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Can low-budget, high-quality films help African filmmaking?

LIMITED financial resources is the biggest obstacle in Africa’s film industry. A collaboration involving Netflix in South Africa has highlights the potential of low-budget yet high-quality filmmaking on the continent.

A collaboration between Netflix, South Africa’s National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) and distribution partner, Indigenous Film Distribution, has resulted in the unveiling of 6 films debuting on Netflix.

This collaboration marks a significant milestone in the film industry, showcasing the transformative power of micro-budget yet high-quality filmmaking across the continent.

Oluwanifemi Obaba, a Nigerian entertainment lawyer, underscores the significance of this as a milestone for the filmmakers, explaining that “securing the necessary resources to finance a movie can be quite tedious, to say the least.”

“Funding needs are dynamic and they become necessary at different stages of a film’s life cycle and the producer’s movements,” he explains.

This collaborative strategy stems from 2021, when the two entities (Netflix and NFVF) launched a US$1.4 million (R28 million) Joint Film Fund, each contributing US$735,230 (R14 million), to provide 100% financing of filming budgets for 6 films from the country.

Three of the films are already streaming on Netflix, with the final three due for release from April.

“We are proud of and congratulate the cast and crews of the six films on completing their films and taking the best of who we are as South Africans to the world through their stories, flying the South African flag high on this global streaming leader, Netflix,” NFVF Acting CEO Thobela Mayinje said in a press statement.

The six — Runs in the Family, Prime, Inkabi: The Hitman, Smart Casual, Soweto Blaze, and Real Estate Sisters — were categorized into two streams, one including four feature films with a budget of US$210,065 (R4 million) each and the other including two feature films with a budget of US$315,139 (R6 million) each.

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The budgets for these films are significantly lower than regular Netflix productions. For example, the “One Piece” series can cost up to US$18 million per episode, making it one of the most expensive films Netflix has ever produced.

Netflix has a ‘quality over quantity” strategy which led the streamer to reduce its content production volumes last year by 17%, while the micro-budget approach is common in Africa, especially in Nigeria.

“It is naturally expectant for 8 out of every 10 movies in Nigeria to be portrayed as low budget and as a result, the hard-working, quality-seeking filmmaker may be subjected to the stereotype of being prematurely measured, resulting in a low turnout at the box office and in cinemas,” Obaba explained.

The South African project sets out to demonstrate how high-quality films can be created from relatively modest budgets while achieving the highest possible quality.

‘Runs in the Family’ directed by Ian Gabriel, follows an Indian father and reformed con artist, Varun, who takes his transgender child River on a road trip across South Africa as they attempt to rescue River’s mother, who is detained in a rehabilitation clinic in eSwatini. It started streaming on Netflix in December 2023.

‘Prime’ is about a young man tormented by the death of his racist father, which brings back memories of his mother, who committed suicide. The resulting trauma impacts his relationship with Themba, the woman he loves. The film, directed by Thabiso Christopher, began streaming on Netflix in January.

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‘Inkabi: The Hitman’ is a Zulu variation on the hitman thriller genre. Frank, a retired hitman, decides to disappear to start life afresh as a taxi driver. He befriends Lucy, a young woman working at a shady downtown casino. After losing custody of her child, Angela, Lucy is back on a downward spiral of drugs and high-class prostitution. One night, she witnesses the murder of one of her clients, a prominent millionaire in the city. Lucy manages to escape but the killer is out for her blood. She has no one to turn to except Frank, her only friend. The film by director Norman Maake started streaming on Netflix in March.

‘Smart Casual’ involves two couples in Johannesburg travelling equal but opposite paths in the search for love. Taki has sworn off having a regular partner until he meets Tumi, while Mahlatsi and Bheka have been together for years and are looking forward to their third attempt at getting married. As one couple moves towards love and a life together, the other realises that love isn’t what they imagined. The film premieres on Netflix in April 2024.

‘Soweto Blaze’ is a hyper-stylized stoner-comedy set in Soweto, South Africa: A small-time pot dealer’s attempts at making a better life for himself are ambushed when his dim-witted friends sweep him up in a wacky kidnapping scheme involving a feisty young woman with her own plans. The film will premiere on Netflix in 2024.

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‘Real Estate Sisters’ takes viewers on a wild ride as two feisty real estate agent sisters, down on their luck and high on sass, aspire to go from selling shabby apartments to high-end real estate in Pretoria. The film will premiere on Netflix in 2024.