Ronnie Apteker on Netflix streaming SA’s ‘Catching Feelings’, investing in Honey Pot tech

JOHANNESBURG — Ronnie Apteker is well known as an internet pioneer and co-founder of Internet Solutions (IS) in South Africa. But he has also made a name for himself in the creative arts. And, in fact, he was one of the producers of a South African film dubbed ‘Catching Feelings’, which has recently become the country’s first local film to be streamed on Netflix. It’s a great movie that has been described as the Johannesburg version of a ‘Woody Allen’ RomCom that portrays the iconic South African city in a fresh light with eye-catching cinematography. In this interview, Apteker tells us more about the film as well as his involvement with a South African cybersecurity startup, Thinkst, that is making global waves. – Gareth van Zyl

It’s a pleasure to have the multi-talented internet pioneer and co-founder of Internet Solutions (IS) Ronnie Apteker. I say ‘multi-talented’ Ronnie, because you’re also a writer and film producer and in fact, you were one of the producers of a local film called ‘Catching Feelings’, which has made its way onto Netflix. Can you tell us more?

I can tell you a lot about it but I think you’ve given me a bit too much credit there. I am part of the team, yes, and it’s a great team. But really this is the brainchild of Kagiso Lediga and his friends at Diprente, and I played a kind of mentoring and advisory role, and I managed to add some value in a few places. But sometimes in life a project comes along where you don’t have to do the heavy-lifting, but it’s some lifting. But really, the credit goes to Kagiso and his team, and I was just super-chuffed that they included me on the journey and that I managed to actually make a contribution. It’s a great piece of work and I was really very chuffed when you reached out and you said you saw it. It’s actually quite amazing because feedback and commentary has been coming from all over the globe, with online streaming like Netflix, it’s amazing with the reach, and the fact that it can be seen wherever there’s Netflix. So, that is a real step-up for local artists and it’s a great outlet for SA talent, and we’re very excited about it.

Ronnie, it’s a really good film. It portrays strong SA themes around race and gender, but it also shines a more, hopeful light on those issues. What struck me also was the cinematography and portrayals of Johannesburg – it’s really beautifully shot.

Ronnie Apteker
Ronnie Apteker.

Absolutely, and one of Kagiso’s inspirations is, like, say Manhattan or the other Woody Allen film set in the city, but people have commented online saying: ‘It’s like the SA Woody Allen film’. We’ve seen some of the Woody Allen films that play tribute to a city and that’s exactly what Kagiso has done here, and I’m glad you said that because it does portray Johannesburg in a very magical way. What’s nice is that it kind of takes the edge off and it lets you have fun. It lets you have fun at looking at real issues but in a kind of light-hearted way and yes, it’s very entertaining and it’s real. It’s a real film and it has something to say. It gives you real insight into life in contemporary Johannesburg.

You’re obviously listed in the credits of the film, but what was your involvement with it? You say that you were more there as a mentor.

I often get asked about this. People say: ‘I see you’re a producer or are you a producer, or what does it mean to be a producer?’ I honestly don’t really know what that word means. To me, it sounds like a Hollywood term. I know what it means to be an entrepreneur, so I know about taking risks and I know about getting your ass kicked and about losing, I know sometimes about winning, but I know about trying to go against the odds and really, what the team is, of producers it’s a group of entrepreneurs that have put in some money, raised the capital. Developed the material and creating a film, and then taken it to market, which I have like over 15 years of, I’m going to say, painful experience. It is highly entrepreneurial. You’re creating a product out of nothing. You’ve got to fund that product, bring it in on budget, and then you’ve got to compete with a whole bunch of other products.

And in the case of the arts – it’s the same with BizNews, BizNews is in the same category. You’re competing with CNN. This is the reality of the online and the media world. If you create a news channel you’re not competing with South African news channels, you’re competing with the world and that includes BBC, CNN. So, I think like for BizNews to actually chip away at the global pie is amazing and it’s an incredible challenge. The same thing with Catching Feelings – you actually compete against Hollywood products. It is always a huge mountain to climb. In this case the film did relatively okay at the box-office. It was a tough time to get to the box-office because of a few phenomena, besides the fact that it’s hard times out there. But Black Panther had just kind of cannibalised everything. There’s actually press around how Black Panther consumed movie goers for, I think, almost a quarter. There were three-months of solid Black Panther activity and other films seemed to have been neglected but we still did pretty good.

