Ronnie Apteker is no stranger to entrepreneurship. The real kind, mind you. The kind with rollercoaster highs unrivalled by any chemically induced trip and lows to match. Early success in the form of Internet Solutions allowed Apteker to follow his true passion. Daily Maverick’s STYLI CHARALAMBOUS asked him about the funny business of movie making.
DM: South Africa has one of the oldest film production industries in the world. Why, barring a few notable exceptions, are SA movies so shit?
RA: You ask a very good question and I wish I had an answer. But this is unfortunately true of many South African movie productions. Well stated!
DM: So, how do we fix the industry?
RA: We keep making films. We keep losing money. Hopefully, we’ll eventually get better.
DM: In Hollywood, a lot of the blockbusters’ revenue comes from the post-cinema sales in DVDs, merchandising, Happy Meals etc. Not having those opportunities must be quite limiting as a moviemaker and means you’re always working off a shoestring budget. How do you monetise a movie in the SA market, apart from box office sales?
RA: You don’t. It is a vacuum cleaner of a market. Bear in mind, our movie ticket prices are the cheapest in the world and you can see how challenging this really is. People here complain about the price of movie tickets, but have a look at prices in other countries. They are more than double. The revenue streams in SA include theatrical receipts, pay TV, DVD and free-to-air, which are all linked. So if you do well at the box office, you can do well across the various revenue streams. But you rarely do well at the box office. Some of the Afrikaans films, and the Leon Schuster movies, do good numbers, but the rest take a beating.
DM: You’ve been involved in some great movies in the past, Jerusalema for example is one of my favourite movies. Others you made owe me several hours of my life back. Does movie-making get easier with each new project, or is it simply a case of knowing what to avoid after paying your school fees?
RA: This is funny. Can I pay you back the hours somehow? I hope so… I can’t say it gets easier. At least, from my experience. But, of course you learn from your mistakes. Material was a magical affair. And that has to do with the team – it is all about the people and how everyone, and everything, just came together.
SC: Like one of Hannibal’s plans in the A-Team?
RA: Like that, except Hannibal was better looking than I am.
SC: In marketing Material you managed to get quite a buzz going about the movie on social media. Riaad Moosa did some live chats with MXit users and Twitter was ablaze with great feedback about the movie. How important was it to use that medium in getting people to spread the gospel?
RA: That is a very good question. You know, I only joined Facebrick and Tooter a year ago, so all this social media stuff is new to me too. It can be fun, and I am sure it’s effective, but it’s also quite time-consuming to do it right. Time will tell if it actually has played a part in promoting the film. I am sure it has though…
DM: How else did you market Material?
RA: I slept around a lot. Even with women. And gave a lot of blowjobs. In short, I beg. All day long. Knocking on doors, all over the place. Some people tell you to piss off, and others don’t. More people helped us than not.
DM: IMDB.com lists the budget for Material as an “estimated $2-million”. How much did it really cost to make and what is the biggest cost in movie-making?
RA: If that is what it says on IMDB, then it must be true. The biggest cost of making the film is the years of opportunity that were put aside to work on the film. But I wouldn’t change any of it. The film turned out to be magic.
DM: You were hoping to get Material to the number-one spot in SA on opening weekend, but just missed out. What do you think the total number will be?
RA: I was also hoping to get laid last weekend, but this weekend is looking more promising. And you are right, we just missed it to the no. 1 spot for the opening weekend by a fraction, but I have a strong feeling we will take the no. 1 spot for the entire week. The total has to be over 300,000 tickets or I will never eat grapes again (that is how serious I am about it).
DM: How many people need to see Material to break-even in SA?
RA: Too many!
DM: What now for Material, was the plan to always get it overseas, where the real money is in markets like the UK and India?
RA: That was never the plan. But, when we saw how magical the film turned out, it started to become a real consideration.
DM: Who, apart from Ronnie Apteker, finances movie productions in SA? Can one for example raise venture capital funding for a single movie?
RA: I am the only one that I know of dumb enough to finance movies. But Material could lead to true magic… we will know very soon.
DM: Hmm, sounds cryptic. Has there been any interest to release the movie overseas and how do you get Material on to the international circuit?
RA: There was a guy at the falafel stand in Covent Gardens who sounded keen, but I forgot his name. To get Material on to the international circuit you’d have to sleep around a lot more. Probably even with farm animals! To get the attention of any international distributors we will need critical mass, i.e. good numbers here at home. The next month is critical!
DM: You’ve had some harrowing experiences in the US with movie-making, would you ever go back to try again if you continue to make local hits of international quality?
RA: Our next project, should it happen, will take place in London… but it all depends on what happens with Material.
DM: What’s your view on things like DStv on demand, good or bad for movie industry and do you think that spells the end of DVD shops? Do you get a cut of movies sold in this way and if so, isn’t that a way to get more people to watch the movie where DStv can market it extensively at their cost and you get a share of revenue?
RA: DVD shops will be gone in a few years time. On-demand video will be the way of the future and the Internet is changing everything. The DStv scenario you touch on here is a new revenue stream and a good thing. If the movie has a big enough appeal on those on-demand platforms, it can be quite lucrative. And it is less prone to piracy with respect to the DVD challenge we have in SA.
DM: Which technological innovations excite you in the movie industry, or do you think cinemas will always be the ultimate viewing experience?
RA: You can get pretty fancy home cinema setups, but cinema is a social experience that has nothing to do with technology.
DM: What’s next for Ronnie Apteker? Have you already started on the next movie or will you focus on getting Material on international screens?
RA: The Material journey is really only just beginning. Please ask me again in six months… DM
Photo: Ronnie Apteker (L) talks about his new film Material as well as movie-making in South Africa. MATERIAL.
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