We’re so excited that there is such a terrific interest in short film as the IPO are huge believers in the potential of short film and we hope that this will be our first of many short fiction film webinars. If you would like to watch the recording please find it here and use this passcode: 3yTv@#5N
The transcript of the webinar is also provided below.
Trish Downing, IPO Executive Director: Welcome to our speakers Sandulela Asanda Biyana, known as Asanda, Cait Pansegrouw from Urucu Media, Cati Weinek from The Ergo Company and Sibusiso Khuzwayo, although I think Sibusiso may not be able to join us due to loadshedding.
Asanda is a dynamic young filmmaker with a background in Law and Economics. She holds and Honours degree in film from AFDA Film School in Cape Town. She has also worked as a creative researcher and strategic planner, most notably with the Cape Town International Film Festival and Market in 2018. In 2019 Asanda was appointed as programme manager for the Realness Institute, where she coordinated two editions of the screenwriter’s residency and managed the launch of Creative Producer Indaba. Asanda is currently writing her debut feature: Black Burns Fast, a coming of age story about a black teenage girl’s journey of self-discovery while attending an elite, predominantly white, high school, to be produced by Urucu Media.
Cait is a South African producer and casting director that has worked internationally for the past 7 years. Cait’s work has travelled to Sundance, Berlinale, Venice, Durban and FESPACO, to name a few. Inxeba (The Wound), which she produced and cast directed screened at more than 60 festivals worldwide, winning 28 awards. In 2017 it was selected as South Africa’s official entry for the Academy Awards, making it to the December shortlist of 9 films. Most recently, her feature film This Is Not A Burial, It’s A Resurrection was awarded the Jury Prize for Visionary Filmmaking at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered. The film has gone on to win a further 27 awards. In 2020, it was announced as Lesotho’s first ever entry to both the Oscars and the Golden Globes. Cait serves as Co-founder of the Realness Institute, which strives to foster a new wave of African cinema. Cait is a Durban Talents, Berlinale Talents, La Fabrique Cinema de L’Institut Francais, EAVE Producer’s Workshop and Biennale College-Cinema alumna.
Cati has produced beautifully crafted award-winning feature films and social change documentaries. Always intent on working in film, she completed her degree in African History, and began working as an archival researcher in documentary films. Her first screen credit as a writer came with her short feature, Come See the Bioscope, (1993), which heralded a new era of hope in SA filmmaking. With a passion for popular culture she became head writer on television hits such as Zone 14 and Muvhango on SA’s public broadcaster, drawing nightly audiences of 6 million people.
Other career highlights include: co-creating the ground-breaking Sediba script programme under the wing of South Africa’s National Film and Video Foundation , producing the award-winning Soul City series, raising finance for a 3D feature animation film; nurturing the making of social justice documentaries such as Uranium Road (2007), which stopped nuclear power roll-out in its tracks in South Africa, Here Be Dragons (2007 ) directed by human rights lawyer and filmmaker, Odette Geldenhuys, about Nelson Mandela’s lawyer, George Bizos; and developing films with celebrated storytellers such as Zola Maseko, Twiggy Matiwana, Pieter Grobbelaar, Tristan Holmes, Adze Ugah, Phumi Morare, Fred Strydom and Sibusiso Khuzwayo. Her highlight this year has been working with Sara Chitambo on her documentary, Black People Don’t get Depressed which was selected for Marche du Films Cannes Docs in 2021. Cati has over 30 feature films in development with her partner Dumi Gumbi at The Ergo Company. She is a founding member of the gender diverse film collective, New Moon Rising, and also is a full member of both the Independent Producer’s Organisation and of the Writers Guild of South Africa.
Cait: We’re really excited today to talk to you about our short film Mirror Mirror, which was written and directed by Asanda. To give you a little bit of context about how and why the film came about, we applied for PESP grant through the NFVF as we wanted to create something that would assist us with financing a feature film that we’re currently developing and that we could make safety because we were pre-third COVID wave at that point, so we wanted something contained that wouldn’t require a lot of crew and that we keep the actresses as safe as possible. We have finished post and are busy with subtitles and credits so you are actually the first to see the film because we are still in the process of negotiating with festivals. We’re hoping to secure a world premiere in the first quarter of next year.