Then of course, the fact that it ended up with a real prize moment, going onto Netflix, which today is highly prestigious and it gets great reach. Netflix have got a great brand so, all in all, it was a great journey. Everyone is very happy with the result and I hope that Kagiso will make a Catching Feelings 2, because a lot of people have asked about that. The ending kind of leaves you wondering, did he sleep with her or didn’t he sleep with her? That’s not the point though. The point is life goes on and it was something real. Like some people commented and said, but it should have had a Hollywood kind of sugar-sweet, or candy-coated ending but he gave it a real ending. It was an authentic ending and I guess it leaves the door open for a sequel.

Definitely, and was the plan always to get it onto Netflix or did that just organically happen?

It wasn’t the plan, from the beginning, but Isaac, who is part of the Diprente team, he was driving that and it did come organically and it’s good that it came. But you could say it was always on the wish-list. Just like getting a 5-picture deal from Warner Bros. is on the wish-list and winning an Oscar is on the wish-list and having Steven Spielberg produce your next your next film is on the wish-list. It’s all on the wish-list and we can all have wishes. You guys winning a news award, there must be awards for the news – like the Tony or the Golden Globe News Award, everybody has wish-lists. So, of course, it was on the wish-list but the fact that it actually is quite extraordinary. Isaac has been driving that and everybody gave input and helped, but that did come organically.

Yes, because it must be one of the first SA films to have made it onto Netflix. I can’t think of many others?

It’s possibly the first and it’s still the only one, so, hopefully it will open the door for more. I can give you some insight as to how it works because I know listeners might be interested in the business dynamics of it. They do like a flat-rate buy-up. There’s no royalties or residuals. It’s a fair amount considering that they get it for all territories but there’s no earnings later down the line but it was a fair deal. The film basically managed to recoup, which in movie terms is a big accomplishment so, the film is in a break-even situation, and there could be some earnings still to come. It earned a little bit from the box-office in SA, and UIP did great with it and everybody is chuffed with the result. But what the real win is the fact that the film can be seen all over the world, and we see it, as I said earlier, in the constant comments and input that comes in. Yes, there are a couple of weird comments and some strange ones but overall, people loved the movie. There were some weird and odd comments that comes in and some strange comments that make no sense, and just some nasty. But overall, people really enjoyed the film and it certainly resonated with a lot of people.

It’s a really great way to tell the world about modern SA culture, isn’t it?

Absolutely, and it was also, like you said earlier, it was a way to celebrate this big city that you and I live in, and millions of others. It’s not a city that is really understood around the world. It’s not exactly a place that tourists flock to but we all live here and it’s got a big soul, and it’s a buzzing city, and it’s full of creative people who are trying to make a living. That’s what that film was about. It’s about creative people trying to make a living. It’s a film about those guys. That’s why it’s so authentic because it’s them, they are professional modern artists trying to pay their bills with their work, and that’s what that film is about. It’s about writers and authors, and academics trying to get through life and it’s not easy. It’s a real struggle out there. You know, you also create. So, you know as well, to create content is not easy. It’s not easy to make a living with content. If you reach the top of any industry you can look back and say, ‘we built up a big business or we’ve got a great brand.’ But it’s very hard to do that with content, to actually breakthrough and become the next CNN or the next BBC, it’s very difficult.

Yes, so Ronnie, what appealed to you about the creative arts thing?

That’s a good question. It’s definitely not the lifestyle it provides, or the financial rewards because that you don’t really see, as most of my artist friends can tell you. I love the expression and the storytelling. I don’t know if I fully answered your question earlier. I love the entrepreneurial spirit and that’s where I played a role on the project. When we talk about mentoring, it’s about coming up with a marketing strategy. It’s about challenging the creative vision. It’s about giving commentary on the product. Just like all the steps of what an entrepreneur does, and that’s what I did for this project. In various aspects I gave creative commentary. Whether that commentary was good or bad, I don’t know. I’m following my instincts and my history, and track record. But all of us collaborated and shared ideas and when you look at a movie and there’s always so many credits, and that’s what movies are about.

