Spier Films MD Michael Auret talks about the boom in South African production and his plans to branch out into television.

Michael Auret is managing director of Spier Films, the London, Cape Town and Reykjavik based production, financing and sales company, which he took over in January 2008 (he previously headed up the Cape Town World Cinema Festival).

Spier Films was originally set up in 2004 to produce U Carmen and Son Of Men and focuses on co-productions shooting in South Africa.

Currently on the slate are Jake Paltrow’s Young Ones, starring Michael Shannon and Elle Fanning, Kristian Levring’s The Salvation starring Mads Mikkelsen and Eva Green, and South African director Jahmil XT Qubeka’s Of Good Report, which will open the Durban Film Festival in July – all of which shot in South Africa.

Spier Films’ recent Layla Fourie received a Jury Special Mention in Berlin.

There seems to be a plethora of films shooting or to have shot in South Africa recently. What’s the appeal?

It’s the range of locations and the diversity of locations – jungle, desert, mountains, coast, urban settings. 

But it’s also the fact that it’s an overnight flight from Europe, so there is no big jet lag, it’s sunny in your winter, the currency has depreciated quite radically in last year, almost 30%, and once a project becomes a co-production you then also have a rebate for South Africa, another 25 to 30%.

So you get a film like The Salvation. It looks like a $30m film but it costs a lot less.  The director, Kristian Levring who has done over 300 commercials worldwide and a number of feature films, was blown away by the crews, by every department – wardrobe, cameras.

If you look at productions like Judge Dredd, Mad Max, the feedback you get from directors is that they are very happy. You’ve got skilled English speaking crews, in the same time zone, cheap currency and a rebate. It makes a lot of sense.

What locations have you used for your films to date?

The Young Ones shot in Springbok in the Northern Cape. A beautiful part of South Africa, hot and dry.  It is set in the US in the future when water has run out on a farm. The director wanted the look of a place that hadn’t rained for many years. So we found a farm that had the lowest rainfall and highest sunshine in south Africa.

The Price of Sugar is set in 1700s South America. We shot in KwaZulu Natal for the sugar cane and tropical look. And then we shot Stellenbosch one of the oldest towns in South Africa and at the castle in Cape Town.

The Salvation, a western, needed a prairie look, so we shot near Johannesburg on a big farm.  We built two big western towns.

Has the recently built studio in Cape Town had an impact?

It has state of the art technology. Right now they are shooting Black Sails there, the new Michael Bay TV series. There are two enormous water tanks, one for pirate ships and one that leads to beach up to a pirate town, it does low tide and high tide.

They’ve got four sound stages, they’ve shot Dredd, Black Sails, Long Walk to Freedom.

There also seems to be an increased appetite for stories about Africa?

Because of the rebate primarily, there are a lot more local films being made. People are making films at lower budgets.

We want to try and do international good quality films which are embedded as South African stories and which are not necessarily about apartheid or about the past or about politics, but are just good thrillers.

We are developing a film called Riding With Sugar, directed by Sunu Gonera, which we are hoping will go into production this year. Gonera is originally from Zimbabwe, he did the film Pride with Lionsgate in 2008. Now he has come back to Cape Town and is developing his original script about the quest of two Zimbabwean refugee kids to become BMX stunt bike riders.

Do you have ambitions to make films outside South Africa?

Ultimately, we want to do more international films which will travel. It’s restricting to do films only in S Africa, but it’s where we have a strong base financially. But the more we have contact with actors and agents we will begin to develop films which may happen outside S Africa.

You’ve tried to diversify, with production, finance and sales. Any other areas you are looking into?

The film business is tough, it’s very hard just to be in production, you have to do a number of things to keep afloat.

Another aspiration of ours is to go into TV. We’ve done a lot of factual work, but we’d like to be able to get into the drama side. TV has come along so much. And it means longer periods of production. That’s an area we are marketing aggressively at the moment – to find TV production that wants to come out to S Africa.

We have also made a $1.5m investment in an animated film called Khumba [with Triggersfish Animation Studio – cast includes Steve Buscemi and Lawrence Fishburne] . The first screening was in Cannes and it’s already sold most of the world.

Animation is a big focus for the government and the state bank in South Africa, IDC. It creates a lot of jobs and it is one area which the government feels we can have some comparativeness on price and cost.

We’d love to do more animation. When you look at how often children consume animated product, from 3D version to sky box office, sky premiere, games, dvd..on average you probably pay 2 or 3 times for an animated film..the revenue stream on animated content is huge.

What more can South Africa do to boost its film industry?

Our national funder, the National Film And Video Foundation, doesn’t receive as much funding as our European or Australian counterparts, which means its very hard for us to become majority co producers or to do films of the right kind of budgets.

So although the rebate is great and the IDC is great, I think for local films it would be more helpful if our national funding body had more budget and was able to finance purely local films which are not going to travel but which need more support.