Animating the economy - Nico Dekker, CEO of Cape Town Film Studios (CTFS) tells why he is willing to move

heaven and earth to make movies
Dawn Kennedy - Jan 17th, 07:17

Take the N2 to Somerset West, then take the Baden Powell turnoff, go left, and CTFS Boulevard, freshly painted in white on the curb, invites you to drive down a sweeping avenue. After you have signed in with the security guards, you enter a 17 000m² complex of four soundstages, like airport hangars, built from square concrete blocks. The spacious emptiness feels like a gust of fresh air. Everything is gleaming new, as though the paint has only recently dried. Welcome to Africa’s first state-of-the-art, ultra high-tech film studio – a surreal world of movie-making where, next to shack-lands, millions of rands are spent meticulously creating transient realities that are discarded after only a few weeks. Nico Dekker, at the helm of this huge undertaking, claims that the studio could be the economic saviour of Cape Town. An apartheid exile, he slips his struggle credentials like a Masonic handshake into the first few sentences of our conversation. He says empathically: “Every single person from a critically minded background must support CTFS.” Nico invites me to perceive the venture in socialist terms, suggesting that the studio is “a film factory, with a huge manufacturing element”. He explains that while Cape Town, with its stunning scenery and excellent crews, has established itself as a successful location for movie commercials, there is very little skills transfer within that industry as it relies on small teams of trained workers. Studio-based filmmaking creates three times more jobs than a locationbased film. The construction of film sets employs an army of artists, carpenters, architects. Nico envisages what he calls a “campus approach” where the studio will act as an epicentre for businesses drawn to the creative hub. He’s already had 140 proposals for business occupancy and there are plans for 1000 housing units as well as a hotel. “In addition,” says Nico, “film-making naturally stimulates tourism.” “People don’t realise the impact that making movies has on the economy and the GDP: for every R1 spent on studiobased films, you recoup R2.50.” This is why, globally, governments fight for films and offer huge incentives. He cites the example of Puerto Rico’s proactive approach. The tiny country offers a 40 % rebate system. When they tossed in the services of the navy for free, they managed to swing production of Pirates of the Caribbean away from the UK. A few countries, such as Belgium and the Isle of Man, go so far as to offer a 100 % rebate. But while South Africa has identified movie-making as a strategic industry, the incentives that we offer rank among the lowest in the world. (The Department of Trade and Industry incentive offers a 35% rebate on the cost of films and full-length television programmes for the first R6 million ($745 000) spent and 25% for the remainder of production expenditure.) Nico describes himself as an artist, poet and philosopher who discovered, late in life and with some reluctance, that he had good managerial skills. “I have a fast understanding of complex matters and an ability to bring them together and make things happen.” He speaks in a steady, modulated voice, explaining that his company philosophy is to be like water and flow around any obstacle. And the obstacles developing CTFS have been immense. He asks rhetorically, “How do you persuade people and government to invest in a business that will not start to see returns in this generation? A studio like this needs to work for many generations before it becomes profitable.” Nico says that the biggest obstacle he faced was finding the right design for the R350 million budget. To the uninitiated, this sounds like an astronomical amount, but Nico assures me that it’s pocket change compared to other studio budgets. For Nico, movies are the antidote to the affliction that besets Africa as a whole: our lack of technological savvy. Like children squabbling over toys, our politicians are busy arguing about nationalisation of land resources, while the rest of the world, quietly and without much fuss, outpaces us where it really matters, in technological innovation and ability. While Nico’s heart is more with low-end art-house productions he says, “I know with absolute certainty that to compete we have to offer the highest level of technology. We don’t want to recreate what other studio have successfully done.” While there’s much talk of the movie industry being in decline, the top end is raking in more than ever. Nico points out that the latest top 10 box office hit movies all relied on powerful visual effects and high-tech filmmaking. James Cameron, the director that Nico would most like to attract to CTFS, leads the field, creating a new frontier for film with every movie that he makes. With Titanic, he created new underwater filming techniques, while with Avatar he broke

