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language filmmaking

The question of in A burning question for many African filmmakers is the question of language – in what language should one make a film? And although it may seem obvious – many filmmakers don’t realise that the answer to this question is based on the most fundamental of premises: who is going to watch your film and where are they going to watch it?


efore starting production in any language, filmmakers must know their target audience: who are they, how many of them are there, where will they watch and how will they pay? By starting with the audience, the decisions around language become much clearer. Some basic facts are also useful for filmmakers to keep in mind; for instance, US buyers won’t buy a film as soon as there are subtitles, so using English increases your sales chances in the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand immediately. In the US subtitles on a film automatically exclude a long list of buyers who will not even consider the film, as their larger audiences have shown major reluctance towards sub-titled films – other than in niche world-cinema markets. Even when a film is being made primarily for the South African market, language is still a major issue. There are myriad language groups across South Africa, from the various African languages to English and Afrikaans, however, it is clear from box office data (NFVF box office report) that outside of English, only Afrikaans audiences frequent the cinemas and support films in their mother tongue. In South Africa, and across most of English-speaking Africa, English is the most common language in film. In South Africa English films appeal across all racial and language groups and especially to

16 | SCREENAFRICA | May 2016

By Pascal Schmitz and Mayenzeke Baza of AAA Entertainment

WATCH YOUR LANGUAGE: Pascal Schmitz and Mayenzeke Baza higher LSM groups – the audiences that go to the cinema and buy tickets and popcorn. The recent box office success of the English language film Happiness is a Four Letter Word is an ideal example of this trend, as it appealed mostly to black cinema audiences. Filmmakers also need to understand and differentiate between cinema-bound films as opposed to those that will be more successful via DVD, VOD and TV sales. Knowing the film’s potential markets and distribution channels prior to production is critical, not just for language decisions, but also in terms of financing and budgets. However, for many filmmakers the issue is not always so clear and not only based on financial considerations. In many cases filmmakers express a desire to make their films authentic and express the culture of the characters and the world of the film by having the characters talk in their mother tongue. Other times the challenge lies with the writer of the film who may not feel comfortable writing a script in English or even with the actors who could struggle to deliver a great performance in English and would sound and come across as more authentic in their mother tongue. While these are all very valid points from a creative perspective, all filmmakers do need to consider the size of nichelanguage audiences and especially the monetisation value of those audiences. If a filmmaker has no financial imperative or distribution aspirations beyond a niche audience group, then using mothertongue languages make sense. However, for most filmmakers who need to secure funding or recoup their investment, the bigger question is whether the film has

potential for local theatrical release and can it sell internationally? Many times the filmmakers in this debate, will reference non-English speaking countries such as France, Germany, Brazil, that successfully produce films in local mother tongue for their domestic market and sometimes also for the international market. However, it is important to dig deeper and understand the realities of these territories. First and foremost, South Africa is a multi-language environment unlike successful film producing countries such as France – where there is only one national language. A French language film would be accessible to the entire population of France. Additionally, French is spoken in 38 countries outside of France, 26 of them in Africa, and therefore their domestic mother tongue has a built-in global market. The same goes for Spain, Brazil and many other domestic mother tongue cinema success stories. Even though all of these countries’ films are still placed second in terms of box office earnings to Hollywood, their cinema-going markets are large enough to sustain domestic films even as a secondary market. There is, in fact, no multilingual country in the world that has successfully and consistently exported films in one or more local languages, but almost all primary English language countries have managed to do so. Another example of this is closer to home; Nigeria has more languages and ethnic groups than South Africa, yet they produce more films in English, than in Hausa or other local languages. It is primarily the English films that are screened on DStv’s Africa Magic and

other channels for millions of eager viewers across the continent. Lastly, but yet critically important to consider, are the technical implications of making a non-English language film. For any international sales and distribution, such as iTunes or television licensing, separate subtitles have to be delivered along with a clean version of the film. For territories that dub, the music and FX track must be delivered as well as a full transcription of the films’ final dialogue. The costs to deliver non-English language films therefore are significantly higher than English language films, and they offer a lower potential for return on that investment. It is clear that when setting out to make a film, filmmakers need to be clear and honest about the audiences targeted and the desired outcomes in terms of local, regional or global sales. A film may have a huge audience potential in a particular language, but sadly that audience’s size or viewing habits may seriously hamper the film’s financial success or global reach. As sales agent and distributors, these are critical factors as the value of the TV, DVD and VOD sales are directly influenced by box office success in South Africa, and in international sales, language plays a huge role. Therefore, if English as a language of production is at your disposal in terms of scriptwriting, directing and actors’ performances, it makes sense to use English as the primary language for film. Doing so will increase chances of financing, regional and international reach, and ultimately, securing international sales and distribution – making it possible to share the story and message of the film on a global scale.

Screen Africa May 2016  
Screen Africa May 2016