This is the story of businessman Ronnie Apteker, his money and his expensive passion. A man sharp enough to get in early on the internet boom in Africa’s biggest economy; a man wise enough to have sold out before the market became crowded, three years later, for $55 million. He doesn’t know how much he is worth, but does admit he never has to work again.
This is also a man who has lost nearly $7 million in 11 years, chasing the elusive dream of fathering a blockbuster movie.
“I would be far wealthier if I had done nothing for the last 11 years, but my life has been richer for the risks I have taken… I love story telling. I love magic and I love trying to inspire people,” he says.
This month will see the release of a film he thinks is a winner that will compensate for the years of pain and losses. It is a low-budget film called Material, set in the gritty inner-city district of Fordsburg in Johannesburg and starring South African stand-up comedian Riaad Moosa. He says it could be a cheap and cheerful international hit like Bend it Like Beckham or Billy Elliot.
It all started in the early 1970s in Cape Town, when Apteker’s father won a 16mm film projector in a game of backgammon. From then on, Sunday night was film night at the Aptekers.
“The whole neighbourhood in Cape Town used to come in and see them. You remember those leather cases with the handles. In our rented house we used to watch Dirty Harry, The Dirty Dozen, The Guns of Navarone, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. I grew up in a movie-watching home. I watched more movies by the time I was 13 than most people watch by the time they are 30,” he says.
Apteker’s working life took a different turn. It was the internet, not movies, that became his bread and butter. In 1993, he founded Internet Solutions in the days when 99.9% of South Africans didn’t know even what it was.
“People used to phone us and say the internet is broken, or they used to ask who they can email. I used to give them my email address and they used to email me because they had no one else to email!” he laughs.
The internet made Apteker a fortune before he was 30. Then he tried a much harsher business—movies.
“If you build a cheap house, you can sell it for half price and get some money back. If you make a bad movie, you may not sell one ticket and lose everything. You can even end up owing money. It is not a normal business, it’s like a casino.”
Apteker started writing scripts in 1996 and the first film came in 2000—a 95-minute movie shot in Los Angeles called Purpose, the tale of the battle for the soul of a young entrepreneur working in California’s Silicon Valley.
“A lot of people said it reminded them of The Social Network, but sadly, it wasn’t as good,” says Apteker.
The film didn’t do well. It cost $8 million and Apteker was lucky enough to claw back $3 million by selling it to distributors Lakeshore International.
A string of homegrown movies with limited success followed, including: Jerusalema, The Flyer and Crazy Monkey: Straight Outta Benoni.
Fast forward to the latest offering, Material, starring South African comic flavor-of-the-month, Moosa. In many ways, the film mirrors his own life. In a nutshell, Material is the story of a father who wants his son to stick to his day job—that is, running the family store—instead of telling jokes on stage.
In real life, Moosa also gave his day job the slip. He trained as a doctor at the University of Cape Town and carried out his internship at Natalspruit Hospital, near Johannesburg, before settling down to practise as a GP in Cape Town for a couple of years.
The draw of the stage proved too strong and in the evenings, Moosa was cracking around the small theatres of the Western Cape. He had no illusions and already knew what it felt like to “die”—as the actors say—on stage.
“It used to happen a lot when I was younger. The most difficult time was when I was doing magic in high school. It was comedy magic. I had studied at the College of Magic in Cape Town. I was supposed to make a ball fly across the stage—there was a wire involved. There was a dude taking photos with flash and every time the flash went off, you could see the washing line across the stage. I was trying to make it dramatic and it was obvious. I heard one little girl say: ‘There is a wire there, mum!’ At that moment, I thought ‘I had another eight minutes to go of this sham.”
Material is Moosa’s first foray into film and he identifies with his character. “I am really proud of it. I think when people watch, they will laugh and cry. They will be challenged.”
So what happens if Moosa makes it to Hollywood and the big time? He pledges not to let success go to his head.
“What is this fame thing? One minute you are normal, the next minute you are shaving your head on the cover of Heat magazine. One minute you are normal, the next you are getting an 18-year-old pregnant. I prefer driving home at night and getting shouted at by my wife… I shouldn’t let it go to my head; I think through medicine you face reality head on.”
Apteker believes any success would be a good thing and refuses to give up his movie quest, whatever the cost.
“It is an obsession. I have got to get this right. It is like you either get this right or die trying. There is no middle ground in love, there is no middle ground in art. There is no middle ground when you are an entrepreneur—you either win or go home in a coffin,” he says.
Well, Is It Any Good?
There is mistrust when it comes to homegrown cinema. Everyone has waited long for the great African movie—maybe, just maybe, Material is it. So says Rea Bantseke, who went to the preview screening in Sandton, near Johannesburg.
The story is simple. A young Muslim man wants to become a stand-up comedian, but has to do it behind his family’s back because it clashes with their culture. The movie examines clearly the struggle of a Muslim family to uphold its traditions in 21st century South Africa.
I was looking for the mistakes and the glitches, but there was nothing. The movie is shot beautifully and it makes you feel like you are part of the family. The story flows and is well told.
Everyone will have something that they can identify with in this movie. It will make you laugh, it will make you question, it will bring a tear to your eye.
This unique movie is hard to classify as a genre because it fuses drama, romance and comedy. It is likely to appeal to all ages. Material will leave you with hope that if this story can see the light of day, there must be many more.