It’s a big collaboration of people and you have to balance the commerce and the art so, part of it is creative, part of it is financial, and then of course, it’s taking it to market where I was a bit more active. The marketing of a film is as important as the film itself because if you make a good film, and in this case, it was a really cool film, I love the film. If you make a cool film how do you actually stand out against all the Hollywood product? It’s really difficult. You can talk to authors, journalists, and musicians anyone in the expression business – it’s hard to express yourself and actually, get some airtime when you’re competing with big, gigantic brands, like American brands and British brands. It’s really difficult to stand out with a movie, or a book, or a CD. Do people still have CDs? I’m not sure about that.

Well, they’ve got records these days. Records have made a comeback.

Yes, that’s funny, records are making a retro come back, but yes, I love storytelling. I know we’ve spoken in the past and I love capturing people’s imaginations and making people smile. That movie did make people smile. It had some really, funny moments and it makes you think about what’s important in life and it had a great message. When you can do that and inspire people that’s beautiful and magical, and it’s a great thing to do. The challenge is, how do you actually pay the bills doing that because everybody works for, basically, I can tell you, like for nothing. All the money spent is spent on cameras, equipment, the minimalist catering it’s done on a shoestring but nobody is earning any fat salary and putting money in their savings from a film budget. Well, not in SA or the developing world, because to spend R3m to R6m on a movie it doesn’t go a long way when you’re shooting a 2-hour film. You’ve got locations, and actors, and equipment, and transport, and catering, and props and wardrobe. You really have to beg, borrow, and steal to actually get that thing on budget.

Now, Ronnie, you’re not just involved in film these days, obviously, but you’re also sticking to your internet roots. You’re actually linked to a very interesting SA security start-up called Thinkst. Can you tell us a bit more about them?

I can indeed. I’m trying to play a role on the Thinkst journey. I’m trying to build a channel at Internet Solutions, and did I mention data as well? We’re trying to take Haroon Meer’s Canary Honeypot to the IS and DD (Dimension Data) Security. It’s without a doubt, a fantastic and important piece of security technology and I’m pretty sure it’s the leader in the reception space. They play in a space called Deception Technology, and from what I understand, it’s the leading product in the world and it’s an amazing story because it actually originates in here, in SA, and it has global clients. Most of the clients are in the US and I’m trying to play a role, I’m working at the campus with my old friends and colleagues at IS and DD, and we’ve had quite a bit of take-up bringing the technology to the IS and DD clients. It forms an important part of one’s like security arsenal and it’s a detection device that can be like a smoke detector.

If a smoke detector goes off that’s a high indicator that you need to do something because you can’t ignore it. If the smoke detector goes off, it gives you a chance. It’s like an early warning to save peoples’ lives, to save the data, and to save the building and the same with the Canary Honeypot. It’s like a network trap that it would actually send an alert, it’s a high indicator that there’s something suspicious going on and it gives you time to actually investigate and try and close that vulnerability before all your data gets stolen or before you get hacked to pieces. So, it’s a like a very clever, and inexpensive, and highly effective and respected network detection device, like a security detection device, that people are starting to embrace more and more. It requires quite a mindset adjustment.

In my journey so far, I’m learning that you need to have quite a mature mindset to understand that the world has been involved with protecting their corporate or organisational infrastructures and keeping people out. What we call in the security world, or what security companies call ‘securing the perimeter.’ Like what Dimension Data Security does very well is they secure the perimeter and that’s what most, in my understanding, most security work from the big security vendors out there, like when we talk about firewalls and keeping people out. But the reality is, the sobering and interesting factor is that 80% of threats are coming from inside an organisation so Haroon’s very clever thinking is: if these attacks are coming from inside, let’s lay down some internal traps and that’s what the Canary Honeypot does.

So, they compliment anyone’s investment in cyber security by laying down these traps. It’s like if you look at your house. You can say, I’ve got the front door, burglar bars, I’ve got an electric fence, and I’ve got barbed-wire and I have attack dogs, I’ve got cameras, I’ve got armed response but what about inside the house? What happens if the neighbour if he’s watering your plants while you’re away and they decide just to start looking your files. You want to know if the neighbour is not trustworthy. You want to know that maybe the painter or the plumber, when you give them the key, that they don’t suddenly start looking through all your tax returns, banks statements or whatever it is, your collection of old wines, not that I have a collection of old wines. But whatever your collection is, people have got things at home, which are private, valuable, confidential – perhaps even scandalous.

