Film. Then, we went on to Toronto and won the People's Choice Award beating 330 other films. We were quite staggered. Tsotsi was screened right at the end of the festival and we didn't expect it to win at all."
Peter and Minette Fudakowski
holding the Oscar
Peter is CEO of Premiere Productions Ltd., which he founded with his wife, Minette, in London in 1985.
First of all congratulations! You and Minette must be extremely happy. How does it feel to win an Oscar?
"People in the film industry dream about being nominated for an Oscar. To win an Oscar, to hold it and feel it, well, it's a fairy tale, a dream come true and of course the recognition of an Oscar is phenomenal, it's known by people who don't even go to the cinema. It's a huge commercial and artistic accolade."
And Tsotsi has won many other awards.
"Yes, the film was nominated for an award at every major film festival it went to. From my point of view, as the producer, the most interesting awards are the audience awards. It is important that the general public like the film so that it is a commercial success. We won the Standard Life Audience Award at the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2005 and also the critics award, the Michael Powell Award for Best New British Feature
Tell us about the making of Tsotsi, was it a challenge?
"Yes, any film is a challenge to make. It was clear to us from the start that we had to produce an excellent film out of this novel, otherwise it would get lost in the hundreds of films produced every year. The commercial proposition from the beginning was pretty poor, the norm in the film industry is failure. You undertake to make a movie as an independent producer and you expect to fail, you don't set out to fail but being realistic, most films do fail, commercially and critically. This sense of inevitable failure is really tough to overcome when you are trained and educated to succeed, not fail. It took me a long time to accept that I shouldn’t fear failure. Setting out to make Tsotsi, a foreign language film, subtitled with a black cast who were completely unknown, in a country that not many people have been to, was doomed to failure unless it turned out to be absolutely excellent."
"My wife, Minette, who has worked with me for 25 years, was my script editor, reader and partner in the making of this film. We worked with the director intensively on the script, it went through 40 drafts, receiving feedback from readers to improve the script each time. During the editing stage, the film went through 23 cuts or versions with audience testing in between many of the cuts. These are some of the reasons why the film has been successful. I must also say, that in the making of this film, I applied some important processes that I learnt at INSEAD. Although it is a piece of entertainment, a work of art if you like, as a producer you have to treat a film as a product for an international market with your audiences and the profit motive in mind. That I owe to INSEAD."
How difficult was it to build your own company in film production?
"Well, to start with, difficult is an understatement, it is actually impossible! Film production in its own right is not a business, it's a way of life. How often can one produce a feature film? Once every few years?"
"Television production can be used to provide regular income allowing one to produce feature films when time and money allows. But I’m afraid that producing for television has never interested me. It is actually almost impossible in the UK to sustain a company that is purely a feature film production company. Many people have tried but only the larger studios have succeeded. Developing a script can cost anything from USD 50,000 to USD 500,000 and during this time, you would not have earnt a cent! Then, when you finally get the film off the ground, in the budget there is a line called the producer’s fee, which is often cut by the financers, as they know that the producer wants so desperately to make the film that he’ll accept any fee when push comes to shove. It is a very tough business, the question is: Why does one do it? The only answer is: Passion and having a dream! It's completely irrational."
How many other films have you produced?
"Well, that's the funny thing! This is the first film that I have produced from start to finish. It only took me 25 years to get here! I have written and produced training films and multimedia programmes. I've co-produced films, acting as an executive producer, financed other producers’ films, but this is the only one that I have produced from scratch, from a creative point of view as well as financially."
Did you have any other connection with South Africa?
"Not at all, if someone had told me 3 and a half years ago that my first film would be in South Africa, I would have said they were out of their mind."
Then how come you chose this story?
"The answer is the story, it's all about the story. Tsotsi is a parable that has universal appeal, which makes it appealing commercially. Seeing this opportunity got us started, then it was a question of producing it in a way that would appeal to as many people as possible."
It must be hard to find a good story to make films and this film is quite unique.
"Some critics have said they have seen this story somewhere before, which I think is due to the fact that it’s about some of our basic human instincts, a story about an aspect of love. As a film producer I’m always looking for stories I feel have a universal appeal and coming across them can very much be a matter of chance."
How did you come across this story?
"This is a curious story in itself, a matter of chance! In 2002, I took my daughter for her 17th birthday to New York as she was thinking at that time about becoming an artist. We visited various galleries and at one of them, one of the artists mentioned that she created her art in order to make enough money to make films. This artist had had an idea to make a film for which she had written the script and she mentioned the story of Tsotsi, which triggered my memory as I had heard this story about 10 years before. The novel was written by Athol Fugard in the 1950's but was only published in 1980. Many producers in New York have been trying to make it into a film for the last 20 odd years but have not succeeded. The artist told me that her script was with her producer with whom, by pure coincidence, I was going to have a meeting the very next day! I read the script but wasn't keen on it. But what a great idea! So I decided to commission a new script from a South African writer/director, and a year later were in production."
How much did the film cost to make? How does this compare on an average to other films?
"The breakeven point where we start getting net profits, which is what I am interested in as the producer is 5 million US dollars, so it's quite a low budget film. This amount includes everything, the cost of the finance, of marketing, etc., and actually we are already into net profits, which as a financer of films for over 25 years, I have never seen before. Comparing our budget for Tsotsi to other films, an average British film would cost about 8 to 10 million US dollars today."