Asanda: Mirror Mirror was created because we needed something to really show the world of the story, I was still in the course of developing the script for the feature film, but we wanted something that would help me kind of put a pin on who the characters were – something very in the world but it didn’t have to really be necessarily be a scene from the feature. And that’s where I came up with this idea of teenage angst, dealing with sexuality, what that means to be that age and black. And I thought you know what, when I was that age, the best way to talk about sex was with my friends rather than with my parents. So okay let’s do this through a video call and try something new. And it was a process that was very beautiful, also learning along the way with the rest of the crew. The video call also helped with the rehearsal process with the actresses so they would be able to get a hang of it so it wouldn’t be the first time when they’re on set working with the cameras, having to deal with how they interact and engage with each other. Working with the cameras also evolved further in edit as you’re working with one angle so there is not a lot on terms of what you can vary, but that is also freeing because we had to really problem solve and rethink the way in which we think of shot selections.
Trish: The next twofer, which is Cati and Sibusiso, although I don’t think he has managed to join us so you’re in Cati’s exceptionally competent hands for The Letter Reader.
Cati: So I was just going through sort of the timeline of how we started developing the project, which goes back to mid 2016. The film was shot in 2018 and it got onto our screens in 2019 and 2020. It’s a half hour film, probably still one of the most beautiful and perfect scripts I have ever read. That is definitely due to the memntorship Marina Bakker gave Sibusiso – it’s very much a less is more kind of approach to writing. It always helps immensely if there’s a powerful script to start with as they had already worked in terms of the architecture of the project. There was also a deep respect between myself, Sibusiso and coproducer Dumi Gumbi and so Sibusiso was also a producing partner and we guided him in terms of raising funds.
Our first application was to the NFVF in early 2016 and due to shrtfalls in that period they gave other projects R200 000 and we somehow ended up with R67 000 so we said thanks but no. For more than a year we disputed the amount and after KZN Film Commission came on board the NFVF awarded us R200 000. All the equipment was given in kind from Panavision so the biggest cost factor was obviously that it’s a period piece, we were shooting in deep rural locations so we had to travel crew and cast both from Durban and from Joburg. So that was quite hectic and a big demand on the team.
Just going back to how the project originated, Sibusiso was reading Mark Gevisser’s book about Thabo Mbeki and he describes growing up also in a rural community where there was always somebody who needed to read letters because not everyone could read and obviously because of history of our country and the migrant labor system these letters became a lifeline between married couples or lovers, or famines. Sibusiso wanted to tell a story of how the future of a couple was in the hands of a young boy, and that he had the power to define the life as the letter reader — and he also becomes the letter writer later on. He is able to manipulate this relationship and bring together a couple that has been torn apart essentially by the man having to work in the city. What is so beautiful about the story is that it’s all very subtle, it’s about subtext, and you suddenly realize while it’s a love story, a layered love story. It’s about a boy who’s trying to find his place in the world but it is also a story of apartheid. So it’s kind of creeps into your veins, I have to say, I’m very proud of it.
And I think that what was so special about the team that made the film was that the DOP and key HoD’s were all award-winning and while Sibusiso was a first-time director we surrounded him with really strong people. They would never ever patronize any director, but it creates this atmosphere of dialogue between the DOP and the director – there was a fantastic dynamic going on between these these creators. Sibusiso could them also really focus on performance. We spent a long time not only fine looking for locations, but also casting. It’s incredibly hard to make a film with a young boy and the whole film hinges on this 12-year-old kid.
The other key element that pulled everything together is the script. As soon as we sent the script to casting directors or we targeted the key leads they were in tears and wanted to know if we wree making a short or the feature.
The purpose of making the film had been to create a calling card for Sibusiso Khuzwayo who was a director in our eyes who deserved the massive break as he had already spent 12 years in the industry as an editor and very good storyteller on various reality shows. So, at the end of the day, I think that also helped him when he was shooting, he really knew exactly how to edit stuff. He is a collaborative editor but knows how to look at the big picture.
Trish: Can I ask you to talk a bit about the short film and its opportunities, how it can be used its potential, its distribution opportunities? Why short films?
Cait: Before we discuss that, I just wanted to take a minute to give everyone the context of Mirror Mirror as our short is only eight minutes but we also had very specific performance needs.
Asanda: The majority of the video call takes place between two best friends who are trying to figure out how to masturbate – they’ve checked Cosmo and searched the internet but it’s just not working. All the instructions aren’t really like getting getting where they need to go.
