A Spectre haunts the SA film industry

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AB-T-Tree-MediaA spectre is haunting the SA film industry – and it’s not the new Bond movie.

Looming now is the Spectre of Disaster as a real and present danger to the very survival and continued sustainability of the country’s film and television industry, now in its deepest crisis ever, and which contributes more than R5bn to the economy.

The Spectre has emerged largely from the shadows of years of government neglect, inefficiency, indifference, power-mongering, arrogance and greed.

It also has spectral origins in the closets and basements of big business, which, for many years, has refused to develop and grow the industry in key areas and has wrung dry our independent filmmakers of their creativity, potency, passion and power. It is capitalism’s ugliest face.

I’ll explain. Let me not mince my words.

In 1996, government and the arts sector formulated a White Paper charting a fresh, democratic and creative way forward. Hope bubbled over. For the past 19 years that process has been undermined steadily and stealthily to the extent that the entire arts sector (including film) finally revolted. We rejected the new White Paper, forcing a return to the 1996 White Paper.

The National Development Plan, arrogantly drawn up without the participation of a single arts practitioner or filmmaker, appears dead in the water.

The Mzanzi Golden Economy, widely trumpeted in 2011 by government as a “strategic blueprint”, managed to mention film only in a couple of passing paragraphs. It had no deliverables, deadlines or accountability. It’s done.

The Department of Arts & Culture does not see film as the seventh art. Film somehow “belongs” with TV and IT in a sort of “communications media bundle” that entirely disrespects the thousands of artists who create filmic works that communicate with audiences at deep emotional and intellectual levels and that resonate around the world.

The minister of arts and culture is a former minister of police. When did Nathi Mthethwa last go out and watch a film? Meanwhile, our visual national archives rot in vaults and are plundered by image pirates for 30 pieces of silver. Yo ho ho.

The ANC’s 2012 Mangaung conference resolved to “place the Artist at the centre” of things. Policy clearly stumbled in the dark and broke both legs.

Our education ministry can’t even deliver textbooks, much less the films that could make learning fun and really change and educate the youth.

The DTI, a stalwart longtime supporter of the industry, is rumoured to have run out of money for the film sector, which would leave a lot of very respectable and fine filmmakers in the lurch, and possibly send them headlong into the waiting arms of the Spectre of Bankruptcy and Serious Debt.

The National Film & Video Foundation, constituted by law in 1997 to promote and develop the industry, is riven by departures, suspensions, reinstatements, qualified audits, rumours and the like. It has no National Film Strategy, more than 18 years after it came into existence, but continues to party at the Cannes Film Festival. If it collapses into chaos, as now seems likely, more filmmakers (this time mostly emerging filmmakers) will be destroyed, as will the key funding infrastructure for the industry). The Spectre laughs hollowly.

ICASA, the “regulatory body” appears flaccid. Its failure for the past (how many?) years to stand up and enforce local content regulations has cost the independent industry (for SABC compliance alone) more than R300m per annum in lost production. Don’t even mention that department of mis-communications.

The SABC has been destroyed by seven years of in-fighting. Seven ministers in seven years, five Board (Bored?) chairs. Total disarray in corporate governance. Eight Group CEOs, two COOs, four CFOs. Hawks, Public Protector and other forensic investigations. Qualified audits. A government bail-out of R1.47-bn. Now captured by the Zuma Cabal, the COO refuses to obey the rule of law. Hardworking employees are demoralized. The Zombie Dead Wood, meanwhile, continues to draw salaries and drain the fiscus.

The film commissions are often riven with divisions, political in-fighting, and bureaucracy as they gaily put on parties – but battle to fund up the films.

But while the independent industry loves to lambast government agencies and ministries for their perceived failings, big business must also lift a very big bag of the bones of ex-filmmakers and toss it onto the Spectre’s growing Bonfire of the Vanities.

Chief is Machiavellian Multichoice, which has exploited new filmmakers through the Mzansi movie genre. Filmmakers get a pittance to make a feature film (and I mean a PITTANCE, of around R40K for the entire film). Of course the equipment rental companies, technicians, artists and post production houses have to subsidise this Naspers subsidiary (Naspers is one of SA’s richest companies) to produce a constant churn of poor quality local content for the avaricious channels created by those executive Multichoice jesters who cannot see (beyond their next bonus) that this business model is doomed to succumb to the Spectre of Unsustainability, putting yet more filmmakers out of work and out of pocket.

The telcos (Vodacom, MTN (yes, and that $5.2bn fine won’t stop them), Cell C and Telkom can’t escape the descending Shroud that threatens to envelop the future of filmmaking and film distribution – mobile. Their unrealistic thievery through high charges that make our calls and data the most expensive means that they are not paying filmmakers and distributors fair prices for content but are instead demanding extortionist revenue shares, rather like the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

The stranglehold on production held by many of the big companies (some of them multinational) makes it difficult for new producers to gain experience or much-needed mentoring, and in turn, to get big productions up on their own. The Small Spectre.

These production houses do nothing to develop audiences, create distribution networks and so on, as they should, in order to keep pace with the 84% growth in the film and TV industry over the past decade. Government funding, of course, has lagged increasingly, unable to keep up with an 84% increase in production in five years, and a high 2.89 jobs multiplier effect. Of the DAC’s 2.9bn budget, just R105m went to the NFVF last financial year – under 4%.

There is money in the Setas for training, but it often gets diverted from the real issues needing attention. The film schools continue to churn out “graduates” who expect to find a job. We call them the “Suicide Squads”. Ha ha ha!

The cinema chains, which should be investing in developing audiences and expanding their network of cinemas beyond the perceived safety of malls, base their business model on selling popcorn and Coke, not selling film tickets, so their attendance figures are struggling, and they have no spare cash to build cinemas in the townships, where the real audiences are.

And of course, topping it all, is a complete lack of leadership and vision at the senior government and big business levels. The independent industry is starved of funds by government agencies, which know that keeping the industry weak will serve their ends. A handful of stalwarts and activists within the industry struggle continuously to improve and give back to their industry, but they are often exhausted after being victimized by the Visionless Spectre.

So filmmakers, apart from making their films, have to scrabble for an increasingly small pot of government-controlled money, while giving time to their industry by volunteering to serve on the boards and committees that represent the interests of independent filmmakers.

Government then usually ignores inputs by filmmakers in favour of their “social cohesion” agenda, designed to control, in this instance, artists and filmmakers. The DAC (read “Dept of Arts Control”) appointed a team to set up the Cultural Creative Industries Federation of SA (CCIFSA) and “organize” the arts industry. CCIFSA cannot (or will not) publicly account for the R5m it was given. Well-known filmmakers are not amongst them. The Spectre of Non-Accountability rides again!

As SA filmmakers wait for their financial Godot, the Cultural Spectre of Disaster, it’s hour come round at last, slouches towards Mzansi to be born (with apologies to WB Yeats).

© October 2015 David Forbes


David Forbes is a fiercely independent and award-winning SA filmmaker with more than 30 years’ experience in the film and TV industry, both at home and abroad. He writes in his personal capacity.

Source: Daveforbes’s Blog
A Spectre haunts the SA film industry

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