Starz’s Pirate Spectacle Provides Lift for S. Africa Film

Pirates have descended on Cape Town with two hulking sailing ships and established themselves in a beach-side village, complete with a tavern, brothel and trading store.

The bandits’ arrival hasn’t triggered any alarm. They are the cast of Black Sails, a Starz Entertainment LLC television series being filmed at the Cape Town Film Studios, the largest production ever made in South Africa.

In a country battling sluggish growth and a 25 percent unemployment rate, the film industry is a rare success. Production rebates, low costs and available crews have helped boost the size of the industry by 84 percent over the past five years and created more than 25,000 jobs last year, a study released on May 10 by the National Film and Video Foundation and Deloitte & Touche found.

“There are a lot of pieces to the puzzle as to how you shoot an 18th century beach town and ships and an ocean and do it on a TV schedule and on a TV budget,” Black Sails creator Jon Steinberg said in an on-set interview last month. “This ended up being the best of all worlds. The way the production has gone has been kind of everything you hope for.”

South Africa’s film industry remains small globally, contributing 1.26 billion rand ($132 million) to gross domestic product last year, less than 0.01 percent of the total. Film making in India, home to the Hindi-language industry known as Bollywood, was worth 112.4 billion rupees ($2.02 billion) in 2012, according to a March 7 report by KPMG and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

Major Series

Cape Town Film Studios has helped attract international productions since it opened in December 2010. The only facility of its kind in Africa has been used for six big-screen films, including Lions Gate Entertainment Corp.’s “Dredd,” based on the same law enforcer in a crime-stricken futuristic America played by Sylvester Stallone in 1995, and Universal Pictures Ltd.’s “Safe House,” a CIA action-thriller starring Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds.

“Black Sails is a major step-up for us,” said Nico Dekker, chief executive officer of the studios, whose shareholders include the government and Sabido Investments (Pty) Ltd., a unit of Johannesburg-listed companies Hosken Consolidated Investments Ltd. and Remgro Ltd. “It’s the first major television series ever to shoot here.”

Starz, an Englewood, Colorado-based premium cable-TV channel operator with 56.7 million subscribers, plans to screen Black Sails from next year.

Pirate Battles

A prequel to the Robert Louis Stevenson novel Treasure Island, it tracks the adventures of a buccaneer band led by Captain Flint and their fight to safeguard New Providence Island -- a den of iniquity frequented by pirates, prostitutes and fortune seekers. A 90-second trailer released last month is replete with gory battles and debauchery.

The series’ executive producers are Michael Bay, whose movies include Armageddon and Pearl Harbor, and Brad Fuller and Andrew Forum, producers of the 2009 remake of the horror film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Starz booked all four of the studios’ stages for the shoot of Black Sails’ first eight episodes and worked with Dekker’s team to construct an open-air village, artificial beach and two water tanks used to film the ocean scenes.

Other films shot wholly or partly in South Africa prior to the studios’ opening include Lord of War with Nicholas Cage, Blood Diamond, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and science-fiction Academy award nominee District 9.

Weaker Currency

The government offers tax rebates of 25 percent to 35 percent of qualifying expenditure on films made within South Africa. It paid out 250 million rand in incentives last year, 40 percent of which went toward international productions.

The rand’s 32 percent slump against the dollar since the start of 2011 has also cuts costs for productions financed from offshore. The currency weakened 0.3 percent to 9.8125 per dollar by 3:05 p.m. in Johannesburg.

“We can build big, incredible sets for a fraction of what they could be built for elsewhere,” Nina Heyns, a producer with Cape Town-based production company Film Afrika, who is working on Black Sails, said in an interview. “Producers are always amazed.”

The local industry still faces constraints, including inadequate funding, high screening costs, short runs and a lack of a cinema-going culture among black South Africans who make up 79 percent of the population, the National Film and Video Foundation study found.

Even so, the fact that South Africa’s film-making capability is gaining international recognition is opening up opportunities for local producers, directors and actors, according to Zama Mkosi, the foundation’s chief executive officer.

“It’s cheap for people to film here,” Toby Stephens, the British actor who plays the Flint in Black Sails, said in an interview on the set. “The crews are definitely up to scratch. You have got a great set-up.”

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