the mould completely. Nico’s ultimate vision is to develop interactive gaming at the studio: “The movie world and gaming world are already touching. In the future they will merge together.” When they do, Nico wants CTFS to be in the running. This is not just hot air and high hopes. With the successful wrap of Dredd, the first movie filmed at CTFS, the studio proved that it’s capable of making movies at the cutting edge of technology. Dredd is a rare example of a 3D action movie, as opposed to the more common 3D animation film. It’s set in Mega-City One, a colossal metropolis in the post-apocalyptic near future. Following its completion, the studio got the thumbs up from the British co-producer Andrew MacDonald (whose credits include Trainspotting, The Beach and The Last King of Scotland), who said: “There are only a few places in the world that can handle this kind of movie. South Africa is comparable to any of them.” He added that CTFS managed to produce “something that will look like $100 million for less than half that figure.” Dredd co-producer Michael Murphy concurs. “South Africa is in the business of making movies that cost half as much as they look.” This is exactly the niche that CTFS wants to carve for itself. With the building of the studios, Nico is now able to gain access to Hollywood producers that hold big budgets. Previously doors were closed, as Hollywood questioned why they should invest in South Africa when South Africa didn’t seem willing to invest in itself. Now, with money on the table, the doors have magically swung open. As Nico says, “The heads of production at the likes of Disney and Universal are welcoming me.”

The glamour and the gutters

With one eye trained on the big picture, Nico is a perfectionist who keeps his other eye trained on every single detail, from wallpaper to guttering. Our tour starts at one of the six star rooms that have replaced the Hollywood trailers. The spacious double bed has recently been vacated by Wood Harris, famous for his role in The Wire, who plays X in Dredd. Although advised by a design team, Nico finalises every decision, from the wallpaper imported from Spain to the special full-length mirror that allows the stars to get into character before each take. The stars have their own chefs and a swivel TV station that allows them to review their performances. Next, to the make-up rooms, which Nico has ordered to be rebuilt. Men wearing masks are busy smashing tiles. “Look at this,” Nico implores, pointing disparagingly to a tiny sink, barely big enough to fit both hands into. “This is what the actors were supposed to have their hair washed in.” When Nico has finished they will be able have their hair done in a decent-sized washbasin while watching fashion TV. Outside, Nico switches from interior decorator to engineer. The stages are built form 2X2 blocks, based on a Roman technique of slotting blocks together with the help of clay. In this case, they have used silicone and concrete and Nico invites me to put my fingers in the grouting. It feels pliable and squishy. Weird – the studios are held together with playdough! But it’s the gutters that Nico is most proud of. The stages inside need to be free of vibrational impact and noise. The engineers from Disney advised Nico that their biggest headache was when rain caused the gutters to vibrate, making noise in the studio. To avoid this, the engineers at CTFS have created massive concrete gutters clamped in place at ground level, ensuring exceptionally soundproof stages – the worldwide quality is 45 decibels, at CTFS the rating is 57 decibels. Inside, 13th-century France is being meticulously reconstructed for a high-end television movie. Each limestone block is created from a polyurethane mould, which is then painstakingly painted by an artist. A 13th-century castle is one thing, but when the producers told Nico they needed a hill for a battle scene, he agreed, to cries of protest. How long will it take us to make a hill, his colleagues implored. Nico and his crew had one up and running in nine days, complete with sour figs growing through hessian on the sides. Standing on its summit, Nico surveys the scene with

pride. “I told the producer, we’re dedicated to moving heaven and earth. This time we moved the earth. Heaven must wait.” As I look towards Somerset West, taking in the Provence-style views, I feel temporarily cocooned in a limitless world where everything is possible. At CTFS there’s energy, optimism and economic opportunity. As Annie Proulx, Pulitzer prize-winning author of The Shipping News, writes: “The imagination is how our expectations are raised and formulated; it excites and ennobles our purpose in life. The imagination blocks out hunger, bodily harm, bad luck, injury, loneliness, insult, the condition of the marooned person or the orphan, grief and disappointment, restlessness, desperation, imprisonment, and approaching death. And from the imagination spring the ideas, the actions, and the beliefs that we hold.” America built its economic might alongside its movie empire. The question is, with the global recession and the demise of the dollar, is the Hollywood model outdated? Or, as Nico proselytises, will imagination, hand in hand with technology, help Cape Town and South Africa more than bricks and mortar? If so, maybe it’s earth, not heaven, that can wait. South Africa’s film industry A string of successful, big-budget international productions have been filmed here, including Blood Diamond with Leonardo DiCaprio and Lord of War. Starring Nicholas Cage as a global arms dealer, Lord of War displays South Africa’s wealth of breath-taking locations, with Cape Town appearing as 57 different settings in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Bolivia, Sierra Leone and elsewhere.