TBI Weekly: What’s next for Africa’s blooming drama business?

Is’thunzi

From the impact of streamers such as Amazon, Showmax and Netflix, to the acceptance of dubbing/subtitling and the appetite for international coproductions, drama series from Africa are in demand like never before.

To explore what this means across the continent and beyond, TBI partnered with The Africa Channel (TAC) and its production division, TAC Studios, to find out what the future holds for the continent’s scripted industry.

TAC and TAC Studios recently hosted the International Emmy’s semi-final judging round for Drama Series and, for the first time, assembled a panel of industry executives from across Africa and the Middle East to adjudicate. Some of those execs have shared their insights with TBI this week – here are some of the highlights.

Nirvana Singh

Nirvana Singh, SABC

Nirvana is genre manager for drama and local productions & acting manager for industry development at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC)

What has been the single biggest industry change for the drama business in South Africa over the past two years?

The single biggest industry change has been the arrival of streaming platforms such as Netflix, VUI, Amazon as well as the local streaming platform Showmax.

SABC offers a pre-sale licence/equity model to local producers, where the SABC offers a licence fee and development funding depending on the project

The biggest change is the investment by the streaming platforms in the commissioning of local content for their platforms.

Until 2017-2018, SABC, ETV, MNET and Mzansi Magic were the main curators of local dramas, but the landscape changed dramatically with Netflix and Showmax commissioning local content, followed by VUI.

Interest in scripted programming from Africa also seems to be blooming globally, what’s driving this and how do you expect this to affect your operations?

South Africa has 11 official languages. SABC and other broadcasters primarily produce content that talks directly to the language group. Up until recently local content was not appealing to the international market due to the language barrier. However, with the onset of Netflix Africa, VUI and other streaming services, the barrier has been overcome whether the content is queen and prevails.

Subtitling and dubbing makes the content accessible to a global audience. SABC’s sales division has had a long standing relationship with African, Caribbean and European broadcasters who have licenced SABC-owned dramas. We foresee an increase in sales to the streaming platforms and other broadcasters as language is no longer the issue.

Are you looking to work with other international players on drama, and if so, how?

Agent

SABC is constantly working with the local industry to partner with both local and international players. Currently we offer a pre-sale licence/equity model to local producers, where the SABC offers a licence fee and development funding depending on the project. In return, SABC takes a licence window for its terrestrial channel for a period and an equity return on its investment. We also have partnership with key governmental and industry bodies to develop the local industry through skills development programmes. SABC has partnered with RTI Cote d’ Voire and Ambre lab to produce a pan-African limited series that will be shot in both countries.

The continent is huge and diverse as is its drama industry output – which country/countries do you think are producing the most eye-catching scripted series at present?

South Africa has been at the forefront of producing ground breaking, high end drama that has both a local and international presence. SABC recently partnered with Netflix to co-produce a drama series called Agent that was shot both in South Africa and Mauritius. Other partners included Arte and the Mauritius Film sector. SABC also partnered with VUI to produce the adaption of the Ugly Betty franchise, called uBettina Wethu.

To read Nirvana’s answers in full, click here.

Yolisa Phahle

Yolisa Phahle, MultiChoice Group

Yolisa is CEO for general entertainment & connected video at MultiChoice Group

Interest in scripted programming from Africa also seems to be blooming globally, what’s driving this and how do you expect this to affect your operations?

MultiChoice is 26 years old, so is well-positioned to meet this increased demand both locally and internationally. We’re increasingly co-producing with international partners, like Monte Carlo’s opening night crime series Reyka, with Fremantle; or the epic pre-colonial fantasy Blood Psalms and the police procedural Crime And Justice with Canal+; or our adaptation of author Deon Meyer’s best selling crime novel Trackers with CineMax and ZDF. And we’re also seeing strong international sales on the likes of The Real Housewives Of Durban and our record-breaking true crime series, Devilsdorp.

This is all allowing us to be more ambitious than ever before, as increased demand helps us to recoup on increased budgets.

The continent is huge and diverse as is its drama industry output – which country/countries do you think are producing the most eye-catching scripted series at present?

We’re currently producing Showmax Originals in Kenya, Ghana, Mauritius, Nigeria and South Africa; as MultiChoice we’re producing across the continent, in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and beyond. We are truly the only business in Africa producing in this volume of territories.

We’re in a really good place: there’s experienced talent, fresh locations, improving budgets and a wealth of incredible, under-exposed stories

Kenya has been making hit festival films for nearly a decade, from 2012 AFI Festival winner Nairobi Half Life to 2016 Toronto Film Festival winner Kati Kati to 2018 Berlin Film Festival winner Supa Modoas to name just three examples. So they’re definitely a country to watch at the moment, from the Showmax-Canal+ co-production Crime And Justice to the music industry drama Famous.

We’re also really excited about our first West African comedy, Ghana Jollof, which was shot in both Ghana and Nigeria. There’s a lot more happening there we’re not quite ready to talk about yet.

