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Sunday, 31 August 2014

Learning from The Nut Job

By Andrew Mulenga
When it was released early this year The Nut Job, an animated film that tells the story of a mischievous squirrel named Surly who stumbles upon a nut store and plans to raid it in a bank robbery-like heist, it did not come with the hype that the likes of other films in its category such as Rio 2 and The Lego Movie did.

It did not even earn as much at the box office, while online sources reported that Rio 2 earned around US $500 million and The Lego Movie just over $460 million, The Nut Job earned a worldwide total in excess of $85 million, although comparatively low the figure is double the production costs and on that basis, one might argue the film is a success.

Anyway, set in a fictional town that looks like something out of 1950s America, the exceptionally entertaining cartoon takes us on an intense rollercoaster ride and the lead character’s escapades are engulfed in outrageous humour making the film a gem that children might repeatedly.
However, the most interesting part of this film, well at least from this seat, is the end credits. The words “In Association with Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism of the Republic of Korean Small and Medium Business Administration” slide up the screen along with a host of other private companies from.

It turns out this Canada-USA-Korea joint venture received direct funding from the Asian country’s equivalent of our own Ministry of Tourism and Arts. Imagine that.

Honestly, it is hard to imagine any past, present or future Zambian government‘s rational commitment or fiscal ability to fund anything sensible within the arts that does not at least have a political slant, or indeed allow a few coins to line the pockets of the blinkered overseers that have long plagued administration of the creative sector like a tumour.

Nevertheless for Variety magazine, Patrick Frater reported that not only did the Korean government directly and indirectly help finance The Nut Job but it also promised to increase its funding for the animation sector beginning this year.

The Nut Job received $8.5 million from a government investment fund and a further $600,000 from the Korea Creative Content Agency (KOCCA). Their backing triggered a further $8 million of lending by two banks; Korea Exim Bank and the Industrial Bank of Korea,” he reported, indicating it was in fact a public-private sector initiative “The ministry said that it has increased its budget to support the Korean animation sector from $16.3 million to $21.3 million”.

In as much as this deal benefited Canadian and American companies, Korean visual effects company Redrover also benefited as well as Korean pop singer and one hit wonder PSY whom they managed to squeeze in with an animated cameo.

The support of the local arts or certainly the film industry definitely needs the support of government and the business community if there is to be any meaningful growth in the sector to which Zambian film producer Abdon Yezi of Lusaka owns up.  

“You always get encouraged to hear the success stories from elsewhere, and muse on why it is not happening at home. One clear fact is that film development cannot take place without any deliberate, practical support to the industry. If it does not come from government, it must come from the private sector,” he remarks pitting the Zambian scenario against that of Korea “It is easier to get government to respond to such a request but that would act as a key ingredient to inducing growth. Private sector involvement will have to depend on incentives such as tax holidays and rebates”.

He is also founder of Yezi Arts Promotions and Productions a privately owned arts agency responsible for such films as Cadres for Hire and True Heroes; short films encouraging fair elections in 2001 sponsored by the Southern African Centre for Constructive Resolution of Dispute (SACCORD) and The Road; on corruption in government sponsored by Transparency International Zambia (TIZ).

He recalls that under the Rupiah Banda regime, government through finance minister Dr. Situmbeko Musokotwane had proposed to provide US $3 million towards a film on David Livingstone although to a Dutch-based film producer.

“Some of us argued that the money, if provided to Zambian filmmakers would grow the industry exponentially. Two lessons from this can be deduced. Firstly, that there was recognition that the industry required money. Secondly, that it was to come from government. $3 million (at an exchange rate of ZMK5.50) would have been a huge investment changing the film landscape. So far, the most expensive Zambian film has been Suwi (in the range of K550, 000) at the time of production.”

Yezi points out that Zambia also missed an opportunity to tap into European funding for film development about 5 years ago. Under the EU-ACP, Zambia and Mozambique had each been targeted to receive €1,000,000 (one million euros) annually.

“Catherine Kaseketi (Vilole Images), Adrian Maanka (National Arts Council) and I worked on a proposal that was submitted through the directorate of cultural services. Unfortunately, the paper was lost in the bureaucracy (though the truth is that it was not submitted),” he charges, “That is how the fund was not accessed. Suffice to say the government did not prioritize arts and culture in the 10th European Development Fund (main framework for multilateral support from the European Commission to Zambia). Simply put, there was no champion to support the film industry in and from government, and the situation has not changed.”

He stresses that although it was important for other players to be involved in supporting the industry, the real onus lies on the government, but boldly points out the unfortunate fact that red tape reigns supreme.