I’m sure if I looked through my drawers and found personal letters and stuff maybe if they were published 20 years later, like all the Donald Trump news – someone had used them out of context and say, ‘Ronnie is having an affair with the Queen of England,’ or something. Not that I’d let her but some letter that I should have thrown away a long time ago or something like that. We all have something laying around that we can laugh at now but if somebody took it out of context. That was an innocent from 20 years ago, why are you putting it in the paper now? But we’ve seen with the American elections, and everyone is vulnerable to this kind of craziness. So, having an internal detection device to see if people are snooping around or scoping you out it makes a lot of sense.

So, Ronnie, are you an investor behind Thinkst or what’s the direct link there exactly?

Yes, I am a small investor in Thinkst and I work in my old domain, trying to make a contribution.

Haroon Meer is also a fascinating guy. In fact, I interviewed him last year. He’s highly respected in the global cyber security space. He speaks at all the major conferences, he headlines them. He’s a fascinating guy so, do you and Haroon have a lot in common? Have you got a lot of eye-to-eye to chat about?

He’s an absolutely brilliant guy, and I’m learning about him all the time. He’s really busy so, it’s not easy to grab time with him but when you do, it’s always inspiring and he’s amazingly talented and he’s a great storyteller too, and the work he’s doing has a great purpose. It helps companies gain more peace of mind and it helps to keep them more secure so, I think he’s a got a fortunate runway in front of him because cyber security is not going away as an issue. In my opinion or in my understanding is that it’s getting bigger and bigger. So, I think Haroon will have a fortune of work.

In terms of like what you asked, Haroon is trying to build a great company and he has a great purpose, which is something I relate to and respect in a big way. I really pray and hope that I can actually make a bit of a difference to his mission, but it is his mission. This is his vision and his baby. I’m not a security person. I approached Haroon, I had a chance to meet him and I asked him if I could try and add some value, and I hope I am doing it but I’m learning about security. But I’m a novice, at best. I understand the Canary, of course, I’ve learnt a lot about the product itself but the world of security is massive.

Haroon Meer, founder of Thinkst.
Haroon Meer, founder of Thinkst.

There’s so many parts to security, just like we described the house. There’s companies that deal in cameras, there’s companies that deal in fences, and there’s companies that deals in alarms, there’s companies that deal in armed response and even though they’re all in the security business, each of those companies are very different. In the armed response category there’s probably lots of competition. In the burglar alarm category there’s probably lots of competing companies. In the electric fence and barbed-wire, and burglar bars category there’s probably lot of different companies, and they’re all in their own focus area.

In fact, IT, when you say, ‘I’m in the IT industry.’ The IT industry is huge, which includes security so, the IT industry is massive so, if someone says, ‘I’m in IT,’ what does that actually mean? So, yes, we’re all in the IT industry and perhaps that’s the common link that we all have a great passion for the online world and Haroon is making a difference to keeping it more secure. I played a small role in helping to build a SA chapter of the online world, and it made a lot of sense to keep it more secure so, perhaps there is a common alignment there. But in terms of my security journey – I’m learning all the time, and I hope that, as each month goes by, I gain more knowledge and more insight.

But gee, I learnt the hard way that it’s a massive subject in its own right and I’ve just scraped the tip of the iceberg. What I have developed and what I really have enjoyed is building up a kind of a library or a repertoire of stories around security because I really enjoy storytelling, and there’s fascinating parallels between the online world and the physical world, and there always have been. When it comes to security, it’s no different. It’s like when I explain to my mum about Honeypots and she gets it, she gets it. I say, ‘mum, it’s like leaving a wallet on the ground and then having cameras hidden behind the mirrors to see what people do.’ Do people hand in the wallet? Do they steal the money? Do they phone the owner and say, ‘I’ve found your wallet?’ Do they ask for a reward? Do they ignore it? Everyone has got different behaviour when it comes to wallets on the ground.

The same thing with network resources. If you were looking around a company network and discovered some files. Do you tell the administrator? Do you keep it to yourself? Do you copy the files? Do you delete them? Do you sabotage it or what do you do? And why are you looking in the first place that’s the real question? If someone is looking for a wallet, why are they looking for someone’s wallet behind a couch? What’s the reason? Why are they snooping around? If someone is looking at files on your network you need to ask, why are they doing that, if that’s not part of their job description then why is someone copying the payroll? Why is someone looking at the HR server? Why is somebody examining all the customer contracts and looking at their phone numbers and contact information? Why are they doing that, if they’re not meant to be doing it that’s very suspicious. In fact, it’s probably going to land up being something bad.

