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The case for KZN

Traditionally shooting commercials or anything else in Durban has relied on production having to find a way to truck in the crew, gear, caterers etc from Cape Town or Johannesburg. You only went to Durban if the client was based there, the scene called for an authentic Durban scenario, or you were shooting for KZN tourism.
Image credit: HONGQI ZHANG via 123RF.com.

For a while, prior to that, there was a point where Durban had a chance to make a go of it but for some reason decided that it was happy with its tiny slice of the big commercial pie and let the moment pass by. When the last gear house finally decided it was no longer viable to stock and maintain gear in Durban and packed up, the last reason for production to take Durban seriously also went into a box.

That was then, but things have changed. Durban and the wider KZN is no longer a quiet backwater for commercials. A shrinking economic climate coupled with the changing face of production has meant that Durban once again is poised for bigger things. The difference this time is that there are a number of players who are determined to make sure it takes advantage of the opportunities on offer.

Increased experience and opportunities


As the KZN Film Commission concedes, they have not focused on commercials so much as generating interest in more long-form projects. TV projects like Imbewu and a series of features have all been actively promoted, funded and incentivised. The ever-present murmurs of Anant Singh’s eThekweni Film City project have finally moved past rumour and legal challenges to approval. The lack of local crew is now starting to remedy itself as local work allows for increased experience and opportunities. A crew that spent the bulk of their year away from home to make a living are returning to take up positions on local productions.

The return of Media Film Services has taken care of the need to truck gear in and relieves production concerns about maintenance and gear breakdowns on set. The spin-offs of this increase in long form and the logistical improvements are a boon to a commercials industry that has undergone serious challenges in the last 2 years. Cape Town’s drought put a serious dent in the service season and local commercials in Johannesburg have been constrained by a global recession that has seen companies slash budgets for advertising.

Durban is positioning itself to step into the chasm between smaller budgets and the rapidly escalating costs of shooting in Cape Town and to a lesser extent Johannesburg. Beachfront locations that would cost as much as a small web series but are the norm in Cape Town cost less than a Johannesburg, Emmarentia house location.

Caterers, a nightmare in the past, have become more savvy, offering up good food at competitive rates. The rapid expansion of Ballito due to the King Shaka airport move has meant that the North Coast has now opened up as a viable shoot location. Courtesy of the combined efforts of the Durban Film Office and the KZN Film Commission, hotels are now putting production rates in place and offering production facilities.

Brutally competitive environment


There are still challenges to getting a foothold in this brutally competitive environment. The lack of local advertising agencies with above the line or digital heavy accounts is a big stumbling block. In order for the local industry to thrive, it has to be supported by local private industry, not government.

The argument that Cape Town is not reliant on local accounts is not a reliable reference, you have to compare apples to apples. Cape Town occupies a unique position geographically and possesses the added bonus of being first to the trough. There are a few agencies that have retained big accounts but they tend to outsource the productions to Johannesburg based production companies who then shoot in Johannesburg.

The benefit to local production is minimal if at all. The other challenge is the lack of local production houses with sufficient expertise to support the scale of shoots that are taken as a given in your major shoot centres. It’s hard to offer work to local suppliers if they don’t exist or don’t offer a comparable level of service. That’s not to say there are no quality production facilities in Durban, just that the choice factor is vastly reduced. Location scouts are few and far between, a hassle shared by Johannesburg but without the safety net of up to date databases.

Every industry has its obstacles and these are being addressed. Local agencies are shooting more content than before which is slowly increasing the pool of talent. Production houses with the relevant experience have started to move in and coupled with new remote workflows are offering the same production and post-production calibre at far more competitive rates with no compromise in quality. The KZN Film Commission is looking at finding ways to support local initiatives and Durban Film Office have been actively putting permit processes etc. in place to expedite the usual yesterday production turn around.

Unlike previous attempts to kickstart things, there is an air of optimism and sense of can do that if successful will bring a new player to the table. Change isn’t always doom and gloom, sometimes it spawns a new way of doing things that shake the system up and makes for a better product and a bigger pie. That’s something we should all be getting behind.

About Graham Black

Freelance producer/writer and owner of One Black Sock (Pty) Ltd. I specialise in commercial production and copy.
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