“Is it not ironic that the film and media policy have stalled? What do these documents speak to in terms of developing the Zambian film industry? What is the impact, then if they are ‘soiling’ unattended to in some office?” asks Yezi whom along with Novan Kasana and Kalonje Ndhlovu gave us the Ngoma Award Winning Kavalamanja – in Defence of the Nation; a historical documentary on Zambia’s contribution to the liberation struggles of southern Africa as well as President’s Job Description a feature-length movie.

The latter was filmed last year with a cast and crew of 70 people, running from July 2013 to January 2014 (post-production), it was released in Zambian cinemas in February this year and is now on sale on DVD. From a business angle, Yezi hints that it is not easy to break even in film.

“Box Office is a new phenomenon in Zambia, especially after cinema as a form of entertainment had gone down. It is coming up but I am not too sure if there is any producer that would break-even from box office income, the circuit is too localized, it is either at Freshview or Ster-Kinekor,” he explains.

Rather money is made from DVD sales, as was the case with Kavalamanja, which is still on sale, the returns for Presidents Job Description are not even at a quarter of production costs. He complains there is also the whole debate of pricing and general distribution.

He observes that although it depends on political will for them too, South Africa has successfully distributed film making grants through the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF), Kenya and Tanzania are progressing and Zimbabwe have a hybrid that combines strong local industry advocacy and government support.

“This is not just a money issue but requires an informed, consistent voice and platform led by industry. Ironically, most of us are getting fatigued,” concludes Yezi.

Similarly, Mwape Mumbi, Festival Director of the just ended annual Shungu Namutitima International Film Festival of Zambia (SHUNAFFoZ) in Livingstone echoed the importance of public funding. He too suggests government has to take the lead responsibility of investing in the sector in every way to both spur and eventually buoy the potential that has so effectively been exploited by other governments.

“It’s a question of understanding what it is that makes us unique, how we can use storytelling, an age-old art form that is fast-disappearing in this country based on lore and culture such as Imilumbe ne Nshimi, Maikalange, ba Kalulu or Inkowa ne Nkolongo,” he advises citing the cultural importance of film “Whether in lamentation, celebration and self-affirmation, or individual and social analyses via the audio-visual that makes universally attractive productions of film”.

He believes this was better than paying lip service to the Zambia Tourism Board marketing tag line, ‘Zambia – Let’s Explore’, and the ‘Buy Zambia Campaign’, and that as a country we would be putting money where our mouth was, because for all their beauty, an Elephant, a Zebra or Lion is exactly that anywhere else.  

“Because film is very much a key contributor to cultural tourism product and service provision it’s a question I put before Ministry of Tourism and Arts Permanent Secretary Steven Mwansa at a recent Regional Tourism Organization of Southern Africa (RETOSA) held in Livingstone”

“It will be interesting to see how -- though the silence is deafening with regard to progress -- the eagerly awaited Arts, Culture, and Heritage Commission will re-invigorate a thought-through and strategies that is clearly a minimum requirement for the growth of a local and globally relevant creative and cultural industry at large and the film sector specifically,” adds Mwape who was script co-writer on a cultural heritage documentary film of the Kuomboka Ceremony of the Barotse peoples of western province in 2010.

He adds as SHUNAFFoZ they are totally committed to run the full distance that the responsibility of promoting Zambian culture implies.

“We can only hope that the financial support and encouragement from Mr Chimpindi and his team at the NAC as received towards our 2014 edition can only grow going forward so that we can broaden and enhance depth to our festival skills training programmes.

Anyway, given Mwape’s remarks, whether kowtowing or not, there seems to be a miniscule effort being made by government through NAC to support the Zambian film industry and perhaps credit even in its minutest spec of existence must be given where it is due.

However, the room for improvement in this area is of cosmic proportions if the Ministry of Tourism and Arts is to fulfil its Mission Statement: “To facilitate and promote sustainable tourism and arts development and, culture preservation for socio-economic development”.

Likewise the ministry’s goals: “To increase Tourism and Arts Sector contribution to GDP from 2.1 in 2012 to 6% in 2016” and “To increase employment creation from 30,000 in 2012 to 300,000 in 2016,” equally appear farfetched and in another solar system all together. Goals of which at the rate we are going cannot be met unless by means of the teleportation or time warps we see in the Sci-Fi genre a la Star Trek.

In the meantime, why not learn from the Koreans, not only how according to economists it was poorer than Zambia in the 1960s but also has managed to become one of the world’s leading economies but also how to support the arts.  Maybe we can put some taxpayers’ money to good use and send a mixed delegation of stakeholders in the arts alongside officials from government and NAC to visit with their counterparts in that country to see how things are done.

After all what do have to lose, if we do not get anything from such a trip, at least members of our delegation will be able to line their pockets with those much needed allowances to finish off that roofing job or buy that used Japanese car for the family, it is our way of doing things, is it not? Allowances, which is “our thing” or as some Italian Americans say “la cosa nostra”.

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