SOUTH AFRICA PRODUCTION: Sun, sea and rising prices

Film makers have flocked to South Africa for a decade, lured by its versatility and the weak rand. But rising costs and the lack of a real industry infrastructure are cooling demand. Lisa Campbell asks how these issues are being addressed.

Since the end of Apartheid and the first democratic elections of 1994, South Africa's status as the world's pariah has all but vanished.

Formerly a no-go area, it now attracts around 6.4 million visitors per year, making it the world's fastest-growing tourist destination.

And it's not only tourists who've been seduced by its Sauvignon, safaris and sun-drenched beaches. For the past decade, it has been one of the world's leading shoot destinations, offering perfect weather, political and economic stability and incredibly versatile locations.

The chameleon-like Cape Town, for example, offers scenes as diverse as downtown LA, the bluesy buzz of New Orleans, even Edwardian England - and that's just one street. It seems you can recreate anywhere in the world for the cost of a flight.

And that's perhaps South Africa's biggest attraction: cost. The exchange rate has meant that it has been one of the most cost-competitive locations over the past decade. The Economist recently said that it is 30 to 40 per cent cheaper to film in South Africa than in Europe or the US, and 20 per cent cheaper than Australia.

And as Cape Town has increased in popularity, so too have the skills, availability and professionalism of local production and services companies, crew and talent. This is a far cry from the early days when, according to one UK producer, it was not unusual for a local DJ to be roped in as cameraman. There are now 120 production companies - one-third specialising in commercials production - servicing an industry worth around two billion rand (£161.7 million) annually. Post-production facilities in Cape Town will also be boosted by the arrival of Condor Cape Town this summer.

The 30 million rand joint venture between Condor Europe, Sasani Limited and Mike Smit aims to attract overseas post-production work, with the majority still being completed in Europe.

Yet questions are now being raised as to the long-term sustainability of South Africa's commercials production industry. The rapid growth, fuelled by international demand, has left little time to think about the fundamentals: regulation, training, government subsidies and even location fees.

The knock-on effects include spiralling costs, an industry completely unrepresentative of South Africa's racial diversity, locals suddenly demanding fees for their street/car/front door being in-shot, and a government not consulting the film industry about legislation that affects it directly.

The cost issue in particular is resulting in many international companies opting for Argentina, which is now being dubbed "the new Cape Town".

Kai Hsiung, the managing director of RSA Films, has been shooting in South Africa for years but states that four of the company's recent ads were shot in Argentina. Martin Cuff, who heads the Cape Film Commission, admits that many more jobs were lost to Argentina before Christmas, Cape Town's peak season. He also points to increasing competition from other countries such as Spain, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Mexico and Australia.

He says: "I'm not convinced our industry as a whole has taken on board the threat we're currently facing. The growth spurt has led to a perception among some service providers that the film industry has a never-ending pot of money. They need to understand that budgets are getting tighter and the kind of pay increases they enjoyed in the past are no longer sustainable."

There's much to be done, but the issues are being addressed. The Cape Film Commission, which was established in 2001 and is responsible for marketing the Cape, creating a film-friendly environment, co-ordinating training and development, and - since the closure of the Cape Film Office last month - for issuing permits, is introducing several new initiatives that aim to maintain competitiveness (see box).

Cuff asserts that because the industry grew so rapidly, there has never been central control and filming has been "something of a free-for-all".

Therefore, replacing self-regulation with a clear set of guidelines is another key priority.

However, Cuff's single most important task at present is completing an economic impact assessment, which aims to prove the film industry's positive effect on the local economy. Over the past few years there has been massive growth in the scale and range of service providers. This not only means jobs for those in production co-ordination, production design, equipment hire, talent and art department services, but in ancillary services, such as transport and catering.

It is hoped that with hard figures the industry will gain greater recognition in the eyes of the government and, as a corollary, secure legislative and financial support.

"The government recently announced that we can no longer import left-hand drive cars. So how we continue to recreate downtown New York is anyone's guess," Cuff remarks.

The issue of rising production costs is subject to considerable debate.

Some local production companies accuse suppliers of cashing in on the boom and inflating prices. They in turn claim that rising costs are simply a reflection of growth and bigger overheads but, at the same time, improved infrastructure and overall quality.

According to Beverley Green, an executive producer at Gatehouse Service, it's about striking the right balance.

"It's not fair to lay the blame at suppliers' feet, because it's an industry-wide thing. We're not cheap - those days are long gone, especially as the rand has strengthened - but we are cost-effective. Our aim is to be realistic about prices but not price ourselves out of the market."

Oliver Nurock, the managing director of Reel Africa, admits that prices have risen, but claims this reflects the region's creative production values. He adds: "We have to be smarter and offer our clients more flexibility, a greater degree of service and new locations so that they keep coming back. The onus is on us to make sure we don't lose out to other parts of the world."