The main character is kind of the braver one is actually doing all the testing work and has to work through the barriers of overthinking what she’s doing and the feeling that she’s failing. Then we get to the point where she realizes that it’s actually about feeling comfortable in her body and just focusing on herself instead of the outside world. When we were casting we had many conversations that as young black women there were similar experiences of coming from homes where sexuality is not something that we are encouraged to speak about or to explore, especially at that age. And when we approached older actresses to be our mother character, they also found the same goes for being unable to talk about sex with the daughter and the endless cycle of silence that really resonated with them. So this film is especially looking to break that silence and make it something as easy as America pie where guys talk abut wanking.
Cait: In terms of being a proof of concept for the feature it’s not even necessarily related to a scene in the feature. It’s very much a standalone piece, but we wanted to achieve the tone that we’re after which is very fresh, very young and very fun. Booksmart is one of our references for those of you who are familiar with that film. We felt when positioning and taking that feature film to the markets, for financing it would be really vital for us to illustrate that Asanda could bring that through her cinematic language. So we focused on performance and casting was really important. Buhle is 16 but played by a 30 year old actress and you’ll see when you watch the film you will never believe that she is 30 years old.
I think what Asanda did such a beautiful job with was really creating a significant amount of trust with the actresses. The lead character was in her first film ever besides some commercials so she had never really done film acting before. And that’s quite a thing to be like in your panties on screen for your first time ever. Asanda had an amazing rehearsal process that wasn’t necessarily you know, running lines and blocking and whatever but more about building relationships not only between her and the actresses, but between the two actresses because the the film really hinges off the chemistry on this video call. We also worked closely with the DOP in prep because we needed to figure out how are we going to make a video for visually interesting. We shot in Asanda’s apartment and convinced her roommate to vacate the premises for two days and move everything around. With a single two bedroom apartment we made it look like three separate locations. Everyone had to be really innovative and quick on their feet and work within the confines that we had and the crew. I think the crew really loved the idea and the spirit behind representing female pleasure, specifically black female pleasure on screen and for a young audience. So everyone was really excited and went the extra mile, which kind of circles back to how we made this happen with very little money.
Trish: What are the multifaceted things that short films can bring to new filmmakers and to establish filmmakers?
Cati: Obviously short films can work fantastically as a proof of concept for for feature film. And you know, we mentioned or it’s worth mentioning that some you know some of some great directors are still using short films as a proof of concept to make their bigger films so one of the examples as Neil Blomkamp who often comes back to South Africa as he’s got a few couple of great crew that he works with here. He’ll make a short film and then goes off to to make a longer version
There’s been collaborations like with Robert Rodriguez with collaborative shorts. I think that that the shorts are always under-estimated as it’s incredibly hard to make a strong short film, whether it’s eight minutes long or 40 minutes long.
I think what has to happen is that we have to lobby and get more people in our industry to support short films. It is a beautiful way of testing your thinking and making sure that there is an audience and that everyone around you can see that you’ve got the skills to deliver. It is a calling card for the writer, the director, and the producing team as well.
The intent on The Letter Reader was very much about putting Sibusiso on the map but the film has traveled so far and wide, and people want to know more, or they engage with us on that basis. We were part of a dialogue last year at the Durban Film Market and the head of Netflix Africa mentioning that The Letter Reader is the kind of film they want to support. So make something beautiful.
Asanda: For me as a a director and writer, it was an opportunity to really develop the characters for the feature – I wanted to see how they interacted, if the way I saw them in my head, was the way that they came out on screen.
And it was really great, because the character had kind of been like more of a minor side part when I was thinking about her in the feature. But now it really made me think of new ways to bring her to life and actually bring her story more to the forefront in the film. It also showed that I kind of knew what I was doing in terms of the tone especially as comedy is hard. To make something that’s funny, to make people laugh. It’s a piece to help us with the financing journey.
Cait: What I love about short film is that it’s a safe space, right? There’s a lot less at risk, it’s a lot easier to sort of turn things around if you need to, it’s easy to be quick on your feet. And I think even in terms of like your crew, or suppliers or your collaborators – they are a lot more understanding on a short film. Even on a feature you’re going to have to call in favours, you’re going to have to ask someone to do something that they’re not necessarily getting paid to do. On a short film it is far less of an ask and like Asanda was saying, it is not only a way to get to know your characters, get to know your story, the world you want to create, but also get to meet the collaborators that you will hopefully work on the feature with. Developing that trust and shorthand makes such an enormous difference: knowing that your crew understand you and that they have your back, that they are fully invested in the story want to tell, I think it’s very empowering to the filmmaker, it certainly makes me sleep better at night. And you know, sometimes it doesn’t work out, the person is not the right fit but you get to experiment not only with the form and the filmmaking, but also your working relationships, which I think is so vital.
