A TV and Film Industry Boom for Cape Town – Cape Town Film Studios

Productions look to capture South African scenery, exchange rates and rebates.

Interview with Nico Dekker, CEO of Cape Town Film Studios

Nico Dekker, CEO of Cape Town Film Studios

How did Cape Town Film Studios come about? How are you now aiming to make South Africa a major destination for both location, filming as well as top quality studio productions? Is it true that during apartheid you were used for propaganda purposes?

Yes, the film industry is fairly old in South Africa but it hasn’t really matured because it was often used for other purposes like anti-apartheid, people were only invited here for very specific purposes. Also our own film-making was stimulated by the desire to tell the world that we are not as bad as they thought. Of course that is not conducive to producing proper creative films. With the birth of democracy in 1994, the new government was facing lots of challenges, including socio-economic ones. It did, however, lead to a very interesting development in commercial film-making or advertising. Suddenly, it blossomed, with people starting to come here and discovering what a fantastic area it is and how easy it is to use locations and how good our teams are. A lot of equipment also came into the country. Also, the more international directors started to make their commercials here and train local people, who started to get used to the international style of film-making. That is how the new wave of film-making started and people very quickly realized that we had the equipment and good crews, and that we were starting to really develop. But if you want to go into long film in a proper way it isn’t enough to just offer a location, with animals and mountains and so on. The industry required consolidation as it was still extremely loose and lacking a focal point. Everyone had been anticipating film studios for a very long time and hoped it could be the next big step, although they are expensive and the return on investment is low. However, the potential was there and in 2003 the government invited parties to come up with new ideas. The Cape Town Film Studios group was chosen in a tender process as it was the most diverse, with shareholders from very different backgrounds such as producers, the entertainment industry and even television.

But it still took a very long time, from 2003 until 2008. The project was almost dead! By the time I was invited to participate, I had already taken other steps. I had turned a factory into a film-making location and called it Table Mountain Motion Picture Studios. “Lord of War” with Nicolas Cage was filmed there and Roland Emmerich based his “10,000 BC” there. Although I was quite successful I was also criticized as the place was too chaotic, we filmed in the halls of an old fertilizer plant stinking of ammonia and the location was opposite a sewerage farm and an oil refinery! It was the worst kind of set-up you can imagine. I was still struggling to get off the ground after five years with my predecessors from Disney and Pinewood Studios, and by this time we were looking for someone to take charge and turn things around.
So when I was invited to join Cape Town Film Studios in July 2008, it didn’t take me long to make up my mind. I was determined to make things happen. I was very fortunate to be able to pull everybody together and change the design to how I thought it should be. We started building in January 2009 and we officially opened our doors in December 2010. At five years young we are still ‘pre-school’, but we’ve already learned and done a few things.

How will the new multi-million dollar complex help to build the reputation of South Africa as an emerging force in global film-making?

The main challenge is how things are perceived. South Africa was regarded as a great location but not necessarily known for manufacturing and high-tech innovation in film. That’s what you get when you go to London and Los Angeles and places like that. My feeling with this studio was that from the start we should work on changing perceptions and show that this complex could be a very innovative and creative manufacturing hub with the potential to do anything and be on the cutting edge of the world. I believe that this will also change the reputation of the country. Automatically, people will start to be perceived differently. It’s amazing how this actually happens. When I asked my American friends from Disney and elsewhere what is the main thing that you feel has changed, they replied that their perception of what we could do was a different, better one. They now saw us as fast and innovative, with a go-getter attitude, wanting to make things happen and very quick with decision-making.

When you come here and see Cape Town Studios, you can’t believe it’s possible that such a high-tech facility exists here in Africa, where some people still think there are just lions and elephants running around.

The quality and design of the studio itself is of course also important. But it is also just one studio among many around the world. However, some multi-billion rand studios that have been built for fifty times the price of this one are not able to make their mark. They lack the combination of the right people, the right attitude, the hunger and the passion to really understand something. If you come to me and say to me you want to shoot a ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’-style film here, and I say we haven’t got the facilities for it, but you reply you heard that we guys can make it happen, that’s when things start to change, such as with the film “Black Sails”. You yourself don’t see anything around you, just a piece of swampland, but people are coming to you because they believe and have the perception that you can make magic happen. Whereas in other places you already have those things built, but  people feel they are a bit slow there and they’re not really going to live up to expectations.

The studio currently has four stages. Are there plans in the pipeline to expand those studios?

Yes, I used my experience of the last five years of operation to build a very different fifth stage. Not only was the stage 20% cheaper, it is also 20 to 50% better. For the first time we have innovative 2.5 ton sound doors which are designed to close, seal and open in a vertical sliding manner, for example. This is unique, I don’t know of any other doors which work like this in the world. There’s also a massive panelled divider which sections the stage, meaning you can actually shoot sound on one side and work on the other side.
There are also many other features, such as the silent air-con, and the manner in which the sound-proofing is done, which all make it even more worker friendly.

Would you say that in terms of technology South Africa is now ahead of Europe?

