Young, Gifted & Killing It: Thabang Moleya
by Veli Ngubane (@TheNduna) An award-winning director and entrepreneur born and raised in Tembisa, Gauteng, Thabang Moleya (@Teabagg; IG:@teabaging) is the co-founder of Seriti Films [here’s the YGK interview with the other co-founder — ed-at-large]. We trace his love for films, from a young age to directing an international series featuring Brendan Fraser.
Veli Ngubane: First things first, congratulations on directing an international TV series featuring Brendan Fraser. Tell us more about how the opportunity came about and your highlights?
Thabang Moleya: Thank you very much. The international series was one of the biggest co-productions to come out of South Africa, with a combined budget of US$27m. “Professionals” is set against the backdrop of international espionage and corporate sabotage in the 21st century’s privately funded space race. When an advanced medical satellite is destroyed, a billionaire futurist (Fraser) and his medical visionary fiancée (Elena Anaya) enlist the services of a hardened counter terrorist operative to assemble a team to investigate. They discover that a number of business rivals, corrupt government officials and a shadowy crime syndicate may be behind the attack. That’s the briefest synopsis of the project; it’s fast-paced action, it’s drama and comedy, all coming together beautifully in what I believe will be a well-received and loved series. I’ve directed two other international shows before this project, “Jacobs Cross” and medical drama series, “Jozi-H”, so I would like to believe the opportunity came from the local and international producers seeing a body of my work and trusting that I could be part of this amazing team.
VN: Where are you from and how has your background influenced your work?
TM: I was born and raised in Tembisa, I grew up in a home where we had the only VHS machine in the area/street we were living in; a lot of my friends would pack up the lounge and we would watch cheesy action and karate films. My love for storytelling really started there. In my teen years I fell in love with photography and processing [my] own black-and-white images in the dark room. I was soon collaborating with friends, writing scripts and shooting short films — we were only 15/16 years old at the time but this bug had caught us — weekends we would spend time at each other’s homes, watching films and writing down ideas. I had no idea I could do this for a living, yet alone get paid, but I guess this is how God reveals our purpose to us.
VN: Please explain what you actually do and how an average day looks for you?
TM: I don’t have one typical day that consists of the same routine. Being one of the business owners of Seriti, we have different responsibilities in running a company that offers multiple services to our clients. We run a commercials divisions, drama series, feature films, content creation and skills development/training/master classes etc. By the end of most of my days, I’m completely depleted because the machine keeps turning, developing and growing. Currently [at the time of the interview], we are setting up our first telenovela for Mzansi Magic, lots of castings, reading scripts, finding locations; in the evening I continue with developing a feature film, which is a Zakes Mda adaptation, “Black Diamond”. We [are] exploring collaborations between local and international partners/individuals. We are really motivated by exploring collaboration opportunities while developing talent and growing the business into a legacy we can be proud of.
VN: Tell us more about Sereti Films?
TM: We are currently in our third year. Let me tell you something: there’s nothing like running a business until you run a business. I appreciate my partners, the people [who] work within the business, the clients that we have worked with, the agencies we have created great commercials with, M-Net for investing in our growth. [B]ehind the scenes, we have mentors we look to for advice and insight; we never pretend to know when we don’t, we’re not afraid to ask and we strive in letting our employees know and believe that they don’t work for ‘us’ — that they should bring to the table their ideas and dreams and see how we can be the support for those dreams and help them get there. I love my team.
VN: How did you break into the industry? Please give a brief history of your journey from the beginning until now.
TM: I first broke into the industry as a K-T.V. presenter for M-Net; I was a teen then. We actually didn’t have an M-Net decoder at home, so I had no idea what I was auditioning for when the castings started happening — even worse I couldn’t watch at home with the family. Which I find ironic. Two presenters and myself wrote short films and used the M-NET gear and post to shoot and edit our work. We cast friends [who] had a passion for acting and, before we knew [it], we had a small hit team. I then approached Cinema Nouveau in Rosebank once the films were made and said, “I’m a director and I would like to book two of your cinemas for a screening and I don’t have any money to pay you” and they agreed. We invited our friends and family. I think pockets of such moments in my life really made me feel like this is what [I’m] meant to be doing. I was 16 years old at the time.
VN: Why do you think the industry is struggling with transformation?
TM: It is transforming but very slowly. It’s not going to happen overnight either because changing something that’s been set in its way for many years takes time. Government does play a big part with incentive and rebate structures with the IDC and the DTI, and that’s definitely having an impact; the same energy needs to be put into more woman in HOD positions, not just in wardrobe, makeup and production managers/assistants — I mean female producers, directors and company owners. Clients/agencies need to have a look at how much work they have produced in a year and how much of that work was produced by female lead positions — the same with channels across the board. We need to table these matters collectively so that the change happens simultaneously.
VN: What advice do you have for young people wanting to break into the industry?
TM: We often give advice about being a hard worker but we seldom speak about having the right attitude. Attitude goes a long way. I would rather hire or work with something someone who has the right attitude and less talent. Attitude means you treat people right, you respect others, you respect time, you respect your part to play and you honour that. People always remember the experience of you more than the project that you worked on.
VN: What’s next for your industry: what are the key trends driving change in your field?
TM: The demand for content and how it is being consumed. Brands shifting and exploring different ways to engage consumers. Ultimately, this is a landscape that is forever evolving; being able to adapt to these changes is important for longevity — more so positioning yourself as a collaborator and constantly showing consistency in being able to deliver high-end production value to the clients in whatever shape or format.
VN: What community initiatives and mentorship programs do you have and how can young people work with you?
TM: We are currently working with the JLD Institute in KZN [KwaZulu-Natal] in hosting masterclasses and workshops for the UIF Labour Activation Programme Class. Film/TV/media shouldn’t exclude those who can’t afford it. Already it’s such a cost for the youth to get into these colleges and universities; the fees are alarming high; some kids do first year and drop out. Programmes like this help me get closer to the ground roots levels of finding and uprooting this talent and giving them an opportunity to be heard through their work.
VN: Where and when do you have your best ideas?
TM: Usually at home, in the early hours of 2am or 3am, when the world is quiet and I sit in silence. I enjoy sitting in silence; I enjoy being home. I invite my ears to hear, to listen.
VN: What have you learnt about yourself as a result of running a business?
TM: To set deadlines for goals, to be consistent, to be patient but remain consistent.
VN: Tell us something about yourself not generally known.
TM: I enjoy my coffee/tea every day at 5pm before I leave the office, with two slices of white bread and butter on it. Nothing more. It’s just something I really enjoy having. Reminds me of home and my grandmother.
VN: What other exciting projects are you working on at the moment?
More great commercials, a really exciting telenovela coming soon, feature films, collaborations and partnerships, I’m just really happy I now have an espresso machine because there’re a lot of long nights in 2020.
VN: Please would you supply two or three pieces of work you have been involved in?
Veli Ngubane (@TheNduna) entered the world of advertising with a passion after completing his BSocSci (law, politics and economics) at UCT and a post-graduate marketing diploma at Red & Yellow, where he’s currently advisory board chairman. He also sits on the IAB’s Transformation & Education Council, is a DMA board member and Loeries, APEX, Pendoring, Bookmarks and AdFocus. He is the group MD of AVATAR and co-founder of M&N Brands, which is building an African network of agencies to rival the global giants. In his monthly column “Young, Gifted & Killing It”, he profiles award-winning, kick-ass black creative talent in South Africa.