Exploring the Dark Continent

From stranded hippos in Botswana's Makgadikgadi Salt Pans to cheetahs on the prowl in Kenya's Masai Mara Game Reserve, Africa is a natural history filmmaker's dream - at least in terms of potential. Actually capturing Africa's big animals (and even the...
August 1, 1999

From stranded hippos in Botswana’s Makgadikgadi Salt Pans to cheetahs on the prowl in Kenya’s Masai Mara Game Reserve, Africa is a natural history filmmaker’s dream – at least in terms of potential. Actually capturing Africa’s big animals (and even the small ones) on film is another story. It often requires a time commitment and intimate knowledge of the bush visiting producers just don’t have.

For a small contingent of African doc-makers, no such limitations exist. Their expertise, location and experience give them an edge over outside producers, and little by little they’re paving the way for other African natural history filmmakers. But, they have pitfalls of a different kind to navigate. Relatively weak local currencies are a mixed blessing, and the battle to find funding is constant. Broadcast potential at home is limited, giving them scant occasion to display their talents. Despite these challenges, though, a handful of African producers are building their reputations and selling on the international market.


Producer Tim Liversedge of Botswana-based Wildlife Enterprises Ltd. is a case in point. Though he’s lived in Africa all of his life, it’s in the international arena that he’s met with the most success. ‘My main markets are the main markets of the world, which are the United States primarily, followed by Europe, and then perhaps Asia,’ he says. ‘I don’t consider Africa as an important market at all…. From a business perspective, Africa really doesn’t feature in the pie of earnings for these sorts of programs.’

Liversedge, who’s been a filmmaker for the past 15 years and has had his own production company since 1987, says it’s the big players, such as National Geographic and the BBC, who are interested in his films. In Liversedge’s opinion, his knowledge of the area and wildlife behavior gives him the upper hand over outsiders. ‘I was, first of all, a naturalist rather than a filmmaker,’ he says. ‘For most of the subjects I choose, I’ve done the research on the subject myself and published on it, so of course I’m the local expert as well. A company overseas would have to employ a researcher who would have to dig up the facts.’


An academic background in natural history seems to be a standard attribute of African wildlife producers. Richard Goss, of South Africa-based Nature Vision Ltd., holds a Masters degree in zoology, as does Zimbabwe-born Will Taylor, president of both Panthera Prouctions and Zambezi Productions in Dallas, Texas (he moved to the U.S. from Africa eight years ago). Taylor also spent several years as a ranger at the Mala Mala Game Reserve in South Africa before turning to filmmaking.

‘What it [our academic background] does is it allows us to know exactly what’s going on in the bush,’ says Taylor. ‘We feel comfortable there, we know animal behavior, we know how to find animals, we know how to behave around animals.’ Adds Goss: ‘I’ve found that it’s been crucial, not only from a business point of view, but certainly in terms of understanding subject matter and the ability to put shows together. That biological background and very close understanding of this environment has been very useful.’

Time is the other significant factor that African producers have on their side. Unlike crews who have to whisk in and out in a matter of weeks, Africa-based teams can wait for months or even years, watching while a story unfolds. Says John Varty, founder of South Africa-based Londolozi Productions: ‘One of our strengths is that all of our cameramen, editors and producers are natives [Masai, Zambian and Shangaan], and are intricately linked to the areas and animals that are their subject matter. Our cameramen are interacting in these environs and with these animals day and night, all year round – not just for an intensive six to eight week shoot.’


From a conservation perspective, a more relaxed approach is generally considered better for the stars of the shows – the animals. ‘You’ve got to let things happen in front of you. The more you try to force the pace, the more you disturb the animals,’ says Taylor, who has crews permanently based in southern Africa. ‘For example, lions that we’ve worked on for two or three years, where we’ve spent a lot of time habituating them to vehicles, getting them to be completely relaxed, can have one bad experience and that’s two years of work just ruined.’

Conservation awareness is a message that many African producers wish to convey through their films. However, the audiences they’d most like to target are the ones that are most difficult to reach. ‘I think an important aspect is that Africa really does need to see a lot of these things from an environmental, educational and conservation point of view,’ Liversedge says. ‘This doesn’t happen because often there isn’t a language version made which is accessible to the people of a particular country. That’s an expensive thing to do, putting on different language versions. And we don’t get any financial incentives to make films at all.’

In some parts of southern Africa, governing bodies control access to game reserves with filming permits (ostensibly for environmental reasons), which can be a particular problem for unsuspecting crews from abroad. ‘You find often in countries there’s a major bureaucratic problem in obtaining filming permits and many of them charge large sums of money,’ Liversedge says, adding, ‘of course permits are absolutely essential, and they often take many months to obtain.’

African production teams again have the advantage, as they generally don’t have the same time constraints as visiting crews. Adds Taylor: ‘And it’s also an advantage that we are known, trusted and respected by governments, governing bodies and conservation bodies in various countries, so it makes it easier to get permits.’ Taylor has worked in Botswana, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia, as well as Kenya and Tanzania.


The relatively low African currencies help to offset costs to a certain extent, but not as much as one might expect. ‘Producing in South African rands and receiving income in U.S. dollars is, naturally, beneficial,’ says Varty, citing low production costs for crews based in Africa. But he also notes that film stock and equipment are usually imported, and therefore very expensive.

Both Goss and Taylor agree that the biggest advantage of favorable exchange rates is that it buys them more time to film. ‘Natural history filmmaking relies on large periods of time on location, and that can be quite expensive programming if you’re going for top-end product,’ Goss says. ‘Obviously, favorable exchange rates in southern Africa have been very beneficial in that regard, in being able to get budgets to allow extended periods in the field, and thereby enabling high-end programming to be achieved.’ Taylor concurs: ‘It affords you to spend more time on the ground, getting the shots you need and following the stories you want to follow, because your costs are a little bit lower.’


