Africa's biggest box office


Africa's biggest box office

Zimbabwean feature film, Yellow Card, is charting new territory with its distribution strategy for Africa.

The 90 minute feature film, about the sex-and-love exploits of a teenage boy from the township, is likely to be seen by at least 50 million people all over Africa, in the first two years after its release in April 2000. This is not just a fantasy of the film's producers, Media For Development. For the last 12 years, films from the MFD stable, like Consequences, Neria, More Time and Everyone's Child, have laid the foundations of a distribution network across Africa through community groups, entrepreneurs, churches and urban and rural organisations

MFD has been spared the commercial worries of penetrating untried African markets. With its Trust status and upfront grant money to make movies with a social message, the film makers have been able to shape an alternative box office independenty of meagre movie houses or cash-strapped broadcasters.

Now, as Yellow Card goes into the advanced stages of post-production, the producers are tapping deeper into this vast viewer catchment.

MFD's producer-director of Yellow Card, John Riber, explains the thinking behind this distribution success. "We have learned the hard way. For a lot of producers, traditionally the thinking was: 'If we make a good film, it is going to sell.' That is not true. Make more money available for distribution. On Yellow Card, the breakthrough is (that) we are spending half the budget on a distribution effort."

The film was shot in English, but vernacular dubs in Shona and Ndebele (for Zimbabwe), French and Swahili follow in the year 2000. Theatrical release will be followed by Broadcast on national and satallite television. The final stage will be a barrage of videos as well as supporting training videos, in a dozen more languages, which will become teaching tools about the themes of Yellow Card - the life-choices teenagers face about sex, love, friendship, Aids, pregnancy and responsibility.

Initial target countries are Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The West African market, prone to video piracy, is notoriously difficult to gauge but , Riber says, a test French version of MFD's last film, Everyone's Child, is being "thrown to the wind" in West Africa to see what takes root.

Riber travelled to Dar es Salaam, Nairobi and Kampala early December 1999 with Zimbabwean assistant director and trainee producer, Leo Phiri, to seed the market. They were armed with rough cut copies of Yellow Card to test selected audience responses. The results of these pre-tests show overwhelmingly that viewers are being entertained by Yellow Card and they are also getting the 'message' loud and clear.

The distribution strategy is backed up by publicity materials and a broadcast-quality "Making of..." video called Yellow Fever.

Yellow Fever has been specially targeted at young people. Made by Zimbabwean youngsters and presented by vibrant Zimbabwean DJ, Tich Mataz, with interviews of the teenage stars of the movie, it is a strong marketing weapon to whip up interest prior to and even after the film's official release in April 2000.

Yellow Card is not reliant on box office sales. Theatres are few and far between in Africa. South Africa boasts the most - 1000 screens. Zimbabwe has 35, Kenya 28. The figures tail off to zero for other African countries.

"To measure the popularity of a film by the number of bums in theatre seats is impossible, " Riber says. "But we know, from our experience with Everyone's Child, that for every video we sell, we reach a thousand people - on average. Now we can say with confidence that a film like Everyone's Child reached 50 million people in its first two years. For US$1 million, that is a pretty good investment."

Because of MFD's success in reaching audiences, Riber strongly believes Yellow Card has been able to break away from the dry and boring confines of "content experts and technocrats who control the message of the film."

Investors in Yellow Card "recognise we are focused and concerned about the issues, so they give us a lot more freedom, ownership and responsibility. They trust us." Donors are not looking for profit. They want to know the message is getting out to more people. Because of this trust, MFD has been able to capitalise on Yellow Card's entertainment value to make sure this happens.

In Africa, distribution mechanisms are so strapped "Broadcasters won't even pay to land the masters, even if you give it for free", says Riber.

Yellow Card will not be constrained by these factors. The budget already guarantees that the youth of Africa will see it. The indications are that they will also love watching it.

Could Yellow Card be one movie that proves the viability of African-made films? Could MFD's expanding distribution network make the rewards outweigh the commercial risks? John Riber is certainly counting on it: "Yellow Card will set a trend, I hope."