Showmax Chief Yolisa Phahle Talks Co-Production And Black Panther Effect As Streamer Reveals First Trailer For African Fantasy Drama Blood Psalms

EXCLUSIVE: Showmax content chief Yolisa Phahle has revealed how co-producing with international partners has helped the South Africa-based streamer compete with fierce SVoD competition, as a first trailer for its epic fantasy drama Blood Psalms is today unveiled. You can watch it here below.

Blood Psalms, from creators Layla Swart and Jahmil X.T. Qubeka from Yellowbone Entertainment, is a big budget co-production with France’s Canal+ — the latest in several collaborations between the companies — and is billed as Showmax’s “biggest and most ambitious series, completely unlike any other African series you’ve ever seen” by Nomsa Philiso, Executive Head of Programming at the streamer’s parent MultiChoice. The fantasy drama, shot entirely in African languages, has touches of Game of Thrones, set 11,000 years ago in ancient Africa in a world of warring factions and magic.

The synopsis reads: “In Ancient Africa, one thousand days after the fall of Atlantis, the five surviving houses of Kemet find themselves beset with fears of a prophesied end of days.” Bokang Phelane (Keeping Score, Isidingo) plays Princess Zazi, a fiercely determined teenage princess who must navigate primordial curses, long-standing ancestral vendettas, and her inexplicable role as the damning prophecy’s chief harbinger, while SAFTA and an African Movie Academy Award winner Mothusi Magano plays her father, the mad king Letsha.

The huge cast also includes Bongile Mantsai (Knuckle City), Hamilton Dlamini (Five Fingers For Marseilles), Hlubi Mboya (Isidingo), S’dumo Mtshali (iNumber Number, Is’thunzi), Siv Ngesi (DAM), Thishiwe Ziqubu (The Imposter) and Warren Masemola (The Republic), Enhle Mbali Mlotshwa (Rockville), Niza Jay (The Wound), Richard Lukunku (Happiness Is A Four-Letter Word), Sello Maake kaNcube (The Herd), Thando Thabethe (Reyka), Thembekile Komani (Knuckle City), Zikhona Sodlaka (The Wife), Faniswa Yisa (Knuckle City, DAM), Faith Baloyi (Flatland), Lemogang Tsipa (Shaka Ilembe),and Thabo Rametsi (Kalushi, Silverton Siege).

Here’s the trailer.

Deadline can reveal Blood Psalms will have its world premiere in Cape Town on Wednesday August 24 as the opening night screening at MIP Africa, part of FAME Week Africa. The show then debuts to subscribers on September 28, with new episodes dropping even week for 11 weeks thereafter.

Phahle, CEO of General Entertainment and Connected Video at MultiChoice, said the launch demonstrates how the streamer’s international co-productions with the likes of Canal+, Fremantle and Cinemax “show that we are actually taking African stories, African talent and African creatives into the rest of the world.”

“This show was specifically created as a reimagining of ourselves as Africans, as an answer to, ‘Who are we?’,” added Phelane. “It’s done in a very entertaining way, with a lot of drama and action.”

Backing Local Talent

Show creators Swart and Qubeka were responsible for South Africa’s 2020 Oscar entry, Knuckle City, a boxing drama that won six SAFTAs, , including Best Director for Qubeka and Best Editor for Swart. “What we’re trying to do is to reclaim the continent’s history from an African perspective,” said Swart. “Blood Psalms draws from elements of a multitude of African mythologies and looks at various different tribes in season one — the Akachi, the Uchawi, the Ku’ua, the Chini, and Great Nziwemabwe — as they migrated south from Kemet, which is now Egypt, and formed their cultures.”

Phahle told Deadline in an exclusive interview that Blood Psalms showed how Showmax was supporting local creatives such as Qubeka, whose films have screened Toronto, Rotterdam and London among other festivals — a strategy she said differentiates the streamer from the likes of Netflix and Amazon, both of whom have unveiled extensive original programming slates in Africa in the past month.

“Jahmil is a great director who has got a great future and we’ve walked that journey with him. If you want to keep relationships with crucial talent, and you’ve got to, you have to show faith in them because everybody is looking for great talent. At MultiChoice and Showtime, that is something we have always done. You trust their intuition based on the respect you have for them as a creative.”

Phahle acknowledged that local competitive was “more fierce than ever,” but claimed her company’s approach gave Showmax an advantage. “The fact of the matter is that Showmax is doing something different to our competition. Our only market is Africa and so every single resource we have goes towards winning the hearts and minds of people in Africa; we’d like people in America to watch our shows but that’s not what we care about. We create thousands of jobs for African people, generate millions in tax revenue for the betterment of our society and the success of our business is like a calling.”

Phahle also pointed to what she has previously described as the “Black Panther effect” on international audiences, after the Marvel movie proved African stories  could become international smash hits. “Black Panther demonstrated the fact that we have long believed that there is going to come a day where people are actually going to look with a different kind of interest at our stories, the backdrop and the history of Africa.”

‘SVoD Changed The Game’

Phahle said Blood Psalms showed how streaming services have changed audience appetites. While MultiChoice still operates a successful pay-TV service in sub-Saharan Africa, giving subscribers control over their viewing meant commissioning in genres such as fantasy was less of a risk than in the past. “Television was historically confined by a linear schedule and putting on shows the family could watch together and you were only able to do something edgy late at night,” she said. “Less mainstream genres like fantasy and sci-fi didn’t guarantee you audiences advertisers wanted. SVoD and streaming changed the game, so we now try to have a wide range of programming.

“We still love and produce comedy, family drama and big reality shows like Big Brother and Love Island but we also want to really retain our position as content leaders in our markets. That means giving audiences things they didn’t ever dream they would want and creating demand for something completely new.”

To that end, co-producing has become more important. “We as broadcasters and platforms are looking to tell more ambitious stories and our audiences expect that as the world becomes more globalized,” she said. “A financially sound strategy is to find someone else who is interested in African content and telling African stories.”

Shot in the Eastern Cape, Gauteng and North West provinces, Blood Psalms is a Showmax original in partnership with Canal+, the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition, the Eastern Cape Economic Development Corporation (ECDC) and the MultiChoice Innovation Fund, which supports South Africa’s most exciting entrepreneurs. Showmax has previously partnered with Canal+ on two seasons of procedural Crime and Justice in Kenya and recently announced drama series Spinners.

Canal+, which owns a minority stake in MultiChoice, has produced 13 original TV dramas out of Africa since 2018, including Invisibles and Agent, and now an ambition to produce 10 per year from the territory.

Showmax, targeted at African audiences, is available in most of the continent and several international territories such as the UK and much of Europe.

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