Are you looking to work with other international players on drama, and if so, how?

Yes, this is a key growth area with us. Our recent co-production partners include Acorn, BET, Canal+, Cinemax, Fremantle, Media Musketeers, and ZDF, among others.

Blood Psalms

If you want to tell African stories, talk to us. We can help with financing, but more importantly with connecting you to the best talent across the continent, as well as local knowledge of what to expect and how to keep your story authentic.

What is the single biggest challenge holding back the African scripted industry?

We’re in a really good place: there’s experienced talent, fresh locations, improving budgets and a wealth of incredible, under-exposed stories. Now we just need cheaper and better internet across the continent, so streaming can grow even faster and build an even bigger pan-African audience.

To read Yolisa’s answers in full, click here.

Narendra Reddy & Brendan Gabriel

Narendra Reddy, The Africa Channel, & Brendan Gabriel, TAC Studios

Narendra Reddy is EVP & general manager at The Africa Channel, while Brendan Gabriel is VP of production & creative director at TAC Studios

What has been the single biggest industry change for the drama business in Africa over the past two years?

The impact of streaming platforms such as Amazon and Netflix and the increased access to international content has had the most significant impact on the drama industry in Africa. It has exposed audiences to global content that they may not have previously seen and has in turn caused them to demand higher quality from local broadcasters.

As the global demand for scripted content from Africa begins to rise, local producers have started to raise their own bar as they strive to make the next Squid Game or Fauda or Narcos. In addition, the pandemic combined with a boost in digital connectivity has somewhat leveled the playing field and made it easier for African producers to leverage their scripted developments by collaborating with international talent via Zoom, Google Meet and other such platforms without having to make expensive trips to pitch their projects.

The continent is huge and diverse as is its drama industry output – which country/countries do you think are producing the most eye-catching scripted series at present?

The quality of scripted content is starting to improve in all quarters of Africa as audiences are exposed to more international content and their tastes and expectations expand.

South Africa has had an advantage of having a strong production skillset and has been servicing Hollywood and Europe for decades. It should come as no surprise that the more compelling series with global appeal are coming out of South Africa, including Blood & Water, Dead Places and Queen Sono on Netflix.

The industry must continue to increase the hire of diverse executives from different cultures at senior decision-making levels and allow them the latitude to express their individuality

With that said, Nigeria, the most prolific creator of content for the local market in Africa through the Nollywood industry, is also upping the ante to create content with an international aesthetic with feature films such as Netflix’s King Of Boys and Lionheart.

In addition, we are starting to see very talented producers and projects in development from other parts of the continent as well including Kenya, Ethiopia, Egypt, Zimbabwe and Ghana.

Are you looking to work with other international players on drama, and if so, how?

Yes. A core strategy for building our development and production slate is collaboration. We believe the stories of Africa will ultimately claim their rightful share of the world stage only through the creation of partnerships, both between producers and creators on the continent as well as with established companies and talent worldwide.

Queen Sono

We are particularly excited about our international scripted collaborations which we have just started bringing to the market. We are principally a development company in the scripted space and the deals we make are relatively uncomplicated and very flexible.

We are able to fund scripted development (optioningbook rights, funding treatments and scripts or attaching creatives and showrunners), but are still not in a position to deficit finance productions. During the early stages of development we rarely participate in projects for which we have less than 50% of ownership in the core IP.

How is your drama slate developing and what upcoming show are you most excited about?

We are very excited about some of the more current projects in our drama slate including Asylum, a workplace comedy set in a Nigerian embassy, written by Akemnji Ndifornyen (Famalam) and Conor Galvin (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), executive produced by Phil Clarke of Various Artists Limited. Drama series Backhand is set in the world of professional tennis – a collaboration with UK producer Dan Hine of Who’s On First, written by Yero Timi-Biu (Wolfe) and Czech Mate, a crime drama set in South Africa inspired by true events surrounding convicted Russian mafia boss Radovan Krejcir, in collaboration with South African production outfit Clive Morris Productions.

What needs to change more widely across the industry to improve diversity?

To stop treating Africa as a monolithic culture. Recognising the breadth of diversity that exists across the continent. Reinforce the premise that even within a specific culture there can be several narratives and multiple stories. This will go a long way to breaking negative or singular stereotypes that are rampant in the industry. Old and tired genres and formats can get new life when set within a new cultural context.

The industry must continue to increase the hire of diverse executives from different cultures at senior decision-making levels and allow them the latitude to express their individuality. Too often these diverse executives are asked to conform or fit-in and before you know it they become just another gatekeeper and not an advocate.

In addition, African producers themselves must understand that the playing field for their content is no longer just local – this means upping the game in crafting and writing strong scripts so that we can compete fairly with US and UK showrunners and not expect to be given an unfair handicap.

To read Narendra & Brendan’s answers in full, click here.

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