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Netflix goes into overdrive in SA

As Netflix prepares for the airing of its first South African “Original” TV series, the streaming wars are going into overdrive, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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On 28 February next year, an earthquake will hit South Africa. It won’t shake the ground, but will rattle many homes as the hype around South Africa’s first Netflix Original TV series reaches a crescendo.

That’s the day Queen Sono debuts on the Internet streaming service, heralding a new era for TV production in South Africa. 

In the surface, it is about an unconventional spy, played by Pearl Thusi, who dedicates her life to protecting the people of Africa after the assassination of her mother. The real plot emerges during a dangerous field assignment, when she learns shocking details about her mother’s death. A quest for the truth begins.

The series will mark numerous firsts, not least the technology miracle that will make it the first South African production to be released across the globe, in 190 countries, at the same time. That is made possible by the fact that Netflix hosts its content on Amazon Web Services, world’s biggest cloud computing service provider. It means that the content can be released simultaneously in every country served by Netflix, with local adaptation, licensing and regulation automatically in place.

Queen Sono was created and directed by Kagiso Lediga, creator of Catching Feelings, a 2018 movie, also starring Pearl Thusi, and bought by Netflix after it had been made. He co-writes Queen Sono with Camilo Saloojee, Christopher Steenkamp and Muzi Dlamini, making it Netflix’s first script-to-screen, fully produced African original series, with the cast and crew entirely African.

The backing of Netflix meant that production company Dieprente could embrace international production values.

“As much as you wanted to treat it as an African show, we were well aware that it had to have international appeal,” director of photography Motheo Moeng recently told Gadget.

As a result, it was shot in 37 different locations across Africa, including the Johannesburg CBD, Sandton, Park Station, Soweto, Lagos, Kenya, and Zanzibar.  It uses a range of languages, including English, Afrikaans, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Russian and French.

Lediga, who also heads up Diprente, told us:  “We’ve always had this thing of local stories with a global perspective. Even with stand-up, our community has been the drive. When I started directing films, the idea was to get into festivals and get a global audience. And then when Netflix picked up one of my films, I started working with audiences around the world. I was like, I get it, people are thirsty for these types of stories.”

It also gave Lediga the opportunity to act as showrunner – a concept common to international TV productions, but relatively new to South Africa. Netflix gives showrunners wide creative leeway, something not lost on Lediga.

“[Being writer and director] gives one the ability to carry out the vision. I mean, it’s not just that I’m wearing many hats. But there’s the other creators, other heads of department: from production designer to cinematographer, to the other writers that I work with. So it’s great, I guess that being a showrunner you kind of have to touch on all of those.

“It’s a huge responsibility in terms of carrying out the narrative. Sometimes what’s great is when you come up with an idea, and then when you see it when, either you’re sitting behind the monitor, directing, or while you’re sitting and editing, and you’re like ‘Whoa, that’s exactly how we imagined it’.”

Queen Sono will join a series of Netflix TV series that have received massive marketing in South Africa, including Umbrella Academy earlier this year and the highly anticipated Witcher, which airs this Friday.

It is based on a best-selling series of fantasy novels by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, and is described as “an epic tale of fate and family”. It follows the intertwined destinies of three individuals in the vast world of The Continent, where humans, elves, witchers, gnomes, and monsters battle to survive. Unlike typical stories in this genre, the lines blur between good and evil, adding to the intrigue of the series.

The key characters are played by Henry Cavill (Mission Impossible – Fallout, Man of Steel) as Geralt of Rivia, Anya Chalotra (The ABC Murders, Wanderlust) as Yennefer, and Freya Allan (The Third Day, Into The Badlands) as Ciri.  

Although the saga is no mystery – there have been seven books, with three major video game releases – Netflix is keeping details of the series under tight wraps. 

Arguably, the success of the video games have been the main motivation for the Netflix series.

The original 2007 action role-playing game, The Witcher, was released by Polish game developers CD Projekt Red, featuring Geralt of Rivia, one of the Witchers: traveling monster hunter with supernatural powers. The game gained a cult following due to building the storyline around a system of moral choices. Consequences played themselves out over time, and it avoided traditional good-or-evil morality.

The game was originally made for Microsoft Windows and Apple OS X. The sequel, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, was released in 2011, adding consoles for the first time, with an  Xbox 360 version. In 2015, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt added PlayStation4  and Xbox One. This year, the game was ported to Nintendo Switch.

It is appropriate, then, that the story make another technological leap, from book to computer to console and finally to streaming TV. More than that, Netflix has announced a second season of eight episodes, due to begin production in London early in 2020, for a 2021 release.  

That the second season has been announced before the airing of the initial eight episodes speaks volumes about Netflix’s vigorous approach to the streaming wars. 

In South Africa, viewers are spoiled by a vast and growing catalogue from Internet streaming video-on-demand service Showmax, which has wrapped up the rights to archive after archive of local content. It is also becoming the go-to destination for new series from US network HBO, including Game of Thrones and Silicon Valley. In the United States, much of the international series content seen here on Showmax is  streamed on the HBO Go video-on-demand service. It is joined by ever-growing rosters of movies and series streamed by Disney+, Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV+ – the latter also available in South Africa.

For viewers, streaming represents the golden age of TV series, and South Africa is not about to be left behind.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

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