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The South African film and television industry keeps growing and getting better with each passing year. Behind the cameras are hardworking individuals who keep the business afloat and creatives who make decisions that excites us  the audience. 

‘’There are so many successful women producers nowadays and that speaks to the time we are in, where women’s voices need to be heard,’’ – Rethabile Ramaphakela. 

For this week’s A Woman Belongs, we are joined in conversation by award-winning film and TV producer Rethabile ‘Retini’ Ramaphakela. 

Rethabile Ramaphakela is an award-winning TV writer, filmmaker, producer, and director. She is the Creative director of Burnt Onion productions and is famously known for being the witty voice-over artist on the celebrity entertainment show V-Entertainment. 

Amongst many other achievements, Ramaphakela has amassed an impressive filmography as the producer of some of Netflix’s most popular romcom films, such as Seriously Single”, “Bedford Wives”, and “How To Ruin Christmas: The Wedding.” 

Today we delve into how she not only broke the barriers of the television and film industry but  rose to the top of this  highly male-dominated and competitive entertainment industry as a producer and director. 

Here’s what Rethabile had to say… 

Q. You launched Burnt Onion in 2008. A period where there were few black owned production companies let alone women led. Can you give us a brief synopsis of your journey? 

I started my career as a kid’s TV presenter on SABC2 before moving to Mnet’s KTV. Throughout my teens I was very Interested in the behind the scenes of what makes television work, and I ultimately went on to study at AFDA where I majored in Scriptwriting and Producing. 

In my third year, I decided that I wanted to register a company, so myself and my eldest brother, Tshepo registered the company called Burnt Onion Productions. He was from the corporate world, and I had my creative know how. Not too long after that, my other brother Katleho joined the company bringing his Accounting and production expertise to the company. 

That year we pitched a show called My Perfect Family to SABC 1 and the rest is history. 

Q. You have successfully run Burnt Onion with your brothers, which speaks to the importance of collaboration. Outside of that close business-family collaboration, how has collaborating with other industry players worked out for you?

What we do is essentially all about collaboration. You cannot make a film or a TV series without other people’s talents be it in costume or production design. We always like to find people that are aligned to who we are, and who we love then letting them shine. That’s what collaboration is all about. 

Q. In your opinion, has it become easier for women to get commissioned now than it was back when you started? 

I think so. There are so many successful women producers nowadays and that speaks to the time we are in, where women’s voices need to be heard. It’s great to see it.  

Q. Your first show, ‘My Perfect Family’ got commissioned by SABC and you had to write and fine-tune the show for over a year. Was that beneficial for you and do you think it should become standard practice? 

My Perfect Family was our first commission from the SABC and the only reason why we had a year to develop was because the SABC went through a financial crisis. So Katt and I continued to fine tune the scripts ourselves while we waited for the greenlight from the channel to start production. 

Development is the first phase of the process and it’s always ideal to have more time, but we are usually held to TX dates (The action or process of transmitting something, or the state of being transmitted) and deadlines. Honing in on the story is so important and finding the right team is equally so. Not every show needs a year of development but every show needs time to bring the story world to life.

Q. You have been producing work for more than 13 years. What values have carried you through all these years?

The most important one would be consistency. There are so many times where it would’ve been easy to give up, but we persisted.  That’s always my thing, you have to always keep on keeping on. 

Q. What are some things that producers need to think about when they enter a contract with a major broadcaster? 

The most important thing is to ensure that you understand everything that is written in the document, and if you don’t, ensure that you get clarity. Often people sign contracts without understanding the terms and what it means for them. 

Q. It is no secret that royalties are a sensitive or much contested issue for talent particularly when it comes to rebroadcasting. What are some other persisting challenges and how can the industry solve them?

There are many issues facing the industry and the only way that we can truly move forward is by coming together and having one united front about the challenges we face as an industry. 

Q. Seems like we’ll be in the pandemic for a long time and financially adapting to the challenges is imperative to our survival. Speak to us about how you’ve had to adapt as a businesswoman?

Well, planning shoots is a lot different now. We must constantly be cognisant of the fact that we are in a pandemic, so budgets are higher to make allowances for PPE on set and ensuring we follow all COVID protocols based on whatever level we are at. 

Q. The film industry doesn’t have many women at the forefront (i.e. directors, producers, production owners, etc). Do you think that this contributes to the gender pay discrepancies that exist and how have you dealt with such challenges? 

This is unfortunately a worldwide challenge. But slowly we are seeing the uptake of women in HOD (Head of Department) roles be it as DOP (Director of Photography) or directors but it’s certainly not enough. We constantly try to find female talent to work with in our productions and try to work with new and upcoming voices where possible. All it takes is for every producer to give someone a chance. 

Q. Everyone can come up with story ideas, but only a few will make it onto big platforms. How does one know that their idea is ‘good enough?’ What do you do to affirm yourself that your story ideas are good?

This is a tough question. Creativity is very subjective but if you know your audience and know what they expect, and your idea meets that then you can often tell that the story will work. It’s all about the viewer and the experience they will get from watching. 

Q. Share with us the process of pitching your ideas to a major platform. What are 3 major key points that people often overlook?

Usually, we respond to briefs sent out or send out unsolicited pitches. The major key point  is always in understanding the target audience of the broadcaster you are approaching. Also, sometimes all you have to do is ask to find out what the broadcaster is looking for. Finally, put together a deck that will immediately draw the reader’s attention. 

Q. If this was 2008 and you were about to launch Burnt Onion, what advice would you give your 2008 self?

Continually be in development and to keep pitching even if you have one show going. 

Q. How To Ruin Christmas season 2 is coming, when and what can we expect?

You can expect the same chaos and messiness that we have come to love from this family. There is also a big twist that will have people reeling. It’s all going down on Netflix from the 10th of December. 

Q. What was the last book you read, or are currently reading?

I just finished reading a Kenyan book called The Havoc of Choice by Wanjiru Koinange which was beautifully written and set against the backdrop of the 2007 Kenyan elections. 

Are you an aspiring filmmaker? What are the most important takeaways from this conversation? Let us know in the comment section.

How To Ruin Christmas: The Wedding season 2 comes out December 10, 2021, save the date!