Movie draws public – and pirates

Elvis (Kenneth Nkosi) and Tumi (Rapulana
Seiphemo) on the road in the Eastern
Cape in this still from White Wedding.
(Image: White Wedding)

Kenneth Nkosi, Jann Turner Rapulana
Seiphemo together formed Stepping Stone
Pictures to produce White Wedding.
(Image: Stepping Stone Pictures)

Samson Mulugeta

South Africa’s new comedy film White Wedding has been such an unexpected hit on local screens it has already attracted the interest of DVD pirates – but the film-makers are fighting back.

Six weeks after its launch, White Wedding – best described as a road-and-buddy movie – is still on the local cinema circuit, drawing record numbers of viewers and competing strongly with Hollywood blockbusters produced with budgets hundreds of times more.

That is a remarkable achievement, according to the local film industry. Normally, exhibitors are quite unsentimental in removing films that don’t perform well.

“Usually, a local film lasts a week, and sometimes two,” said Jam Kaunda, a Johannesburg-based director and writer of Proof Positive, a romantic comedy.  “I’m impressed that White Wedding is still showing after more than a month.”

White Wedding tells of two friends – the dependable Elvis (Kenneth Nkosi) and womanising Tumi (Rapulana Seiphemo) – as they drive through the Eastern Cape to Cape Town for Elvis’s wedding to the beautiful Ayanda. Their journey doesn’t go smoothly, as along the way they have a series of mishaps and run into a variety of characters, from a young British doctor who is fleeing her fiancé, to gun-toting white farmers.

Nkosi and Seiphemo also helped finance the movie, forming production company Stepping Stone Pictures in partnership with Turner.

The film hasn’t done better than the Leon Schuster franchise, a slapstick comedy model that always draws the crowds. But it’s outperformed other South African films – including the Oscar-winning Tsotsi.

“In our opening weekend we were hoping to come in a comfortable third behind Tsotsi and Jerusalema, which had been the most successful non-Schusters to date,” said Jann Turner, the director of White Wedding.

“By Sunday night we switched off our cell phones because they were ringing off the hook with compliments from friends and fans. Monday morning it was clear that we’d taken double Tsotsi’s opening weekend and quadrupled Jerusalema’s take. We came in at number three at the nationwide box office – behind Wolverine at one and Hannah Montana at two.”

Coincidentally, Wolverine was directed by South African Gavin Hood, the director of Tsotsi.

“That’s pretty amazing, that we came in so close to two movies with monster budgets and established brands,” said Turner. “We’re still in the top 10, but by our sixth weekend we were down at number seven.”

Turner said that the film had done well in cinemas that draw very different demographics, from upmarket Sandton to Sterland, Cresta, Southgate, Montecasino, Maponya Mall in Soweto, and Key West in Roodepoort.

“We’ve done well in all those places. So we’re pulling in an audience that varies widely across race, age, gender and class.”

On the fourth weekend at Soweto’s Maponya Mall, White Wedding accounted for 50% of the total take at the box office even though the film was only one of eight movies showing in the Ster-Kinekor Theatres there, Turner said.

Again with the exception of Leon Schuster films, most South African movies lose money.

“We have tried to pay everyone and also to keep costs down,” Turner said. So we have spent about R6-million [US$740 000] on everything – from script development to marketing and digital prints

“It looks like we are going to recoup that amount and that we’ll be able to pay our investor back.  That’s through local sales – cinema, pay TV, DVD, airline TV, regular TV. Anything we make after that we get to keep a part of – obviously our investor will take a chunk of the profit in return for his risk.

“But still, it is possible that Stepping Stone Pictures will see some money from this some time down the line.  And that’s pretty amazing.”

She added: “So – in retrospect – we look very clever. And people are talking about White Wedding as a model local film. In truth – at the time – we just tried very hard to keep our ownership structure simple, our costs down and to make the best possible film. “

This success is despite the fact that White Wedding has drawn the attention of copyright pirates, with counterfeit DVD copies of the film being spotted in Johannesburg and Cape Town in the past few weeks.

The filmmakers first learned that the film was pirated when film’s editor, Tanja Hagen, who lives in Cape Town, was told by her office cleaner how much she enjoyed White Wedding. It turned out the cleaner had not seen the movie in theatres, but watched a pirated DVD.

The filmmakers reported the incident to the South African Federation Against Copyright Theft. The federation soon conducted simultaneous raids at train stations and taxi ranks in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Pretoria and confiscated thousands of pirated DVDs, known in local slang as “fong kongs.” Among the DVDs were copies of White Wedding.

Actor Kenneth Nkosi was stepping into his bank in Auckland Park, Johannesburg, when he was approached by a man offering him an array of DVDs. The pirate realised too late that the man he’d approached bore a striking resemblance to the guy in one of the movies he was peddling.

When Nkosi asked the hawker for a copy of White Wedding, the man shook his head and started to back away – but not before Nkosi landed a punch.

According to Turner, Nkosi was furious.

“Kenneth is a producer of the movie, one of its stars and also owes 25% of the R6-million we borrowed to make the movie,” she said. “He was naturally a bit upset at the idea of someone making money from his hard work. And of course Kenneth knows that we still have this huge amount to pay back to our investor.”

The filmmakers scrambled to film public service announcements denouncing DVD piracy, posting them on Zoopy.com, one of South Africa’s most popular video sharing websites.

In one of the announcements, actor Rapulana Seiphemo, sitting on a director’s chair at the Joubert Street taxi rank in Johannesburg, looks straight at the camera and appeals to film fans not to buy pirated copies.

“If you buy pirated DVDs, not only are you denying me the opportunity to make more movies but you are also denying yourself the opportunity to be entertained by me in the future,” he says. “Please do not buy pirated DVDs. Stop it. It’s not funny.”

Turner said the economics of making films is so precarious that a pirated DVD being peddled on the streets could be financially devastating.  A big part of the problem is that average people don’t understand the impact of buying illegal copies. “I think that’s a big part of the problem – people don’t think of it as stealing,” she said.

“Imagine we came over to your house, took your TV, your computer, your microwave and your shoes and then set up a stall at the market near the Joubert Street taxi rank and sold your things.”

It’s clearly a personal issue for Turner and the other producers, who have all risked their own money on the venture.

“This is our baby we worked damn hard to make the film,” she said. “We borrowed huge amounts of money from our investor we took enormous risks and it’s nice to get a bit of glory and good reviews.

“It’s really, really cool when people go see it and they pay money to do that – which allows us to pay back our investor and this shows that movies are worth investing in which allows us to raise money for our next movie.”

Another part of the problem, Turner says, is the pricing of authentic DVDs.

“The pirates have this big advantage – their price is very low,” she said. “I think a pirated DVD costs R30. The genuine DVD goes for around R100. So part of the problem in South Africa is that authorised DVDs cost more than most people can afford. We have to take that on board and try to come up with a strategy and solution.”

In a developing country like South Africa, the film industry may have to look at ways of providing low-cost DVDs.

“There is much talk in the industry of setting up a distribution network of no-frills DVDs that are good quality and authorised versions that would compete with the pirates,” said Turner.

“The problem is that so far no one has put in the capital to make that happen. It’s risky because it involves competing with the vast informal sector. But it has to happen soon.

“Stepping Stone would love to take part in that. So perhaps that will be one of our next ventures.”

Do you have queries or comments about this article? Email Mary Alexander at marya@mediaclubsouthafrica.com

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