South Africa is the one spot where opportunities are a bit brighter than elsewhere on the continent, in terms of broadcast potential. Taylor says all of his films have been aired by South African broadcaster, MNET, for example, which also reaches parts of southern and eastern Africa, and the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) has run 50/50 – a one-hour, weekly, magazine-style series devoted to local environmental and wildlife issues – for the past 15 years.

50/50 currently commissions only South African producers, though executive producer Danie Van Der Walt says that might change. ‘Shortly, everything is going to be commissioned because we will only be having an administrative section inside as the core function.’

In most cases, however, African natural history filmmakers have to look outside of their immediate environment for both funding and broadcasting opportunities. ‘In southern Africa, it’s critical to have access to international markets,’ says Goss, who’s been a producer for 17 years. ‘We just don’t have the audience locally or the funding available to be able to produce programming of a calibre that would be internationally acceptable.’

An alternative way to reach viewers in Africa is through video sales. In Taylor’s experience, the video market seems to be heating up there, and is easier to crack than in the U.S. ‘Funny, the video market is very difficult to enter in the States, but it’s actually quite easy in Africa,’ he notes. ‘It’s because there’s a lot of people who, even though they live there, are interested in wildlife. And also the tourism industry. If you go to any airport in Africa, you’ll see our videos on the shelves.’ South Africa-based distributor gtv handles the video sales of Taylor’s films in Africa.


Like Liversedge, Goss generally looks to the big names in natural history production to finance his programs. ‘What I have done in the past is to sign coproduction deals up front, usually with one of the majors like National Geographic or the BBC,’ he says. ‘And then I would normally look at some sort of back-end revenue, in addition to the pure program budget. That’s where I would look for my margins to be increased…. Many of the shows I produce with coproducers have a limited license, with the rights reverting to me after a certain period of time.’

Before a producer can start to negotiate, however, he has to attract the attention of a major international player, which can be a problem. ‘Many filmmakers have been trapped in the local environment as a result of not being able to get the first international contract and the level of funding required to produce top-end programming,’ Goss acknowledges. According to John Varty, African producers often have to fight against the stereotype that they are less capable than their American or European counterparts. ‘Fortunately, this perception is changing as African filmmakers increasingly produce top-quality programming with a uniquely African style,’ he says.

Varty has spent 18 years carefully cultivating his production company’s reputation and it has given him some leverage. ‘Londolozi Productions is able to secure a minimum guarantee from its distributor (Explore International) who, in turn, secures pre-sales from broadcasters,’ he says. ‘This alleviates the cashflow problems typically associated with natural history filmmaking, caused by extended filming periods and slow revenue flows. The key to securing pre-sales is probably an established reputation of quality and reliable output.’

Liversedge’s approach when he first started was to carry a production quite far down the line before he sold it, which he says ‘is always a risky way to go.’ Even now, though, he hasn’t completely abandoned that method. ‘I still favor it because if I find something unusual, I have the confidence now in what is sale-able. So, I’ll often pursue it, then sign a deal and then finish it, which I’ve done several times.’ In terms of rights, Liversedge says he tries to hold onto theatrical rights and African rights, ‘but generally we have to sell the rights for worldwide broadcast television in order to cover the cost of the show.’


More and more, African natural history producers are getting into the game, particularly in South Africa. ‘I think there’s been a dramatic increase, largely as a result of the political setup in South Africa having changed five years ago,’ Goss says. ‘That’s given a lot more people the opportunity to produce higher end programming as a result of access to international markets, which was very restricted previously. I think certainly where there would have been probably three or four people in all of South Africa 10 to 15 years ago, there are perhaps now more like 30 or 40, perhaps more than that.’

In an effort to give African doc-makers a break, Taylor has taken an enlightened approach with his latest venture, Zambezi Productions. ‘What we decided to do with Zambezi was identify people who have got great projects going on, and talk to them to see if they’re interested in working with us. We will help secure the financing for them, and then give them a piece of the backend of the project, so they have ownership.’

In Taylor’s opinion, up-and-coming producers can easily get caught in a vicious circle, never getting ahead. ‘If you’re a young filmmaker, you get commissioned, you make your film, you’ve got a budget and you get a fee for it – and usually you eat into your fee because you overshoot on your budget. By the time that project’s finished, you’ve got to start on the next one and you never get ahead. You never manage to secure rights and have any ownership in any of the products that you’re producing. And that’s a sad thing.’

Taylor also has a particular interest in helping young black African filmmakers break into the industry. ‘I think the ultimate thing to be able to do would be to have someone from Africa, a black African, go into places.’

In post-apartheid South Africa, ‘there are very few black filmmakers who have come through the ranks at this stage,’ Goss says. ‘Even after five years, I don’t know of any black wildlife filmmakers who are actually producing specialist programming…. But I see no reason why that shouldn’t change. I think it’s really just a historical hangover that’s existing at this stage. I think it’s just a question of time.’

The same can be said for the general attitude towards natural history production in Africa. As Danie Van Der Walt of the SABC sums up, ‘There’s a grave feeling in Africa that Africa’s nature stories belong to Africa. And everyone who likes to come here, in a few years might find that unless they’re going to do it in the coproduction style, they’re just not going to have access to the resources…. There is something which is brewing and we’ll see where it’s going.’



1 South African rand = US$0.17

= Euro$0.16

= £0.10 (U.K.)

1 Botswana pula = US$0.22

= Euro$0.21

= £0.14 (U.K.)

1 Kenya shilling = US$0.01

= Euro$0.01

= £0.01 (U.K.)

1 Zimbawe dollar = US$0.03

= Euro$0.02

= £0.02 (U.K.)

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