out there is watched by millions of people, so every platform has its place. Cinema will always be there, I don’t personally think it will just disappear, it will always have a place because it’s about going out and having a communal experience.”

With the sheer volume of platforms and windows available to you and with a good marketing plan, the opportunity is still there to make some serious cash, it just takes patience and happens strategically.

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The Art Of Survival: The Art Of Adire Gave This Textile Artist Global Fame, She Now Educates Generations Of Women In Nigeria

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Textile artist Nike Davies-Okundaye worked as a construction laborer and carried water and firewood to survive. The art of adire gave her global fame and she is now educating generations of women in Nigeria.

There was no way Nike Davies-Okundaye could look the other way. For after all, she too had been a victim in her early teens. 

Too many women were being pushed down the traditional path of marriage and child-rearing in her country.

Born in 1951 in Ogidi-Ijumu, a small village in western Nigeria known for its spectacular rock formations and traditional art industry, Davies-Okundaye resolved to fight this practice four decades ago.

“By the age of 13, they wanted to marry me off because my father had no money. I had to run away from home and join a traveling theater. I said I didn’t want to marry and wanted to pursue art,” recalls the internationally-renowned Lagos-based artist.

Not wanting to become one of six wives to a minister, Davies-Okundaye found her escape through adire, the name given to the Yoruba craft of tie-and-dye where indigo-dyed cloth is made using a variety of resist-dyeing techniques. Growing up in a predominantly art and craft household, Davies-Okundaye is a fifth-generation artist who decided to take the craft seriously due to poverty.

“I had no money to go to school and the first education parents give you is to teach you what they do. So, when I finished primary six and I had no support to go to secondary school, I said to myself, ‘let me master art so I can teach other women to also use their hand to make a living through their own artwork’.”

Davies-Okundaye was forced to work in the male-dominated construction sector, carrying concrete in pans to builders in order to save one shilling, just enough to buy a yard of fabric to create what she called wall-hanging art.

Her goal was to use the traditional wax-resist methods to design patterned fabric in a dazzling array of tints and hues. The adire design is the result of hand-painted work carried out mostly by women and through that, Davies-Okundaye saw a way to help women to become economically empowered. After all, her first break in life came as a result of that.

“There was no other job I was doing apart from adire. I was lucky the American government came to Nigeria to recruit an African who will teach African Americans how to make traditional textiles or crafts in the state. That is how I was lucky and got picked.”

Davies-Okundaye was the only woman in a class of 10 men who were flown to Maine in northeastern United States in 1974. That is where her whole outlook on life changed.

“Before I went to America, I used to carry three drums of water every day and carry firewood to be able to survive. It was like a breakthrough in my life when I reached America. I said ‘is this heaven?’ I was the only woman in the class and all the men were learning women’s looms and I kept telling them ‘this is for women’ and they said ‘yes, in America, what a man can do, a woman can also do’.”

This was in stark contrast to what she knew to be true in Nigeria at the time.

“If your husband is an artist, you are not allowed to do art. In the 1960s, if your husband has a PhD, you are not allowed to also have a PhD. You had to give room for your husband to be your boss.”

She decided to beat those age-old stereotypes.

As one of 15 wives to her then-husband at the time, Davies-Okundaye, with her newfound knowledge gained in America, started a revolution at home. She encouraged the other wives to create their own art business using adire.

“I said ‘if you learn this, you can earn a living by yourself and get your power because your money is your power’ and that is how they also started learning it. I didn’t stop sharing the knowledge there. I gathered girls on the streets who were selling kola nuts and peanuts and started training them. I said ‘if this textile can take me to America, let me teach other people’,” says Davies-Okundaye.

And that has been her calling ever since. Davies-Okundaye is the founder and director of four art centers, which offer free training to 150 young artists in Nigeria in visual, musical and performing arts.

One of the centers is the largest art gallery in West Africa comprising over 7,000 art works.

“They used to get the police to arrest me because they said I was trying to teach feminism in Nigeria because I went to America. They said I was going to corrupt our Nigerian women but I believe God sent me to liberate a lot of women who have the passion for what makes them happy but are afraid to do it because of what people will say. I say do what makes you happy always!”

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Why This Photographer Looked Up During The Lockdown

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Steven Benjamin chose to focus on the bird life in his garden in Cape Town to escape the confines of the lockdown.

During South Africa’s five-week shutdown (the country is still on Level 4 restrictions), Cape Town-born underwater photographer Steven Benjamin more used to sharks, whales and dolphins, used the period to look up instead – and indulge in bird-watching, another passion of his.

“Ever since the age of five or six, I have been interested in birds. I was dyslexic as a young child and I still have my first bird book where I ‘ticked’ backwards. I was trying to identify the birds that flew into my pre-school class and begged my mom to let me mark off what I’d seen, so birding has always been a passion,” says Benjamin, who also runs a seal-snorkeling business.

He has spent his life capturing South Africa’s marine world, and now, Benjamin had to redirect his focus to his Kalk Bay garden during the lockdown to photograph Cape Town’s resident birdlife.

He says photographing these feathered beauties is a way to bring joy during these uncertain times.

“They are so beautiful but incredibly difficult to photograph because they are shy and extremely fast. Photographing birds is a challenge but it creates a mental space to observe and admire nature.”

Soon after the lockdown started, Benjamin put white sugar in his bird feeder every morning and enjoyed the sight of local birds and documented them. He posted the images on Instagram and that garnered some online attention.

“The lockdown has made me relax and take the time to do things I would never have gotten around to doing. I settled on this project, which I work on every day. I’m always adding something new to the scene and there are always new birds and interactions happening. It’s made the days fly by,” he says.

During the lockdown, there was only one male Cape Sugar Bird that landed in his garden. This spectacular bird is unique to South Africa and mostly only found in the Western Cape. All of this will go into an exhibition Benjamin is working towards in Cape Town.

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‘Our Home Became The Film Set, Blankets Became Props, Windows Became Locations’

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A poem exclusively penned and performed in lockdown in the US for the readers of FORBES AFRICA, by Rwandan artist Malaika Uwamahoro.

Malaika Uwamahoro, an artist born in Rwanda, and a Theatre Studies BA graduate from Fordham University in New York City, has performed her own poetry on stages around the world including at the United Nations headquarters in New York, and at the African Union summits in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) and Kigali (Rwanda).

In 2014, she made her Off-Broadway debut at Signature Theatre in the world premiere of Katori Hall’s Our Lady of Kibeho.

Currently resident in Portland, Maine, in the United States, she speaks to FORBES AFRICA about her life in lockdown, and about a poem she penned exclusively for the readers of the magazine: “To fight this pandemic, essential workers and medical doctors are doing their best on the frontlines to ensure everyone in need gets the necessary support and best care possible… Before we are all choked and out of breath just by thinking about this, I extend this poetry piece as an invitation to look inward.”

How did she come up with the poem, titled I Don’t Mind!, and its accompanying video?

“It was late in the night, my fiancé was fast asleep, and I thought to myself, ‘how do I really feel about all this, what are my true thoughts about this pandemic, what can I do’? I opened my notes and the words began to flow.”

A few days later, she shared the poem with her fiancé, Christian Kayiteshonga, a filmmaker.

“We had previously been pondering ways to make art in our home. This poem seemed like the perfect push to set us in our new path. Our home became the film set, using blankets and cake mix as props, windows and office space as locations, myself as the talent, him as the crew, and now you as the audience,” says Uwamahoro, who also performed for the ‘In the Spotlight’ segment at the FORBES WOMAN AFRICA Leading Women Summit in Durban, South Africa, on March 6.

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