The unseen business
Filmmaker’s quest to remain independent
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