Producers Shift Gaze to South Africa

Gorgeous sites, affordability, and a changed political climate attract foreign filmmakers, while locals lament lack of funding

Foreign filmmakers are zooming in on South Africa, lured by the country's new political acceptability now that apartheid is dead and relative peace has been restored.

Year-round sunshine, varied spectacular scenery, and a weak currency provide a winning formula to create an African Hollywood, industry sources say. Now that the country is no longer a pariah following last year's democratic elections, international interest is growing by the day.

The opening of more international air links after the demise of apartheid means easier access to the once-isolated country. And ample cheap and well-trained technicians, actors and crews, and sophisticated equipment and labs further draw an increasing number of big-name filmmakers.

''So many foreign productions have been coming into the country, having realized what an ideal situation it is,'' says Annette Utz, managing editor of Big Screen, South Africa's leading cinema magazine.

''South Africa has the talent and technical facilities to do anything here done elsewhere, and at a fraction of the cost,'' she says. ''And given the gentle climate, films can be shot all year against a variety of landscapes, ranging from tropical oases to rugged desert wastelands.''

Ms. Utz, an American, came to South Africa a couple of years ago seeking work as a film actress. She found the place brimming with opportunities to work on various films and television shoots and decided to stay.

Among the big ventures currently being filmed here is ''Danger Zone,'' directed by Allen Eastman and starring Robert Downey Jr. and Billy Zane.

Other recent productions have included ''Cry the Beloved Country,'' starring James Earl Jones and Richard Harris; ''A Good Man in Africa'' with Sean Connery and Mark Harmon; and ''The Air Up There'' with Kevin Bacon.

The country is particularly attractive for British producers due to plentiful white, English-speaking actors and the same time zone. For Americans, there is similar architecture. One big feature film in the works is ''Rhodes,'' a coproduction with the BBC about the life of British colonial administrator Cecil Rhodes.

''My life is so much easier now. We are fully booked,'' says Danny Lerner of Nu World, South Africa's largest film production company, which has links with big independent American firm Nu Image.

''We have everything here. People tell me the crews are as good as in Hollywood but cheaper. If I want tropical scenes or beaches I go to Natal. I can find desert in Namibia. If I need jungle there is the Transvaal. The only thing we don't have here is snow -- and downtown Los Angeles.''

Mr. Lerner's nearly 84 acres of well-equipped studio on the edge of Johannesburg has produced 18 films since 1990 -- and is being inundated with proposals for many more projects.

In the 1980s, when South Africa offered attractive tax incentives, the country was a major venue for filming B movies, despite the apartheid stigma. Interest dried up when the tax advantage did. Since President Nelson Mandela's 1990 release from prison, however, foreigners have been attracted to the nation's new legitimacy in the world community.

Films shot in South Africa still tend to be of the low-budget, action-adventure, ''American Ninja'' variety. But productions are getting bigger and are being upgraded in content.

There are increasingly more films with African themes, such as last year's ''African Skies'' shot by a Canadian company and starring Robert Mitchum. Another example is an Indian director who has been looking at potential locations in South Africa for a film about Mahatma Gandhi's years in the country.

Television producers as well as commercial filmmakers are also attracted to South Africa. They find it easier to get local funding because the costs are lower. There has been a plethora of European TV productions, including one being shot by a British company about the Gulf war.

The appeal also extends to making television commercials. Industry sources report many co-productions with French, German, and British firms to shoot ads for BMW, shampoos, and even a Swiss chocolate commercial that used the Drakensberg mountains instead of the Alps.

''The South African movie business is young and raw. There are a lot more risks being taken and creative borders are more flexible. Right now, it is simply a more exciting backdrop to make films,'' says Steven Sidley, a South African filmmaker who returned home a year ago to make commercials after more than a decade in Los Angeles.

The influx of foreigners, however, does not make life easier for some local filmmakers. They complain that they are dependent on foreign investment because, unlike many European countries, there are no subsidies at home. With the new black-majority government concerned primarily with improving the situations of the disadvantaged, housing is a priority over moviemaking.

''We need a substantial amount of money to make sure projects are financially viable,'' prominent filmmaker Cedric Sundstrom says. ''We don't have a film commission or board to decide on necessary funding, so we generally need to look to overseas investment. The local industry still has a long way to go.''

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