co-founder of Gambit Films
Start-up capital: R50 000 Turnover: “In the millions”
Starting a business fresh out of film school AFDA might seem like the plot of a ragsto-riches movie, but writer and director Dumisa definitely had no illusions about the difficulty of the path ahead of her. “My father and uncles were all entrepreneurs. All my life I’ve seen the struggles, the long hours, the successes and the failures they’ve experienced, so I knew that starting a business didn’t mean achieving automatic wealth,” she says.
Together with a group of five fellow graduates, she launched Gambit Films in 2009. The independent film and media house, which is now known for films such as the globally acclaimed Ellen: The Ellen Pakkies Story, Noem My Skollie and the soapie Suidooster, started out in a bedroom-turned-office. “We had the arrogance of youth – we just went for it,” recalls Dumisa. “We were all filmmakers and we didn’t fully understand how to run the business.” However, she says, they were fuelled by their dream of controlling the work they did and creating a legacy.
At the time, they were one of a handful of start-up (or upstart) film houses and opportunities were scarce. “I remember trying to raise capital, reaching out for guidance to business consultants who didn’t really understand what we were trying to do. We also weren’t eligible for many of the grants that were available because we weren’t selling or manufacturing anything.”
A private investor, who’d seen their passion for film while they were still students, gave them the cash injection they needed to move out of that spare bedroom and rent office space. “We had our business plan, capital, office and even office furniture – all the things we needed for the business – but we had no business coming in,” she recalls. By the end of 2009, things weren’t going well, the business needed to refocus and some of the partners left.
With confidence waning, the remaining Gambit cofounders needed a lucky break, and Dumisa provided just that. She received an offer to direct a TV ad for a small business wanting to collaborate with a female director. The client enjoyed working with her so much that it offered the rest of its commercial work to the broader Gambit team. “It was an important lesson in seeing opportunity in small things,” she says. “This wasn’t the type of client with massive budgets, but it helped keep our doors open.”
In 2015, Gambit clinched its first major contract with a broadcaster – to produce the soapie Suidooster for
DStv’s KYKnet. “The contract was finalised in June and we had to be on air in November. We had no cast, no crew, no scripts or studios,” she laughs. “Now it’s one of the highest-rated shows on its channel.”
This year, Dumisa made her feature film directorial debut with Nommer 37 – making her one of the country’s first black female film directors. “Making that movie was a personal highlight,” she says. “Bringing it together taught me to believe in myself. My partners and I were adamant that this would be Gambit’s global calling card.” With the series’ world première taking place at the International SXSW Film Festival in Texas, USA and a spot on the roster at the annual Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival in Switzerland, they succeeded. The film will also be distributed in North America, China, Japan, Germany and Austria. The team’s strategy of “scraping any money we could to go to international film festivals” paid off.
Besides taking local stories to a global audience, Dumisa’s focused on cracking the code to creating PanAfrican content for audiences around the continent. “We need more content and more platforms. I don’t think we’ve come close to meeting the demand. We just have to figure out how we can talk to each other and create content that’s relevant and resonates around Africa,” she says.
At just 30, Dumisa’s done everything from writing to directing and producing. What advice can she offer women trying to make it in the film industry? “Know who you are and what you want to achieve. You have to be entrepreneurial in the truest sense of the word – that means creating your own opportunities, because no-one else will hand you anything,” she declares.
She also stresses the role her colleagues have played in her success. “Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with the same core team. It’s important to find people who’ll always be there for you and to truly nurture those relationships,” she says. –
“You have to create your own opportunities, because no-one else will hand you anything.”