Covid-19: Film makers say relief fund is too small and inaccessible for most

Important to push for local content, says studio boss

Photo of a cinema

“A lot of acting and crew is ad-hoc. You don’t even sign a contract. It’s often a verbal agreement,” says film director. Photo of Labia Theatre in CapeTown via Ben Sutherland UK / CC BY (

By Karabo Mafolo

21 April 2020

The local film industry, which employs about 25,000 people, has like many other industries come to an almost complete halt due to the Covid-19 pandemic. According to a 2017 study commissioned by the National Film and Video Foundation, the film industry contributed R5.4 billion to South Africa’s GDP.

Vusi Africa, a Johannesburg-based filmmaker was in the middle of marketing his debut film, Letters of Hope, set to premiere in May, when the lockdown was announced.

“Right now, everything is in a standstill,” said Africa.

He plans to apply for relief from the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture, which has set aside R150 million for the entire sector.

But Marion Seymour, vice-chair for Sisters Working in Film (SWIFT), says it is “far too little”.

She also says that to apply for relief funding the department requires proof of contracts and proof that their cancellation was due to Covid-19.

Both Seymour and film editor and director Catherine Meyburgh say the criteria is concerning.

“Crew members, cast members and those in production often don’t sign contracts,” said Meyburgh. “A lot of acting and crew is ad-hoc. You don’t even sign a contract. It’s often a verbal agreement.”

Film producer Anant Singh, who produces the soapie Imbewu, says that they’ve shot enough footage that will run until May. If the lockdown is in place after May, Singh and his team are considering what they could do.

“Generally, what other countries do are two things: they reconstruct some of the shows with new stories. So older shows which have footage that hasn’t been used [you use it] or you re-run your early shows with a best-of series.”

For production studios like Atlas Studios where soapies and movies are filmed, working from home is not possible. Jonathan Gimpel, the managing director, says that with the lockdown more people will be watching more TV and it’s important to push for local content.

Gimpel says that at least 500 people work at Atlas Studios, not all of them employees of the studio. Right now, it’s difficult to say how much Atlas Studios has lost in income, says Gimpel, but if the lockdown goes on for another two or three months Gimpel worries whether the studio could survive.

Since the lockdown was announced SWIFT did a survey to find out how many women in the film industry have lost work. Out of the 106 responses received 87.5% of the respondents have either lost work or a contract due to the lockdown and 12.5% said that they were in the negotiation phase.

“It’s not like South African theatres and cinemas were doing exceptionally well. We were struggling so you can imagine on top of that struggle to now add on Covid-19 and the fears that are attached to it. After the lockdown, are people going to be willing to go to the cinema? Won’t they be afraid to go to the cinema? People are still going to be wary,” said Africa.