The un­seen busi­ness

Film­maker’s quest to re­main in­de­pen­dent

Finweek English Edition - - Business Strategy - FRIK ELS frike@fin­week.co.za

THE FILM IN­DUS­TRY in the United States is hav­ing its best box of­fice year in a long time. Does that mean the film busi­ness is re­ces­sion proof? “For big bud­get genre films out of Hol­ly­wood – and block­busters with big mar­ket­ing be­hind it – it may well be true. For in­de­pen­dent films eq­uity in­vest­ments have dried up.”

So says Shamim Sharif ahead of the South African pre­miere of her film The World Un­seen, which she wrote, di­rected and pro­duced through a com­pany called En­light­en­ment En­ter­tain­ment, set up with her part­ner, Hanan Kat­tan, for the pur­pose. The film was shot in Cape Town with a pre­dom­i­nantly lo­cal crew and set in Fifties SA. Us­ing apartheid as a back­drop, it’s a fic­tion­al­i­sa­tion of sto­ries told to Sharif by her South African grand­mother.

It hasn’t been easy go­ing to get the project where it is to­day. Sharif be­gan writ­ing – the film is based on her novel of the same name – while still em­ployed in her fa­ther’s fi­nan­cial ser­vices busi­ness in Lon­don, where she’s based. “I was lucky. The novel won a few awards and sales were good. It was also trans­lated into a few lan­guages, in­clud­ing Ger­man and French.”

Not that book sales are enough to fund a fea­ture film. Kat­tan sold her hair-care busi­ness to set up En­light­en­ment En­ter­tain­ment and went to work on find­ing ways to slash costs and find a creative busi­ness model to pro­duce and mar­ket the film. Num­ber one con­cern for the duo was keep­ing con­trol of the project. An­other one of Sharif ’s scripts at­tracted US$15m of Hol­ly­wood fund­ing but she walked away from the deal af­ter too many creative con­straints (the pro­duc­ers wanted sex scenes and nu­dity) were placed on her.

The World Un­seen’s shoe­string bud­get – a frac­tion of $15m, says Sharif – is funded en­tirely by pri­vate eq­uity in­vest­ments and a 6% con­tri­bu­tion from SA’s Na­tional Film & Video Foun­da­tion (NFVA). “We didn’t need the NFVF fund­ing; but we thought it was strate­gi­cally im­por­tant to get Gov­ern­ment in­volved in a South African film.”

In Fe­bru­ary last year the Depart­ment of Trade & In­dus­try launched the SA Film and Tele­vi­sion Pro­duc­tion and Co-pro­duc­tion In­cen­tive that of­fers a 35% re­bate on the cost of films and full-length tele­vi­sion pro­grammes pro­duced by SA film­mak­ers. The sec­ond scheme – the Lo­ca­tion Film and Tele­vi­sion Pro­duc­tion In­cen­tive – of­fers for­eign film com­pa­nies a 15% re­bate on the costs of film­ing in this coun­try. Set to run for six years un­til 2014, the re­bate is capped at R10m (around $1m) per pro­duc­tion.

Big bud­get Hol­ly­wood film and TV pro­duc­tions – in­clud­ing Blood Di­a­mond, 24 and oth­ers – have been at­tracted by SA’s cost com­pet­i­tive­ness, in­fra­struc­ture and good level of ex­per­tise. How­ever, when ev­ery dol­lar spent counts, SA isn’t al­ways the most com­pet­i­tive. Sharif says they were given the op­tion of 30 days of shoot­ing or the use of a 35mm cam­era: a cam­era crew was flown in from In­dia so she could do both. “Even with the cost of flights and ac­com­mo­da­tion for the In­dian crew it was still cheaper than in SA.”

With in­de­pen­dent “art house” films the start­ing point for mar­ket­ing is the film fes­ti­val cir­cuit. Af­ter the Toronto Film Fes­ti­val (most film fes­ti­vals want ex­clu­siv­ity, so choos­ing the cor­rect one is im­por­tant, says Sharif), The World Un­seen played in five North Amer­i­can cities and, af­ter SA, it will open in In­dia in March and in mar­kets in Europe in June.

Says Sharif: “We thought the hard­est part was get­ting the film made – but dis­tri­bu­tion has a whole dif­fer­ent set of mouths to feed. DVD dis­trib­u­tors want 80% of the rev­enue of DVD sales af­ter they’ve re­couped their costs.” As a re­sult, En­light­en­ment En­ter­tain­ment will dis­trib­ute the DVDs them­selves. The pair has also set up En­light­en­ment Records to pub­lish the film’s sound­track, while one of the artists fea­tured will bring out an al­bum un­der the new la­bel.

Are they on track to break even on the project?

“I hope so. The­atre release is a loss leader. We should get the DVDs out there as soon as pos­si­ble,” says Sharif. Apart from the film fes­ti­val and Berlin Film Mar­ket, mar­ket­ing The World Un­seen – and an­other En­light­en­ment En­ter­tain­ment film be­ing re­leased at the same time in other mar­kets called I Can’t Think Straight – has been through word of mouth and cre­at­ing aware­ness through the In­ter­net. Un­like the Hol­ly­wood stu­dios with their armies of lawyers scour­ing the In­ter­net for copy­right in­fringers, Sharif has wel­comed fans do­ing their own edit­ing and mixes of songs and scenes and post­ing it on YouTube.

Sharif will set up her next film – based on her lat­est novel De­spite the Fall­ing Snow – to­wards year-end 2009. “We’re looking at mi­cro-fi­nanc­ing the project. We’d dearly love to get $5m to make the film. Af­ter this project I’m sure we now know how to make it look like $20m.”

Creative free­dom costs money. Shamim Sharif

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