To give you other example of a short form that grew into a feature is Inxeba: The Wound. We were very well aware that we were not really going to be able to finance it domestically other than the tax rebates. So we needed to finance it abroad and it was a very ambitious first feature. So we needed a piece of work that not only put John on the map as a feature director – he was a very accomplished TV drama director and a theater director, but he had never directed film. So we needed to introduce people to the world as Europeans could not understand that this was a ritual that is being practiced today. Everyone thought it was a period piece. We needed people to understand that it’s a contemporary piece.
And it was enormously meaningful for John, because he realized very quickly who the crew members were that he could and couldn’t work with. How he visually saw the feature changed after he made the short film, how he approached performance and this had a massive impact on how we went into the feature. We made that short film it over a weekend with friends R5000. And you can do that if you are really clever about how contained it is. You know, again, if you’re going back to asking favors, and much easier to say, can you help me out for two days rather than can you help me out for a week! Organizing gear for free over two days over a weekend is much easier than needing a guarantor for a full week. So you can be very smart and strategic and make a good short for very little money. The short film of Inxeba is called Ibokwe and went on to premiere and competition in Berlin and had a very beautiful festival career. That, in turn, also empowered us to finance the feature.
Trish: Cati, we have a question about The Letter Reader from the audience. How does one cast and work with the young actor? How does this affect the schedule? And what strategies does the director employ in creating such an intimate relationship?
Cati: As I said earlier, we searched long and wide for the the child actor. Sibusiso was very rigorous and he would continue looking until he had a bunch of really strong options, the audition process is quite rigorous. And then in terms of labor law, there’s specifics of how many hours a child is allowed to be on set. Between 12 and 15 years I think it’s six hours on set, so it becomes really hard to have a full day shoot. We were lucky that our actor was 12 at the time and he needed to travel down to location with a guardian. In this case, it was his mother. He was very bright, engaged, interested and he wasn’t shy about asking for help. By that stage, he and Sibusiso had developed a very strong relationship so that was the catalyst for the success of those performances because the child interacts with every one of the adult leads.
Trish: The next question, I think, is an interesting one. What process do you follow to to adapt an existing short story into a short film?
Cati: It’s as as rigorous as you know, adapting a feature film. Also a short story might not end up being a short film, it might become a feature depending on the themes and the kind of richness of the material. But adaptation obviously involves getting the rights to a short story novel. In this case we recognized the value of Mark Gevisser’s book and we acknowledged it publicly as being part inspiration for the film, but we treated it as information in the public domain.
Cait: Yes, you need to be really sure that that it is either in public domain, or that you acquire the rights. If you’re after something specific that obviously is going to require money to go after the rights, depending on how much the author or the creator is asking, but it’s something you need to weigh up. Because, I mean, with any film, you want money being channeled onto the screen. To be spending money on an option, I don’t know if that’s the smartest thing. But this is obviously a blanket statement, there are definitely going to be exceptions and some material that like you’d be dumb not to option and adapt if you get the opportunity. But I think just on the legal front, obviously, make sure you are covered with an option agreement.
Trish: How do you determine the appropriate duration of the short film?
Cati: We used to be stuck with broadcast lengths but now with streamers it doesn’t really matter the length. I think it also needs to be informed by like, where do you want the film to live? And what do you want it to do for you? So, you know, if you’re aiming for a specific festival or a specific platform, obviously, you go and look at historically what they’ve programmed to get an idea of whether or not they have a preference. More and more I am finding in the international festival space they are introducing a section for short shorts (1-15 minutes), medium (15-30 minutes) and under an hour.
I like to be very intentional about about every piece of work I make, because we work too hard to not be thinking ahead, right? And having a plan and understanding why we’re doing what we’re doing, why we’re roping everyone in to come and be a part of the madness. So you need to be thinking about where do I want my film to end up and that should inform your creative decision making.
Trish: The next question is how can writers and directors find a producer to work with?
Cati: I think, you know, it’s a headspace thing. I started out as a writer but I was always waiting to kind of be discovered. And then one day, I realized that’s absolute nonsense. As a writer, you are completely and utterly empowered to put your own team together, don’t wait for the time the team to find you. As you know, we have to wear many hats to survive a very tough industry and you have to kind of understand the whole pipeline to some degree. It’s kind of a privilege to just be a writer. I know that sounds harsh, and there are some beautiful writers out there doing beautiful stuff. But, you know, you have to understand set life. You know some of the writers I know are continuity people or still work in documentary.
