For Cape Town, a TV and Film Boom

From ‘Black Sails’ to ‘Avengers,’ productions look to capture South African scenery, exchange rates and rebates

CAPE TOWN, South Africa—Moored off this coastal city’s main highway, a fleet of pirate ships signals that a television- and film-industry boom is happening here.

The hulking 18th-century-style vessels, visible to drivers heading north to South Africa’s vineyards, are used on the set of Starz’s hit television series “Black Sails.” The pirate-themed show, which occupies all four of Cape Town Film Studios’ sound stages and workshops, is one of a rising tide of top-tier film and TV productions now shooting in South Africa, including Showtime’s “Homeland” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” a recent box-office smash.

The productions are being lured by a combination of jaw-dropping scenery, favorable exchange rates and government rebates. Film-industry groups say the result is a 30% expansion in productions in each of the past three years, a bright spot for South Africa’s otherwise listless economy.

This year, the Cape Film Commission says it’s receiving enquiries at an unprecedented rate from production companies as far afield as India and Norway. Studios here have snared a broad spectrum of productions ranging from Bollywood and period pieces to superhero films, while other Sub-Saharan nations like Kenya and Nigeria mostly host local film industries and provide backdrops for productions set in Africa.

One result: the fully booked Cape Town Film Studios are expanding, unable to keep up with surging demand.

“It’s better to be saying ‘no’ to people,” says the studios’ chief executive, Nico Dekker,from his office on the sprawling 500-acre lot, where a fifth double sound stage and a new workshop have been approved for construction. Mr. Dekker says there is also plenty of space to expand the studio’s convertible back lots, which include a pirate village, a beach tank that can create high and low tides, and a recreation of Soweto, a Johannesburg township, which was built for 2013’s Oscar-nominated film, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” starring Idris Elba.

The back lots, a significant investment for the studios, are starting to pay dividends, attracting other productions that can adapt them based on their own needs. The recreation of Soweto was recently transformed into Nairobi for a film that also converted the Robben Island back lot—the scene of most of Nelson Mandela’s nearly three-decade imprisonment—into a hospital.

With surging demand from productions like “Black Sails,” the Cape Film Commission is crafting inventive solutions to accommodate new requests, including converting neglected warehouses and erecting open-air sets. “South Africa seems to rapidly be becoming the favorite of the month,” says Chris Symes, executive producer of “Black Sails.”

But despite recent gains, South Africa’s film industry still has a long way to go to catch up with industry majors. Film contributed 3.5 billion rand ($288 million) to the country’s gross domestic product in 2012, according to South Africa’s National Film and Video Foundation, a figure that the Cape Film Commission claims is not high enough. New Zealand’s film industry contributed $2.8 billion to GDP in 2011, according to a 2012 study by PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP.

Recent legislation making it more onerous for foreigners to work in South Africa is one growth hurdle. “We’ve lost some jobs because we couldn’t get people visas,” says Helene Turvey, a publicist who has worked on “Black Sails” and “Homeland.”

But South African industry executives are bullish and believe they have the right raw materials for growth. They cite Cape Town’s adaptable mountain-and-sea vistas, which have stood in for Caribbean beaches on “Black Sails” and Pakistan’s mountains on “Homeland.”

The scenery is bolstered by the quality of the light, which resembles the sunshine that fueled California’s golden years of filmmaking before Los Angeles was shrouded in a hazy smog of pollution.

A government cash rebate for international filmmakers of between 20% and 25% has also put South Africa on a competitive footing with other major filming locations. Sugar-coating those benefits is a change in the exchange rate that offers filmmakers a lot more for their dollar: South Africa’s rand currency has dropped to a 13-year low against the greenback this year.

“When the dollar gets stronger, you’re just able to do more, in terms of your sets and your construction and your wardrobe,” says Carmi Zlotnik, managing director at Starz, who says that South Africa now ranks as the top country in which he operates.

Denis Lille, chief executive of the Cape Film Commission, puts it another way: “It just doesn’t cost as much” as other destinations like Australia or Europe, he says. “It’s like South African wine.”

Studio executives also praise the raft of affordable English-speaking talent. Of 700 crew members on Black Sails’ third-season payroll, all but 30 were South African and just 10 of 200 speaking parts went to foreigners, Mr. Symes says.

To the north, Johannesburg has also become a draw as a setting for scenes of dystopian mayhem. In “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” a Marvel film released internationally in late April and in the U.S. May 1, the City of Gold hosts a 10-minute scene with The Hulk and Iron Man.

More than 300 local crew members and 600 extras were involved in that 10-day shoot, and some of them were brought on to travel to other filming locations with the movie.

At a time when xenophobic attacks on foreigners are making some tourists balk, the positive publicity is a windfall for South Africa.

“If you think about hundreds of millions of people seeing this movie, it really is priceless in terms of marketing value,” says Laura Vercueil, communications manager for Johannesburg Tourism Co.

Mr. Symes says he loves filming in Cape Town, but its No. 1 draw—spectacular geography—is occasionally a nuisance. “The wind can rule our lives a little bit when we’re trying to set sails on one of the ships,” he says.

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