THE BIG READ: Lights, camera, traction
The film industry is an enigma. It's not well understood, especially by the government, the public, bankers or investors.
The reason for this is simple: making a film is complicated.
Take an idea, research it, throw it at a writer, impose financial constraints, play down financial risks, conjure up international sales, ensure for bad weather and the unexpected, work your crew to the bone, and, of course, there it will be: a film, a flickering image on the silver screen.
But perhaps the biggest and most misunderstood problem is distribution, the elusive "bums on seats" that make a film profitable.
Hollywood relies on 312million people, of which many regularly go to the movies.
In South Africa, our population of 50million is mostly poor. So our numbers are tiny, and the box-office returns predictably smaller.
South Africa can "afford" only cheaper films and can promote them with only a fraction of the money that is thrown behind the typical Hollywood blockbuster.
And, of course, we were disadvantaged by the Afrikaner capital that muscled out the small cinemas during apartheid.
Today, Ster Kinekor and Nu Metro have dominion over more than 70% of the national market. Independent filmmaking is somehow subversive and unable to turn a profit or interest audiences. This view is, of course, not entirely correct (in the same way our view of bankers is rapidly changing).
Bringing Hollywood here does little to develop local stories, and even if the moguls do like our stories, they have to make our stories "their" stories in order to turn a dime.
Hollywood, in some circles, has been seen for decades as the major promoter of American culture, to the detriment of local cultures and global diversity.
From a business viewpoint, we cannot emulate Hollywood, simply because we don't have the same population or wealth.
Nollywood (Nigeria) is built on a bigger population, but relies on extremely low budgets and very quick turnaround (a movie a week, sold on DVD). Nigerian films are shot on cheap digital video, compared with Bollywood, which shoots mostly with the far more expensive 35mm film format.
Nollywood is beginning to catch on here, but it can't really go anywhere, except sustain some local filmmaking at a low level. Nigerian filmmakers acknowledge their films need to go global, and to do that they need to be of a higher quality.
South African government incentives for filmmaking have become really good recently, and they are bringing much more international work to our shores. But for too long we have been unable to control the smaller stuff, such as Discovery and National Geographic coming here and making our stories, in their way, and without telling it the way we would.
They just come in and work here, a situation we could never emulate in the US or Europe.
Local support for local films is poor, mainly because of the government's failure to realise the industry's potential to create jobs and promote the country abroad.
The National Film and Video Foundation received a 2011 allocation of just R48-million from the Department of Arts and Culture, of which nearly R25-million was spent on training, bursaries, script development , research, production and marketing. That amount of money would fund a low-budget movie in the US.
There is next to zero audience development to put bums on seats (and thereby increase local budgets to a globally competitive point).
There is no national film strategy to guide us to becoming an industry that can compete with Iran, India, France, Brazil, Korea, Germany or China. There is no plan, only vague policy.
How can the industry, segmented as it is, get on a common bus to a better destination?
The initiatives put forward by various boards and government departments are rarely aligned with the objectives of the National Planning Commission (which has no representative from the arts, much less someone from the film industry).
Add to this the local film industry's long-standing reputation as a high financial risk (there is no formula for a successful film: Waterworld was the most expensive film ever made and it bombed badly, El Mariachi was a privately funded film that cost some $15000 and became a cult classic).
Yet now we are reading about how Barclays might still turn into a massive financial bomb.
So, to answer Phumla Matjila's question in her column "It's time for Afriwood'' on July 17: It is not possible (yet) to combine Nollywood and South African studios into an Afriwood that can take on Hollywood.
What we need to do is pump a couple of billion into the industry in carefully planned ways (following a designated "National Film Strategy" developed in consultation with the local industry), and develop our audiences so that this country boasts a film culture (is there really anything to watch on the SABC alternative anyway?) that will put bums on seats, not only in urban areas, but rural areas.
We have to spend a lot more on the development and research that goes into making good stories, provide better training and incentives with less red tape, and reach out beyond our borders to the rest of Africa to provide incentives for co-production that benefits the continent.
As The Economist said in its cover story "Africa rising" recently, our growth is a cause for hope.
Unfortunately for South Africa's filmmakers, we cannot simply wait for another District 9, particularly if our leaders are sleeping. For our independent film industry, it's going to be a long, long, long walk to our own economic and artistic freedom. A luta continua.
- Forbes is an award-winning filmmaker