Five Takeaways From the Joburg Film Festival and JBX Content Market

The fifth Joburg Film Festival wrapped Sunday night with the caper comedy “The Umbrella Men,” from homegrown director John Barker, a local premiere that cast and crew celebrated by promenading through Nelson Mandela Square with brightly colored parasols. Earlier in the week, the first edition of the JBX Content Market — a two-day industry confab running parallel to the fest — concluded after offering a short but wide-ranging overview of the state of play for Africa’s screen industries in 2023.

There’s no clear-cut portrait that can emerge from an industry gathering on a continent as rich and diverse as Africa, where film and TV production and consumer trends — as with everything else — vary widely from one country to the next. The major markets of South Africa and Nigeria still dominate the conversation at such events; global players like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video see those territories as key to their expansion plans on the continent and beyond. The fact that English was the lingua franca at the JBX Content Market this week, however, also meant that the vast market of French-speaking West Africa — dominated by a growing production powerhouse in Ivory Coast — was largely a no-show.

While much of the talk in Johannesburg centered on the continent’s boundless potential, the rolling blackouts that knocked out power across the city throughout the week were a sobering reminder that not even a country with South Africa’s wealth is immune to massive disruptive forces. It is hard to be bullish on the booming African mobile market when a power cut can take out a 3G network for hours on end. At least several screenings during the Joburg Film Festival were also disrupted, according to one festival source.

Yet long-time players in the African industry have neither ignored nor shied away from such challenges. Opportunity is everywhere you turn. The continent is home to some 1.2 billion people — more than 60% of whom are under the age of 25 — representing a largely untapped consumer market, as well as a source of countless stories still waiting to be told.

A young, dynamic city of constant reinvention, Johannesburg is the natural place to take the continent’s pulse. It is an African melting pot and a city of dreams, an El Dorado for fortune-seekers from far and wide since the first prospectors came to this boomtown hoping to strike gold.

As the Joburg Film Festival and JBX Content Market wrap for 2023, here are our five takeaways:

It’s “business as usual” for global streaming platforms in Africa

During an exclusive interview with Variety, Ned Mitchell, the Los Angeles-based head of originals for Africa and the Middle East for Prime Video and Amazon Studios, said the streamer now has “a dedicated local content strategy for the continent across the board” as it steadily inks deals with top African studios and talents, such as Nigerian multi-hyphenate Jáde Osiberu (“Gangs of Lagos”). The company’s latest pact, a multi-picture licensing agreement with South Africa’s Known Associates announced during the Joburg Film Festival last week, grants the streamer exclusive SVOD access to over 20 South African feature films. It’s yet another sign that the company is ready to lock horns with Netflix, which rolled out its first African Original in 2020, as the two streaming giants race to secure the lion’s share of Africa’s still largely untapped SVOD market. Stagnant growth and stock woes might be shaking up the streaming market in other parts of the world, but in Africa, “it’s very much business as usual,” according to one veteran African producer. “There is still a lot of commissioning and licensing going on. I don’t think it’s slowed down.” Despite the prospect of “a slight tightening of the belt,” they added, “the international territories are their only hope for growth, so it feels like they’re really sticking to the plan to keep building audiences and subscribers here.”

Local streamers say they’re in poll position to grab African audiences

For the pan-African streaming service Showmax, which operates in all 50 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, there’s no question that local content is king: Last year, seven out of the 10 most-watched shows on the streamer in South Africa were homegrown, while that number was eight in Kenya and Nigeria and nine out of 10 in Ghana. Backed by the deep pockets of South African media giant MultiChoice, the streamer is steadily pumping out a string of original films and series in key African markets, while other local and regional players — like PCCW’s Asian regional OTT platform, Viu, which is slowly growing its African footprint — are making it clear that it’s not just the global SVODs scrambling for African subscribers. The locals say they have a leg up on their globe-trotting rivals, with innovative payment plans and viewing options — such as mobile-only subscriptions and downloads for offline viewing — proof that their services are designed “with Africa in mind,” according to Jeanne van Zyl, senior manager of content at Showmax and DStv Now. Physical infrastructure remains a challenge: internet connectivity throughout Africa is estimated to be just 26%, according to van Zyl, while the rolling blackouts that plunged large swaths of Johannesburg into darkness this week are proof that not even South Africa is immune to such disruptions.