Could you fund the film entirely?
"No, I raised money under a British scheme called the Enterprise Investment Scheme, which actually gives investors a small tax break for putting money into film production companies. With this money I also financed another film called 'Bugs', a 3D IMAX movie, which has done over $26m at the box office."
Why did you choose Gavin Hood as film director? Had you previously worked with him?
"I met Gavin in Cannes some years before where I saw his first film. Gavin is an intelligent, talented man, also happens to be South African. So I called him and said that I had an idea for a film and would he be interested in writing the script. He agreed immediately, he was already familiar with the story and said he would love to do it."
How long did it take from the idea of making this film until its release?
"Remarkably quickly, I had the idea in November 2002, the script and the finance ready in 2003. We shot the film in 2004 and started selling and marketing it in 2005 and now, in 2006 it's showing in cinemas worldwide, which is very quick by most standards."
Left to right: Gavin Hood, Director; Peter Fudakowski MBA '78, Producer; Minette Fudakowski, Peter's wife holding the Oscar; Lance Gewer, Director of Photography
You mentioned that other film producers have tried to make this story into a film, but failed, where as you have succeeded. How did you do it?
"Yes, that's right. I think there are many reasons and a lot of luck. Firstly, I had an excellent script, written by a South African with deep feelings for his country. And, as I mentioned earlier, the script had a great script editor, my wife, who is now so experienced that I trust her judgment implicitly. Secondly, I have a lot of experience in financing films, I know how to approach and talk to investors, I can speak the language they understand. We managed to close the financial and legal aspects of producing the film quite quickly and efficiently. This can be the cause for a film to fail, if you have no money, you have no film!" And lastly, I had found something that I felt passionate about and it carried me through!"
How much does the film differ from the original story?
"Well, to answer your question indirectly, when Athol had read the final script, before we started shooting the film, he wrote to us saying that this is the best adaptation for a film of any of his work that anyone has ever produced! Retaining the spirit of his novel, we have modernised it from the 1950s to present day. We also decided to use younger actors because our casting director pointed out that it is hard for someone older to change so dramatically as in Tsotsi. However, this posed another problem. Where do you find young black experienced actors in South Africa? The answer is, you don't! So, our casting director took it upon herself to search in the townships, finally finding our two main inexperienced actors, who fitted perfectly into their roles."
The film is in 'Tsotsi-Taal', the local slang in South Africa, rather than English. How do you think this affects the film?
"There are producers who are just interested in the money and those who are purely creative. For me, the answer is to balance creativity with business. I did ask myself questions. How can I make this film be a commercial success? Who will want to see it? How do we tell a tough story yet attract a wide audience... And to answer your question, the language was a huge dilemma. We had some great black actors in LA who wanted to do it in English, but this would have dictated the whole style of the film. From one point of view, this made much more sense, involving less risk by using known actors, acting in English. However, Gavin and I finally came to the decision that for commercial reasons as well as creative reasons, we should use the local language with subtitles, giving the film a strong authenticity, allowing it to feel more emotional thus making a better film."
You have also received comments from Nelson Mandela about the film?
"Yes, Nelson Mandela stated how this film has focused the spotlight on South Africa. This shows how a country can be recognized, not just through politics or economic issues, but through the world of entertainment. In a sense this film has put South Africa on the map. This is the first time a film produced in Africa has won an Oscar, making it a big deal for the entire continent which has felt hard done by, ignored and under valued."
So now are you looking for another story to produce another film?
"Of course! I am just at the beginning of my career having reached 50! I've wanted to produce films since my teens, but needed to figure out how I could achieve this dream maintaining a good balance of business and family life. It's an industry where it helps to be slightly obsessive and this romantic dream of mine has finally come true after 25 years of work, balancing every aspect of life so that I didn't end up becoming an impoverished, or perhaps rich, producer with three ex wives!"
What advise would you give to alumni who would like to work in film production?
"I would say don't! Don't even think about it! You have to be a little mad and very passionate. There is a joke that exists in this industry: How do you make a small fortune in the film business? The answer is: You start with a big one! It is completely the opposite of what we are taught at INSEAD. I have struggled with this over the years, wondering what I am doing, having two degrees, I could have had a career as a banker or a lawyer, something regular where life isn't so unpredictable. However, saying this, I would also tell alumni to follow their dreams, they just need to keep in mind that to achieve their dreams, the path may not necessarily be a straight line."
How has having an MBA from INSEAD helped you in your career?
"To remain focused, to manage the financial processes, negotiate with investors and understand the business side of the film industry. It also has given me the necessary knowledge to make money in other ways, so that I had the time to do what I really wanted to do."
Could you come to campus to talk to current MBAs about the Media industry?
"Yes, I would love to, I can of course talk about the combination of business with creativity in the media industry. I do think however, that my career has been entrepreneurial and this aspect could help MBAs who are interested in becoming entrepreneurs. I would be happy to share my thoughts with MBAs about how to make a small business work, what it takes and actually, the type of person you need to be to succeed in uncertainty. Having certain qualities such as persuasiveness, charm, never taking no for an answer, determination, enjoying the need to take risks and uncertainty – all these qualities are vital . These qualities cannot be learnt from books or even lectures, but listening to people who have achieved their dreams can help others recognize whether they have what it takes to succeed – eventually!."
To find out more about Tsotsi, click here.