So I am saying that it’s about changing your attitude: you have to go out there and say okay, I’m going to find a team that I want to work with. You also have to look at yourself and ask if you might have a future as a director, because your vision is so strong, or you might have a vision as a producer. For me, the day came when I realized that I needed to put my own team together because I was writing to protect myself from bad directors, so my scripts had become anally retentive and I had to ask why am I doing this? So let me rather help other people make their content. Yes, that’s my skill. But let me make that creative process of make of creating film much more enjoyable for everyone.
Film making is incredibly hard, we sacrifice a lot, many of our brain cells, you know, our hair goes grey, so we need to make sure that these are joyful enterprises, which is a challenge in itself. But I think that as writers, directors and producers you have to create a network, you have to reach out constantly to build a network of people that believe in you. As soon as you feel that you’re working with people that don’t believe in you, then move on. Create your own kind of vision for what you want to do.
For example with Sibusiso, Marina Bakker was working with him on that project so she recommended him to us because she trusted us as producers. So that’s the the network reaching out – we all of us have to have a presence out there to make sure we are creating small collectives and talking to each other.
Asanda: Yeah I met Cait through an internship at Urucu Media and ended up working there. I really like the way in which they work with the directors with their writers, the films that they do, and I think that they believed in me and my abilities.
Directors and writers can also find opportunities through competitions where you get money to write but I didn’t have a great experience with this as I didn’t really get to choose my crew and didn’t really have much say. It’s really important to have a producers that meshes with you, who speaks the same language as you so working with Cait was like a dream because she gave me the space to define how I wanted things to go and I didn’t feel like I was being micromanaged. I felt like this is a perfect relationship in which I was doing my part she was doing her part and knew we are both trusting each other to do that.
Trish: Okay, now on to the sordid subject of money. What funding mechanisms are available for short films?
Cati: Well you know the NFVF is an obvious one and you can also apply to regional funds like Gauteng Film Commission and KwaZulu Natal Film Commission.
Cait: Yes although Cape Town is lame and we don’t have any money. You can enter competitions like Asanda mentioned and Netflix put out a call recently for short films re-imagining folklore. Or you can be crazy and make a film over a weekend for R5000 and eat like provita’s and make it happen.
Cati: Bodies like GFC, KZN FC and NFVF see short film funding as a kind of pot to grow new talent. And we can only actually really encourage them to do more. If it’s a beautiful small project that you want to make, there is also crowdfunding,. As South African producers it’s not often that you’ve got like a few hundered thousand rand lying around to invest in a short film.
Cait: Depending on the subject matter of the work, you can approach organizations. For example if you’re making a film about rhino poaching,you have a very clear strategy in terms of the types of organizations you’re going to ask to come on board. If you’re making a film about teenage pregnancy, you have a very straightforward pool of people you can you can approach and I think also if you’re trying to attach really high-level crew, but you can’t necessarily afford their rate. Something that really helps incentivize people is to say this is a proof of concept for a feature. I use them a lot and fortunately, it’s worked out that the feature does happen and and most times people come and play with us again on the feature so it works out well. Obviously, don’t say that if you can’t keep your promise.
People really appreciate if you have some kind of plan. Showing people that you have thought about the whole picture and that the message of the film is very aligned with them. Maybe they are not a financial partner, but they could also help with the distribution or in raising awareness around the form. Maybe they have a massive social media following. I think it’s it’s good to think outside the box and not only think about the more traditional financing channels because it’s very, very, very crowded.
Trish: Can one use sponsors or brands to help finance the film and how do you bring them on board?
Cati: What has worked well for many South African filmmakers is Silweskerm which has been mostly Afrikaans but I believe they have opened up a little. The DSTV business strategy has been to say we can’t risk making films with first time film directors that don’t haven’t directed shorts, it’s actually a big no. So this initiative has helped them find new talent and lovely features have been made. It’s a model that I think other broadcasters or streamers should really be using as well as you can make something great with R150 000.
I have had a couple of instances where I’ve supported writer / directors through a very rigorous development process of getting their feature script right but after a year they decide to change career or they don’t have the staying power. The amount of time that as a producer I put into this developing talent is huge. Nobody pays us for this. I’m reading many drafts, giving many notes and then suddenly people disappear and they give up. So you have to be willing to go through quite a rigorous development process because I’m not going to waste my resources and my connections and I may sound arrogant but I’m not gonna waste it on somebody who doesn’t have the staying power. It’s just too much work.