Milisuthando Bongela’s first documentary feature, “Milisuthando,” premiered at Sundance.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

African docmakers find a voice — and a growing global platform

Just days after South African documentary filmmaker Milisuthando Bongela’s first feature, “Milisuthando,” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, Cameroon’s Cyrielle Raingou took home Rotterdam’s Tiger Award for “Le Spectre de Boko Haram,” a historic achievement for an African documentary. Such high-profile premieres and plaudits are increasingly becoming the norm for the continent’s docmakers, who are getting greater festival exposure than ever before. The industry has gotten a boost from initiatives like the Cape Town-based media non-profit STEPS, whose Generation Africa anthology set the ambitious goal to produce 30 African documentary features. Pan-African streaming platform Showmax, meanwhile, is stepping in to make up for some of the shortfall as commissioning budgets at African broadcasters dry up, while AfriDocs — a pan-African distribution platform — not only offers its own streaming platform free of charge but partners with broadcasters across the continent to get African documentaries airtime on terrestrial channels. Perhaps most importantly, however, young African filmmakers are finding intimate and daring ways to share their stories and explore those liminal spaces where the personal and political converge. “There’s always an engagement, an interrogation with family issues, culture, politics, and how that affects the personal, and I think that’s quite a huge consideration for young, upcoming talent in the genre,” said Mandisa Ralane, director of South Africa’s Encounters documentary film festival, during a panel this week in Johannesburg.

African talents toon up for the spotlight with demand for animation on the rise

The news that South Africa’s Triggerfish would be one of just nine animation studios across the globe to produce a short film for Disney+’s upcoming “Star Wars: Visions Vol.2” anthology didn’t come as a shock to those who have been following the studio’s steady rise, and its ongoing collaboration with the Mouse House. Back in 2015, the duo partnered on the Triggerfish Story Lab, a pan-African talent search, while the Cape Town-based animation house was also tapped as lead studio on “Kizazi Moto: Generation Fire,” a 10-part, pan-African, Disney+ Original anthology executive produced by Oscar-winning director Peter Ramsey (“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”). With global streaming platforms continuing their push for more and more content, demand for adult animation growing, and showcases like the Annecy International Animation Festival training a spotlight on the explosion of animation across the continent in recent years, the prospects have never been brighter for African animators. “Distinctiveness, appeal and tone has always mattered, but there’s an added emphasis on authenticity in terms of the subject and cast of the story, which creates more opportunities for African animation professionals,” said Nick Cloete, national chair of South African industry organization AnimationSA, who spoke on a panel this week at the Joburg Film Festival.

“Kizazi Moto: Generation Fire” will be a 10-part, pan-African anthology series for Disney+.
Courtesy of Disney

African stories on African terms

In the past two years, South Africa has quietly signed co-production treaties with Nigeria (2021) and Kenya (2022) — its first co-pro pacts with other African countries. While that’s no doubt a positive sign for collaborations on the continent, several producers speaking in Johannesburg this week suggested those deals might look better on paper than in practice. “Those systems don’t actually aid in African co-productions,” said Nigerian actor and producer Fabian Lojede, noting how such treaties are designed “from a Western point of view.” Most African producers, he noted, couldn’t raise the financing to shore up their end of the bargain and tap into South Africa’s cash rebate. “It’s a non-starter.” Collaboration across borders is nevertheless on the rise; so, too, is interest from Hollywood and elsewhere, as more and more foreign suitors look to tap into growing global demand for African talents and stories. The tide might be finally turning in Africa’s favor to tell its stories on its own terms. “‘Black Panther’ was a Hollywood product that involved Africa,” said Nicky Weinstock, the former creative head of Ben Stiller’s Red Hour Films and CEO of Invention Studios. “Now the job is to find more authentic stuff, to involve more African creators and…to choose the things that feel like they can be global, high-quality and gamechangers in terms of perceptions about the African continent.”

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