The film industry in South Africa: poised for greatness


“Vibrant and growing” is the phrase most often used to describe the South African film industry over the past two decades. Indeed, there’s a palpable and infectious sense of optimism about the industry from our research subjects. It creates jobs with good salaries, attracts foreign investment, elevates African voices and has the room to grow significantly. Along with the positive mood, of course, comes a  litany of challenges and frustrations, foremost among them a lack of ownership of intellectual property and slow transformation of the sector. South Africa remains, after all, one of the most unequal societies on Earth (in terms of income) despite the demise of apartheid in 1994.


The industry was turning over steadily with the help of significant funding and rebates from the government. A South African Cultural Observatory (SACO) study published in 2022 found that the audio-visual and interactive media domain (which includes film and TV) made up 30% of the creative economy’s contribution to South Africa’s GDP in 2020. However, the COVID-19 pandemic hit it hard, particularly in 2020, shrinking it by almost 60%. The industry is still recovering, but projections for a swift return are positive. That said, there is a sense that South African film is perpetually poised for greatness but never quite breaking through. 


Now, fresh opportunities – and serious new challenges – await it in a digital era marked by the arrival of streaming platforms in the territory and the chance to add South African stories, voices and skills to a meaningful African and global conversation.


What does the sector look like?

While the focus of this survey is on film, it is impossible to talk about film in South Africa without including television production of both features and series as part of the industry. In fact, the two industries have all but merged.

While South Africa has over 750 cinema screens – almost half of all screens on the continent – these are situated in major cities and in elite suburbs. There isn’t enough access to them for all South Africans. 


Unlike the fast turnover of feature films in a country like Nigeria, South Africa was producing just shy of two dozen cinematic features a year before the pandemic. There was, however, a growing number more made-for-TV features being produced.


Cinematic releases have traditionally been dominated by and for the white Afrikaans-speaking market. During apartheid, the industry was almost entirely controlled by the white minority. Democracy saw the rise of politically charged features like Tsotsi, Hollywood hits like District 9 and art festival award-winners like Skoonheid (Beauty). The past decade has seen the rise of black political dramas like Kalushi and romcoms like Happiness is a Four-Letter Word. These have fared reasonably well at a local box office driven almost entirely by Hollywood blockbusters. However, television – and streaming services – are changing the picture slowly. Pay channel Multichoice, for example, has been producing a number of features in Afrikaans that are produced by black (“coloured”) Afrikaans-speaking South Africans.


There are a dozen or so major production companies producing the vast bulk of the country’s cinema releases and feature documentaries – though instead of “major” these would be better described as medium-sized companies. There are three dominant cinema distribution chains. Outside of these, independent distributors are lacking, but growing slowly, and independent screens are sparse – those that exist include The Labia Theatre in Cape Town and The Bioscope in Johannesburg. Some on-the-ground initiatives, such as Sunshine Cinema, take films into more remote areas and set up screenings, but there is considerable room for growth in this space. Short films remain a potentially important way to break into the industry, mostly by being accepted into international film festivals where they can attract attention and awards.


Despite its relatively long history, strong infrastructure, talent and technology, the South African film industry is fundamentally failing to attract large local cinema and other screen audiences. 


Instead, South Africa is a TV-viewing nation. Thanks to a once-vibrant public broadcaster and the growth of pay channels such as Multichoice, local television production has become more dispersed regionally and among race groups – yet remains based in key cities such as Johannesburg, Cape Town and, more recently, Durban. Long-running TV series are still produced mostly by a handful of bigger companies, driven by soap operas and telenovelas, with smaller players also producing studio-based series, magazine shows, reality series and the like. 

Streaming services such as Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime, Apple TV and the local Showmax service have entered the market, providing a much-needed boost in local production commissions. However, they are making up a shortfall in commissions from the public broadcaster, the SABC, which has experienced financial difficulties for several years.


These streaming services tend to also favour producers and larger companies, however, and have entrenched below-par budgets and almost total control of creators’ intellectual property.


South Africa also has a thriving audiovisual, advertising and corporate video subsector which keeps many people in the industry in regular work. There is a growing music video market across parts of the country, with South Africa a popular destination for West African musicians to produce music videos. 


The country is also a destination for foreign film production, with favourable locations, skilled crews, some state-of-the-art studios and multiple post-production and equipment facilities.


Jobs and access

Often youthful freelancers working in the gig economy make up a significant portion of the sector’s workforce. According to a recent report, the industry contributes over R7-billion to the South African economy, creating over 30,000 jobs (pre-COVID-19).


It is marked by entrepreneurial creatives who aspire to gain a foothold that should be, on a skills level, relatively easy to access – as training often happens on the job. There are, however, numerous barriers – such as economic stresses, not enough time invested in technically training new entrants, a geographical bias in favour of large cities and a significant gender bias, with far more men than women working in the industry.