Trish: So coming to the issue of sponsors and brands to help finance, obviously product placement is a viable part of of the finance mix. But it will depend on the kind of audience you’re able to deliver to the brand value that will add to your production. So it can be quite tricky, but even if you’re not looking at cash for product placements, you should always look at trade exchanges. One has to be really laterally when you’re thinking about what what will the value be to the person and asking to give product cash to help my production come to life? What is the kind of trade exchange that I can offer them? And I think that brings us into the next question, which is find an approach private investors.
Cait: I just wanted to comment that when your approach sponsor or brands, private investors, whatever, wherever your money’s coming from, you need to understand what the expectations are and the obligations to the people you’re getting that money from because some brands might offer you what seeming seemingly a sweet deal but they want final cut. They want to have a say in the edit or casting, you need to weigh up whether you’re comfortable with that. Again, I really don’t believe in a one size fits all model. I think it’s very, very specific to each individual project. Some projects, I think it’s okay to compromise on certain things, and others absolutely not. So, again, it goes back to intention – where do I want this film to go, where do I want it to live?
You know, what is the step after this? That will inform from a producing standpoint but it’s very tricky with short form because they’re not really money spinners. It’s very difficult to make money out of a short film – that’s why it’s again circling back to the comments around like having a long term vision and saying this is the stepping stone to the feature. Then your investors understand they are ot going to get a return on investment now. But there’s a long term plan.
You need to be explicit about what your intention is with the film and where it’s going, because there’s a lot of egos involved and everyone thinks that they have a better idea and you know, I gave you this much cash, which means I have this much real estate in the film.
Cait: In my life, content is queen. We’ve got streamers that are looking for short film content and local public broadcasters like ETV and SABC are slowly inching towards understanding that they could you know, put short films on their platforms. We sold The Letter Reader to Showmax for a short window and it is now on Netflix. And we’ve also got a system going wherever somebody requests the film now for screening anywhere, they have to pay a fee. So even if it’s a small fee, this quickly collects and you can put that money back into your building your next film. YouTube also has got the most incredible platforms as well and that would require serious marketing strategy, but I think that those those kinds of platforms should not be ignored either.
Trish: What are the distribution possibilities – only film festivals?
Cait: Regarding film festivals, some people cast the net out wide and they submit to every festival known to man in the hopes that someone will get back to them. That’s fine you can go about it that way but it can get very expensive. Some you can submit for free but the big ones you have to pay. On that, a trick that I started doing at the beginning is to always ask for a waiver. The worst thing that they can do is say no, and then you pay the submission fee which you would have done anyway.
Get to know the programmers if you can it’s very difficult obviously on an international level, especially when COVID and no one is traveling but if you can make friends with the programmers, you can kind of get to see what people’s taste is.
Once you give away your world premiere, you are not hot property anymore. No one wants sloppy seconds.Just be very cognizant of who you go with for your World Premiere because that will affect the life of the film moving forward from there. The deadline for Sundance was coming u but Mirror Mirror wasn’t finished so I had to ask for an extra week. It took me 10 years to get to a point where I can do that. So it’s tough when you’re coming up. As a writer director, this is the advantage of working with an established producer is these networks are already in place.
Cati: We have to watch other content as much as possible and see what other people are making. And in terms of our content, the kind of projects that are worth making, the festival organizers are essentially also going to be looking at quality and what is this filmmaker saying, that’s unique? And it’s not about just being outrageous or sensational but what is unique about what those filmmakers are saying. So, you know, it’s it’s that kind of like selection process.
Trish: I’m jumping ahead to the next question about short films in terms of other platforms like Netflix or Showmax? Do they accept unsolicited submissions?
Cati: You know they are trying desperately to have aggregators to to help them select best quality. So, even though we wish that the distribution and sales agents stopped existing because the whole sort of delivery process has been flattened, in fact, there’s a desperate need for distributors and sales agents because we need people who help select what is strong. It’s still better to go via your distributor or a sales agent. You might make a little less money but they ensure the best possible deal. So if you’re, if you’re submitting to Netflix directly, and you’re harassing one of the commissioning editors, or one of the executives they’re gonna also get pissed off. They’ve got a slew of things to do. And you might alienate them and end up not getting a good deal anyway. So it’s it’s important that distributors exist. I think there’s there’s a couple in South Africa, we work with Indigenous Film Distribution. And there’s a couple of others out there. They will represent your film in a beautiful, positive way and some of the festivals also help with this to better the pedigree of the film.