While we are not yet ahead of the curve, I do believe that in some aspects we are definitely at cutting-edge level, right up with the best. Distinct advantages at the moment are our ‘can-do’ attitude, as well as our value for money on the screen. This is measured in terms of what we can do with your investment. If you have 100 dollars, for example, and spend it with me, we will take those 100 dollars and make the product on the screen look like much more, maybe like 10 million dollars! You can make something low budget and it will still look cheap, but we have the ability to interpret what you’re planning and want to do, and help you to translate that into something valuable. This is something which is wider than just film, it’s about understanding people’s aspirations and helping to fulfil them. That is something which can be quite daunting and an important aspect which can easily get forgotten.

The South African government has recognized the economic potential of your industry to a certain degree and introduced a series of tax incentives and rebates aimed at attracting large budget productions here. Have these had much of an impact?

These tax incentives and rebates are important, even though at around 20% they are actually less than many other countries across the world, which can be up to a very competitive 40%. We are also not unlimited, which means we are capped to some extent. However, I have always felt it is the overall package which makes the most difference. If you are just cheap, you’re going to be in for a hiding, because other places are then also going to be cheap soon. When we first started the currency was weakened by around 100% – it was 7 rand to the dollar, and now is around 16. But we were always happy with our situation and blessed, our order books were always full and we were always attractive to people, even at 7 rand. I always emphasized value for money, and believed that we should not be cheap, but rather that we should have the ability to deliver something of high quality for less money. The currency situation at the moment is a great help, of course, but it would be a fallacy to build on that as a long-term strategy.

You are backed by both the national and provincial governments, but is there anything more you feel they could be doing to help the industry to flourish?

The main reason why people love this project is that it’s a job creator. The productions which have used the studio over the past five years employed close to 50,000 people, which means we are dealing with serious amounts of money. Direct investments through those productions amounted to around 2 billion rand with an economic impact of 6 billion. Those are the kind of figures that politicians love, they need to have something to show and tell people about. Initially we did have quite a battle to get them to believe in the project, but these figures on the table have proved us right. But we need to go much further and the time is right to strengthen all our efforts to deepen the training of our creative crew academies, as we don’t have anything like that right now. That’s where the future lies, to use the talent that is now available in a smaller pool and increase that pool to make sure that we duplicate or triplicate those skills and take people further. Sometimes an individual would arrive here in the studio as a painter, or a carpenter or builder, and a few years later, after working on long-term projects, that person will have developed into a very creative carpenter, a very creative builder and a wonderful civic artist. These same people then take their CVs to big companies who love to employ them because of what they learned with us. You’re immediately seen to be on a much better skills level. Government should recognize the potential for using this for themselves and creating more jobs, even in other related industries. My dream, for instance, is that we create a powerful manufacturing section where we use the latest cutting-edge technology to make specialized props and costumes. We do have a costume making facility in the studio, but if you were to utilize 3D printing and other new technologies we could compete at an even higher level. You could be sitting in New York, for instance, and order props, costumes or prosthetics for a stage, media or film production which we could then deliver to you. We have made a lot of progress in prosthetics over the past five years. Prosthetics involves making artificial arms or noses or so on, and the film industry has definite needs here, you might have a Captain John so-and-so who needs a faux leg, for instance. Some of our professionals here can now make prosthetics which are so realistic that we are getting requests from the medical world. That made me realize that there’s a huge industry in the waiting here. If we can couple this skill with areas such as make-up, wardrobe, or wig-making, where we can branch out and produce not just for film or the medical world, but also for a wider market, the possibilities are endless. There might be individuals who design specific hair pieces or costumes for themselves and who are willing to pay serious money for it. This is a very exciting development, you can take the creative skill from the film industry, put a few layers onto it and go out into the broader industry.

The weakness of the rand against the dollar, the low cost of crews compared to some other destinations like Australia, and the diversity of locations in South Africa must give your studio some major competitive advantages?

We have actually had to turn away over 30 major film projects during the last two years, some of them very large scale, in the 150 million dollar plus range, and well known round the world. The question for me was always: “Why would they come all the way here to us?” There are some great studios I would love to have in other parts of the world, such as Europe, which are standing empty. But again, we are fortunate, because directors and producers are attracted by the creativeness and passion which are prevalent here, that feeling that people are still prepared to go the extra mile. I actually advise prospective film makers not to come here, tell them that we haven’t got the space and that their projects are better suited to South America or the US, or Europe.

So you’ve reached a point where you can afford to pick and choose?

We have a new stage, as I already mentioned, and immediately there were four foreign projects which wanted to take it, all of them from Los Angeles. We finally chose one of the six biggest studios in the world, with an iconic project which I believe could be the next major franchise.

So the studio has become a symbol of professionalism and of what is possible in Africa.
Could you identify some of the key issues which may be holding the South African film industry back?