However, as one UK producer points out, cheap is not always best. She found the political and economic instability in Argentina made a stressful environment, asking: "Is this what we're expected to do now, put our lives at risk for a lower budget?"

Others in South Africa are concerned about the increasing numbers of inexperienced companies, so-called "fly-by-nighters", capitalising on the boom but threatening the industry's reputation and professionalism.

"There is a fair amount of greed and corruption at the moment. In order to protect clients, the Commercials Producers Association has drawn up a recommended list of companies. We can't dictate to overseas clients but we can try to advise them," Glen Bosman of Freshwater Films, who sits on the CPA executive committee, says.

Another CPA initiative is training. Peter Carr, an executive producer at Velocity Films, whose roster includes Keith Rose, Sergio and Greg Gray, has been closely involved with a Transformation Charter. This aims to make the industry more racially representative and ensure that there are sufficient young people entering the talent pool.

He says: "We are putting a plan in place among all member companies where we are developing at least 80 previously disadvantaged individuals.

"This is not a short-term goal. It can't be, as experience and professionalism are vital to our industry and something we have to oversee."

The course involves theoretical study and 30 days of training on-set, with progress continually monitored so that precise skill-sets are developed.

Heather Setzen, who runs the course through Consulting Dynamics, says: "The best way to learn is through mentoring by peers, which is how we all learnt. Yet the industry has been so busy during the past decade, we haven't had time to train people up. The result now is critical shortages in certain areas such as assistant directors and production personnel - something this initiative will address."

A common criticism from overseas clients about filming in South Africa concerns casting.

Nurock says: "South Africa is great for visual commercials, and ads requiring models, but it's harder to find good actors. I think most people here would admit that it is a weakness of ours."

Kay Price, one of the country's leading casting directors, also acknowledges this problem but believes it's impossible to compete with London and LA in terms of the numbers and quality of actors. She believes, however, that the building of a major film studio in Cape Town, scheduled for next year, will attract more feature film makers as well as commercials producers.

"This will give a boost to the industry, provide more opportunities for actors and attract more people into the profession. At the moment, it is not really viable as a full-time career in South Africa."

One of the biggest gripes among the local advertising community is the impact of international shoots on local productions. Many agencies claim that prices have rocketed, and that their first-choice director is frequently unavailable because they choose to shoot international jobs with bigger budgets rather than work on small local productions. Likewise, it is difficult to get hold of the best crew during the peak season.

There is considerable tension between production companies and agencies at the moment on this front. Nevertheless, agencies are somehow managing to produce strong creative work, often using new directors when the established ones are booked up. The upside of a wealth of international shoots, therefore, is the development of strong local new talent.

Gray, who is locally hailed as the next big thing, believes international shoots have aided his development. He says: "It forces you to raise your game to an international level and allows you to reap the benefits of all the spin-offs such as more experienced crew."

The growth of the South African film industry has been rapid but it has now reached a crucial moment in its short history. So is the bubble now about to burst?

It seems not, because although the issues are many, they are being addressed.

Companies are striving to provide a greater level of service at more competitive rates. They are developing locations outside of the Cape Town hub, and are placing greater emphasis on training for the future.

VITAL STATISTICS

Cape Town is the undisputed focus of the international commercial

production and facilitation industry of South Africa.

Foreign-originated commercials facilitated by SA companies and filmed in

Cape Town: 58 per cent

Local and international commercial service projects per year: 1,200

Commercial service companies: 45

Average number of shoot days per season for commercial production

companies: 55

Collective turnover: 772 million rand, up 39.6 per cent in total

industry year-on-year billable value Average spend on a foreign

commercial in 2001: 942,000 rand, up 13 per cent on previous year

Source: Cape Town Film Office

ADDRESSING THE ISSUES

Initiatives to ensure South Africa remains competitive:

- Financial incentive schemes including rebates on hotel tax.

- Educating local service companies to know that by increasing prices, they threaten the long-term future of the film industry. The commission aims to foster a spirit of collaboration within the local industry.

- Introducing a one-stop-shop office for issuing permits and standardising fees across municipalities and town councils in the region.

- Securing government subsidies for the development of the industry by proving its beneficial impact on the local economy. An economic feasibility study is underway.

- Securing the support of local neighbourhoods disrupted by filming, by demonstrating positive impacts on jobs and the community.

- Promoting alternative locations such as Durban to avoid exhausting shoot options.

Efforts to make the industry more representative of racial diversity include: PSurvey to gain accurate statistics on presence and role of black people in film industry.

- Introduction of co-ordinated training programmes.

- Introduction of mentoring system in which all local production companies give on-set experience to previously disadvantaged individuals.

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