Trish: Thank you. Okay, well, shall we take questions from the floor? Okay, here’s one that was around the indie filmmakers.
Morgan: I understand the focus of adaptation from short film to feature film but has the market changed in the sense that there are opportunities to see that lead to a whole series?
Cati: Tough one, I’ve really seen a short film can be turned into series. We did a short film that won the Sundance Television Award that they are developing into a series of zombie films
Cait: Yeah, it’s not impossible, but particularly with the streamers now they’re commissioning development. So they’re not necessarily looking at shorts and then commissioning from there, like they’re commissioning an idea. But I think, depending on the individual project, if it’s demonstrating I’m capable of pulling off something at the scale or I’m comfortable with working with green screen, whatever. And if we talk about financing feature or anything long form, series or feature if you don’t have strong previous work, it’s kind of impossible to raise like a fairly healthy budget.
Selborne: I just wanted to ask how can one get an established producer to collaborate with one in bringing a project to life?
Cati: My experience now with a project was that it was recommended by a writer that I respect and for two months, they’ve been nagging me to read the script. You have to realize that people are all trying to make a living in a difficult industry. But I’m reading probably five six scripts a month easily and then two, three shorts every month. So I’m trying to give decent notes and not just scan the project and then take it from there.
Identify producers that you feel like you want to potentially work with, and then contact them and outline what your objective is, and then take it from there once the producers read the project. So, you know, as long as it’s in the context of we respect each other and I’m unlikely to steal your idea. It’s very unlikely I really, I’ve got better things to do. So you know, that’s what I suggest you would should do.
Cait: I think just be respectful and understanding of the fact that you’re not going to get a reply like the next day or even the day after that probably. If you send me an email saying, Hey, I follow your work. I looked at your website. I think there’s you know, potential synergy here. Oh, I think we have similar tastes. So I think this is something you might be interested because of lalalala I would like to make something that is going to, you know, that I want to end up on Netflix, so I want to premiere in Berlin or whatever. Even if that’s not realistic, I personally appreciate that people have given some thought to the whole process and didn’t just sit down one afternoon wrote a script and then email that to a whole lot of people to in the hopes that they will read it. So it’s about being intentional and and smart about how you present your work.
Trish: I’m seeing a question here from Inez about being a less experienced producer and how they can take a project forward.
Cati: From a personal point of view, I love supporting new producers. I love sharing the information I have. I don’t hold on to it. So if you’ve got this project, collaborate. None of us are going to get rich out of a short film. So it’s it’s open. Me too. I agree.
Trish: There’s a question here from Norah in the chatbox. Are you with or against investing your personal savings for the short film since sometimes? The funding process is long and not assured?
Cait: It’s a tricky one. I mean, back in the day, I did do that. I was kind of more willing to do that than I am now. Again, I really think it depends on the project. Like if this is a project that you know, I can’t live happily if I don’t make this film. Right. There’s some films where you’re like you are willing to do crazy shit, like mortgage, your house or whatever. So I think I think it really depends, depends and I would say, then you really need to have a long term strategy then it’s like, you need to be 1,000,000% convinced that you’re going to make the feature version. You know what I mean? Like I wouldn’t I wouldn’t put my money into something that is a short that micro festival and might get licensed by someone and then that’s the end of the story. It needs to be an investment that’s going to pay off down the line in a bigger way.
Cati: We put in a huge amount of resources in other ways as well such as the ability to leverage free equipment or great talent, negotiate budgets in a way that don’t break the bank. So those are our sort of contributions and I kind of also contribute my sanity.
Trish: I’m going to read a question here from Malaka. I’m not a filmmaker, but I’m interested in writing scripts. I have a blog that’s 12 years old and want to translate some of those works into a scripted series. What kind of relationships can should I develop to go from paper to screen?
Cati: This is very important because I’m a writer, as well. I’m worried about how you are securing your IP and in that process of moving forward, let’s say, you can submit to various development initiatives like NFV F, but before you have to put it on paper and find a key circle of people who feed back into it. Yes, you could be talking to a producer, but you know, it’s all about the script. I’m now at a point where I read 10 minutes of the script, get me to the turning point otherwise I stop reading and move on. I don’t have the time to read the full script. I can see a good writer to from a mile away now.