The South African film industry is still lacking in self-belief, we have neither financing, nor distribution, nor interaction with the normal investment world. South African industry in general could learn a lesson from us. It’s almost as if we are still doing things for others at the moment, showing that we make the best productions, that we are very good and can manage everything from the camera work to the art department. What is lacking is bringing the right financing to the right project and the right distribution partners. There is also still an effect from the apartheid years, namely the isolation. We are playing with the world, but not in that world. We haven’t made a commercial film that could show across the world since “The Gods Must Be Crazy”, which was a very long time ago, by the way. There’s no reason why we can’t compete, but we still need to bring the right elements together. Maybe we could start with stimulating script writing improvements, as our scripts are still not at a level where they could address audiences worldwide. Original topics need to be made accessible to people across the world. There are so many possibilities here, it’s a bit dazzling. But we could begin by initiating relationships with big companies across the world, in particular in the form of scriptwriting, distribution, and financing.

Will you be able to eventually replicate the model which is established here throughout the continent, whereby Cape Town Film Studios would be able to refer international film makers to affiliates in other parts of the country, and even globally?

Yes, absolutely, I would love to use my own skills, knowledge and abilities to build high-quality studios for much cheaper in order to produce a hub of creative forces across the world, starting with Africa. I would like to franchise my dream out to others and market the brand which I have created in other parts of the world. There’s no reason this shouldn’t happen, people ask me about it all the time. Although I am currently very busy with our smaller operation here, the studio has now proven itself and the time has come to use our acquired knowledge and reach out internationally.

You’ve clearly got great crews and craftsmen here, a fantastic studio and a lot of “can-do” spirit as well as a growing international reputation. What do you envisage as the next frontier for Cape Town Film Studios?

The studio now has such a good reputation that we are actually turning requests away, and we’re ready to take the plunge and want to full-scale creative environment, almost like a hub. We’re looking for companies to move in and partner with us, or simply join us on our plot. We want to progress into the field of new media, with mobile entertainment where people can download films, for example, or game creators who come to use our facilities from rainy countries where the weather’s not so great. The new fast world of communication gives us the ability to create lines of 1 GB per second to London, New York or Los Angeles. We already transfer so much data per day to Los Angeles that it is more than one of the major banks here. That’s an enormous amount of data already. My vision is to establish a manufacturing hub that uses the creative world of films. A company could come here and we could add value to it by starting to stretch those skills into the broader industry. This could be in the area of prosthetics or wig-making, or 3D art and modelling, taking the creative energies of the film world and moving them into related industries.

Another more simple idea it to build up creative crew academies at the studio which would also benefit other industries. Just think of how effective the IT world is with all its IT centres, for instance – that’s the kind of set-up we need in the media and entertainment industry as well. This doesn’t yet exist anywhere in the world as far as I know. We need a holistic approach, and find money to finance films and distribute them, to design and manufacture products and find placements for them. All of these developments could happen in this kind of creative setting. It could also attract tourism, with tour offerings, where visitors don’t just want to go the water front or Table Mountain, but make the studio their first port of call instead, a place which is so wonderful that they want to come and spend time here, soaking up all the creative forces. This is how I see the future, as well as linking hands with key locations around the globe and finding the right partners and investors who are interested in this concept and want to come and join us. I intend to get much bigger and also believe that this is something which can be done in other parts of the world as well. I’ve recently received queries from China about this idea, I was asked if I would consider developing a similar sort of creative ‘Silicon Valley’ film city there. But I feel I still have unfinished business here in Africa and also don’t speak Mandarin! Here is the ideal place for starting. We’ve got a great climate, for instance, but there could also be many more Cape Town Studio hub-style developments replicated across the world, like a hotel chain. I’m not talking here just about studios, which are high capital investments with a fairly low return, but also the special environment I want to create around them. The studio itself is not the money-spinner but it could become a catalyst, with the industries around it being hugely profitable.

You mentioned that’s there hasn’t really been an internationally successful South African film, movie franchise or TV series since “The Gods Must be Crazy”. But there’s a lot of South African talent, isn’t there?

Absolutely, a massive amount. People who come here to shoot are always very surprised and impressed by that.

Finally, what kind of investors are you looking for and how do you plan to attract them exactly?

I’m looking for the kind of investor that wants to take the incredible base we have here and develop the 200 hectares of land. You need somebody with a longer-term view, there won’t be a return within one or two years. But a 7-year window could be extremely exciting.

Investors will need to use the energy that is here already and focus first on building residential areas and films estates and then benefiting from the business opportunities arising from the associated industries. The creative hub will need offices and lots of other facilities, for instance.

Your investors and business backers must be delighted with developments?

Yes, they are very happy. The studio started out under difficult circumstances. One of the most depressing surveys we ever carried out was in 2008, just before I started up here, to find out whether people were taking the product seriously or going to be disappointed, and 95% of people in the industry thought it would never work. But thanks to a variety of factors, including a wonderful team, many things came together in a positive way. We have certainly turned a corner and now need to take a massive leap into the future and take the vision further. The foundation has been created and the studio has a name, the brand I dreamed of creating. When you come here and see Cape Town Studios, you can’t believe it’s possible that such a high-tech facility exists here in Africa, where some people still think there are just lions and elephants running around. But once you break through that perception, I hope to find the right believers and investors to follow me and take the next step, which is going to be the most exciting one. We have shown that the ability to create these worlds is there, now we just need the right partners.

When I ask people how they would feel about staying in a creative film estate like this, they’re very enthusiastic because they’re tired of golf estates and looking for something different.


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