(Sell)uloid : How money makes the movies go round

So, you are a new or experienced filmmaker in South Africa, and you have a creative bun in the oven in the form of your fiction, non-fiction, or documentary film idea. But, where do you get the money to finance these ideas, and once produced, how do you get the film screened someplace other than your mother’s house?

In an interview with Dr Ian-Malcolm Rijsdijk, a senior lecturer in Film and Television Studies at the University of Cape Town, he discusses the funding and distribution of films in South Africa, and how young South African filmmakers are showcasing the new voices of our post-apartheid democracy.

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Dr Ian-Malcolm Rijsdjk, photographed by Michaela Davey
It is no secret that movies cost money, with the most extreme example being the whopping $410 million budget for the film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice(2016). Yet, South African filmmakers do not often have the support of studios such as Warner Brothers, and the first hurdle they must face is that of funding. One way to raise money for your production, especially as a young filmmaker, is to crowdfund, as Jessie Zinn did for her film Into Us and Ours (2015). As a South African, there is also the option of applyUntitleding for development, production, or marketing and distribution grants from the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF).

When asked about the NFVF, Dr Rijsdijk is quick to point out that the organisation is a contentious one, because of the mixed experiences that different filmmakers have had with the organisation.

“So, certain filmmakers I’ve spoken to, for example, said the NFVF wouldn’t give them the time of day until they’d really finished, and then they’d helped with things like distribution at the end, so that the NFVF still has a chance to stick their name on the film.”

“There’s generally a disenchantment with the fact that the NFVF has, not strict, but very particular guidelines,” says Dr Rijsdijk. The NFVF guidelines could be the reason why certain applications are rejected by the organisation; because those projects do not ascribe to the telling of a South African national narrative. Dr Rijsdijk is of the opinion that new filmmakers, born and raised in the age of democracy, are creating independent films outside of the typical national imperative; “Filmmakers are now doing crazy, weird stuff and they’re happy to do it in South Africa and they’re confident about finding a younger audience. There doesn’t seem to be such a constant emphasis on nation-building narratives. We’re now telling narratives about life in South Africa, and I think that’s really important.”

Whether you get your funding from the NFVF, or the goodwill of the public, that is only the first step in what Dr Rijsdijk calls the “ecology of film.” After the deed is done, the pieces assembled, and the arty poster posted on Facebook…what next? Now, begins the next battle of distribution.

Distribution also revolves around money, and in this case, the making of it. It’s now time to make back the bucks you poured into your creative brain-child, but in order to do this you need people to watch the film. There are generally two avenues you can pursue in order to get your film out into the world. The first is for your film to be seen in the cinema circuit. In South Africa we have what Dr Rijsdijk describes as a “monopoly” of Ster Kinekor and Nu Metro cinemas. Although, they do occasionally screen South African films, it is hard for local films to compete with international products for screen-time, as it comes down to which film is going to make more money at the box office. “You still get the idea that if a big Marvel movie comes in, they’re going to drop four screens for that and kick everything else off, which has happened often before.”

Because of this, a lot of filmmakers send their work to national and international film festivals, as a way of negating the cinema circuit autocracy. Dr Rijsdijk, from his experience of being a judge in local film festivals, thinks that festivals are aiding the distribution of films that would otherwise not be shown in mainstream cinemas. “There are other filmmakers who are getting into competitions in other places and that’s giving them traction in the global market.”

One notable South African festival is the Durban International Film Festival (DIFF), which is “a ten day celebration of world class cinema which screens new feature, documentary and short films from around the globe with a special focus on African film.”


Along with the screening of films, the DIFF also hosts the Durban FilmMart which gives the delegates of the festival a chance to attend seminars and form partnerships. This demonstrates how film festivals not only provide a platform for new filmmakers, but also opportunities for them to collaborate with others to increase film production and appreciation in South Africa.

Despite these monetary-driven constraints, Dr Risjdijk thinks that “there’s a greater flexibility around the kinds of films being made and the way in which they are being distributed.” Young filmmakers are being innovative – getting around these constraints by working with smaller budgets, using DSLRs instead of expensive equipment, and by taking advantage of new media. Sibs Shongwe-La Mer, for example, released his film, Necktie Youth (2015), simultaneously in the cinema and on iTunes.

Money may still play a major role in the production of film, but it’s seems that it no longer solely runs the show.

(Feautured image: Cinesnark)

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