While employment access of black individuals has grown by approximately 300% since 2004, senior film workers remain mostly white, especially on the business side of the industry. Black-owned companies are reportedly often reliant on state funding but are more likely to hire black practitioners and women. 


Funding and support

Funding for the film industry relies in part on state resources, despite persistent complaints about the wastage of funds. Development funding is available, though spread too thin, from the government agency the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) and from the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition (DTIC) through a rebate system (a portion of a film budget is paid back to successful applicants on completion of a project). The DTIC also offers incentives to black filmmakers and to international productions shooting and doing post-production in South Africa – a move that also helps the training and employment of local film workers. The Department of Sport, Arts and Culture (DSAC) offers selective funding. Regional film commissions like the Gauteng Film Commission, Wesgro and the KZN Film Commission are often linked to tourism imperatives and also assist with training and skills development. However, some commentators feel that state funding runs the risk of bringing prescriptive approaches to what stories are told in the national interest. 


The bulk of funding, however, relies on private capital in the form of commissions and distribution deals. Some broadcasters also buy completed projects. Co-production treaties with foreign countries are also increasingly in place, but co-productions can be hard to access, requiring international networking opportunities. International film festival funds are available for development but securing them is a competitive business. The annual Durban Film Mart is successfully replicating such funding opportunities, but the scale is small.


A rebate or subsidy system is the core of any thriving film industry. While the DTIC has achieved great success in the past, at present there are numerous complaints about its system being selective, difficult to access and not performing well. This is a major potential setback.


Organisational bodies

South Africa has numerous industry bodies that are fighting for equity, transformation and policy change. There remains, however, a perception that the industry is not organised as well as it could be, in part because of the freelance nature of much of the work. These organisations are also woefully underfunded.


The largest of which is the Independent Producers Organization (IPO), which represents over 70% of the country’s producers. The IPO seeks to ensure a conducive environment in which the industry and all throughout its value chain can flourish. It identifies and shares new developments and international industry best practices.


The umbrella body for the industry is the South African Screen Federation and the sector is strongly represented by the Independent Producers Association alongside organisations like the Independent Black Filmmakers Collective and the Documentary Filmmakers Association. The Writer’s Guild of South Africa and the feisty South African Guild of Actors lobby to protect creative interests (especially through the Performers Protection Amendment Bill for actors) and for policy change. The Independent Black Filmmakers Collective (IBFC) represents a broad spectrum of people active in the industry, with the aim of enhancing the industry’s transformation and economic development. Sisters Working in Film and Television (SWIFT) has been established to address gender imbalances in the industry as well as to fight against sexual abuse.


Education and skills development

Film and television is a highly aspirational career and aside from the state bodies offering training and development, the country has several universities that offer degrees in film and media studies. These are successful in establishing new generations of film thinkers. The country also has several Technical and Vocational Education and Training colleges offering film courses, but these have been waning in recent years. Private film schools such as AFDA have become vital technical training grounds. 


Skills audits have indicated that, because of a lack of industry connections and experience, film school graduates are often poorly prepared for the realities of film sets and so they struggle to find jobs. Ultimately, internships have proven vital to new entrants in the market and a considerable opportunity for growth resides in work-integrated learning programmes.


All accreditation in the industry is regulated by the Southern African Communications Industries Association (SACIA), which is currently the only South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) accredited industry body that offers professional designation accreditation for those working in the sector.


Events and festivals

South Africa’s oldest film festival, the Durban International Film Festival remains a key event on the film calendar, along with its thriving Durban Film Mart helping to develop new talent. The Joburg Film Festival and Jozi Film Festival are set to grow if they survive. 


Film markets have so far failed to take traction. It’s unclear if the Cape Town International Film Market and Festival will stage a comeback after COVID-19. Discop Africa is set to continue holding events on the continent and is a potentially important space for African film distribution networks. FAME Week Africa’s MIP Africa is a recently launched initiative that aims to connect creators with buyers and distributors.


Other significant festivals include the Encounters South African Documentary Film Festival and the annual Silwerskerm Fees (Silver Screen Festival) for Afrikaans film. The Africa Rising International Film Festival is a potentially important youth-led initiative.


Looking to the future

The ownership of intellectual property (especially in the digital era), a lack of meaningful transformation in some parts of the sector, gender inequality,  ineffectiveness of some parts of the rebate system and a lack of marketing budgets are the causes of the biggest concerns for respondents in our research.


But, challenges aside, the digital revolution is a fundamental opportunity to elevate and drive the South African film and television industry forward. 


As technology allows for greater access and for more work in indigenous languages through subtitles, new voices and networks will emerge. They will be able to partake in a global conversation that will draw attention to the country’s diversity and rich repositories of stories as the continent continues to lead a youthful and global cultural renaissance.

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