Cait: Through our work at the Realness Institute we facilitate a lab for Netflix in which we help writers develop content for them. So you can take a look at the call for submissions and maybe consider applying to that program which would be a very safe incubated space for you to flesh out your screenwriting.
Asanda: And remember to work on the basic stuff like formatting and plot, there are also lots of online resources like Coursera has a whole course on taking an idea from concept to script, and then it has forums where people can read your scripts and lecturers even give feedback.
Character is really important because that is what essentially drives a story, it’s what pulls people into the world. And it’s the view of what your characters go through in the journey is essentially, is the film. Make sure that your character goes through some sort of change that we can plot, that we can see and feel. So not not something subtle. It must be a big change, their worldview or their attitude, or in their relationships. That’s what really brings people to a story. In short film, you’ve got less space to develop a story so I think the character is the essence of a short film for the most part.
Sipho: My question is on the production value, right. So most of the people that I encounter they obsess so much over the type of cameras used but is it something that a producer should obsess about, especially when you’re shooting a short film?
Cati: Just last year we’ve sold films that were shot in 2K and surprise, surprise, it looks gorgeous. And you know, Netflix International and other streamers bought stuff from us. Netflix’s talking about commissioning content that’s 6K but they are looking to the future off how they’re going to archive the content in 10 years time. So they expecting all of our technologies to embrace the potential for 4K or 6K. But you know there are cameras that are four or five years old that are doing beautiful work for for some fantastic filmmakers. So I think you you know, don’t don’t let that be a blocker. It’s about the comfort zone of the DOP that you’re working with. But don’t let that become the ultimate sort of navel gazing exercise and a blocker for making a stunning film.
Stephen: Do you think there’s any appetite for genre short films like horror, fantasy and science fiction? Because many films that I see programmed in festivals and usually focus on like human issues and social issues. So I wondered like, what your thoughts on that?
Cait: Genre is tricky. Especially I mean, you know, the world is is catching up with our reality and their expectation of Africa’s is not poverty porn so much as it was in previous years. But we’re competing against the Global South – this is a discussion for a whole other webinar. It makes Westerners feel better about themselves when they get to see the version of Africa that they perceive to be true, when that is mirrored back to them. So like I said, that’s a whole other conversation. So it’s not impossible, but it is tricky, and that’s why there are festivals that are genre facing and sometimes it’s more strategic to to place your film accordingly because then you’re speaking to the audience that you want to speak to. Having said that, it can be equally strategic to be the only genre film showing at Sundance amongst all the other human issue films. I think it really depends on the film, it depends on the strength of the film, whether it can hold its weight outside of genre space.
Cati: There are festivals that are dedicated to certain genres, and they are fantastic festivals such as horror and sci fi festivals that are absolutely amazing how they support the the directors and the producers. It’s quite magical, just the different universe and sometimes smaller is better depending on the film. It’s very, very, very difficult to cut through the noise and you’re potentially up against filmmakers in Europe and North America where it’s a bit more sustainable to do this, their whole careers about making shorts. So they’re going to get all the press, obviously they’re going to take up the most space. So sometimes being in a smaller, more curated festival that is very much focused on your form exists and is better.
Trish: There’s an important question here. And that is how important is sending limited budget on production insurance.
Cati: You don’t mess with people’s lives. You are testing the ancestors by saying no, I’m above insurance – that’s arrogant and wrong. Even on insurance, you can negotiate and get a really great reduced rate. If you can raise money, you and you believe in the value of your crew and cast then yeah just put R5000 on the table for insurance, particularly with COVID and also people aren’t going to give you gear for free if you are not insured.
Cait: I need to make sure all my people are safe and my gears insured. Okay, so you don’t need like all the bells and whistles and I used to find insurance really intimidating. Like it made me feel really dumb and I didn’t understand half of what I was reading when I had to sign the forms. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and don’t be afraid to say: Hey guys, this is my situation. It’s my first short form. I have barely any budget. This is what I need to achieve. Can you please bear that in mind when you quote me?
Trish: Okay, guys, I think we’re going to have to end it there. It’s been such a fabulous conversation. I can’t thank our speakers enough. You’ve been fantastic. Thank you for sharing your lives and your insights and everything you’ve learned throughout your careers with us today. Just to let you know. Thanks also to everyone who’s interacted in the chat box, there have been such lovely comments.
If you would like to be included in future short fiction film webinars please drop us a mail on ad***********@ip*.za to be added to our mailing list.