So, there’s lots of parallels between the physical world and the online world and the part that I love to tell people, as I’ve explained to my mum so many times, because it’s such a fascinating story and the story just gets more and more colourful with each addition to the story. The subject of breach – my mum had a credit card fraud on her credit card probably about a year-and-a-half ago, and that’s her understanding of crime. That somebody steals your money online, offline. Not with a gun, but online with fraud but I said to my mum, what about the problem of breach? She goes, ‘what do you mean?’ I said, ‘well, it’s one thing to steal your money, it’s another thing just to publish your bank balance.’ So, my mum laughed and goes, ‘I don’t really care if somebody publishes my bank balance, it’s not going to excite anyone too much – no one is going to come and kidnap me.’

I said to my mum, ‘maybe not your bank balance but what about the bank balance of politicians, for example, or school teachers or spiritual leaders?’ Or anyone that you wouldn’t expect to have millions of Dollars stashed away. Can you imagine you were earning minimum wage and then you started reading what politicians around the world have stashed away in their bank accounts? You might go, well, hang on, I voted for those guys. I’m not so crazy about the current status quo here.’ Things could get quite agitated quite quickly or very quickly. So, this thing about breach is a huge concern around the world.

If you look at medical records, publishing peoples’ HIV status is, as far as I know, is a criminal offence, you’re not allowed to do that, am I right? You can’t run around saying, this one has got that and this one has got this condition. Peoples’ medical records are quite private so, if somebody started to publish a HIV status, because they broke into a database that could be catastrophic. The same goes with tax returns, hotel records, bank balances, etc., there’s actually no limit to where a breach could actually play a role and just antagonising the masses. Academic records, from my understanding, I was at this talk a few months ago and the lady was saying that there’s a fact that half the academic records of the world are not entirely true. I imagine Donald Trump as a casing point. I’ve no authority on this.

So, Ronnie, just as a final question. Obviously, you were a pioneer in the internet space in SA. You helped to bring the internet here. You founded Internet Solutions, what do you make of the SA internet startup landscape today, and are you invested in any other startups, besides the likes of Thinkst?

I wish I had a more insightful answer. I honestly don’t know too much about the start-up internet landscape. I know that there’s a lot of activity. When you write stuff, I read it so, I follow the online news, and I see there’s quite a few people like in Stellenbosch, for example, and obviously, here in Johannesburg, and there’s lots of innovative ideas. I can see it being funded and developed. I’m not sure who are succeeding and that, but there’s certainly a lot of activity. I know a little bit more obviously, about internet service providers because of my work here at IS. So, I know a little bit more about that but that’s not around startups. That’s around internet providers, and the telco’s, etc., but I can’t say that I have too much insight into the internet startup world.

My old partner, Dave Frankel, has a lot of insight. He lives in Boston and they are very successful as VCs, and he’d be a good candidate to ask about global internet start-ups. As for other investments, I’m actually, not really an investor type and I wouldn’t say… It wasn’t so much an investment. I’m actually working at IS trying to educate people and demonstrate the use of like Haroon’s Canary because it is such a valuable piece of technology and it’s highly affordable and it’s really simple to use. It just seemed like an inspired mission and a very worthwhile mission.

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What I didn’t realise is how much, as I said earlier, you’re learning. I constantly go through on a weekly basis but this is my full-time focus. Like the Catching Feelings is something that had started before I had actually met Haroon, and like most film projects, they go on for a very long journey, and there’s still a journey on Catching Feelings. There’s still film festivals that Kagiso goes to with the team, and there still might be more bits and pieces of business, and there might even be talk of Catching Feelings 2, but the thing about creative work, like filmmaking, is that it’s not a constant endeavour. Like you’d write a script, then you’ll leave it for 6-months while people give you commentary and you get perspective, and then you pick it up again for another month, and you start crying a bit or you celebrate a bit. Then you leave it for a few months and these things take time. Then you shoot the film, which is the most intense part. That takes a month or 4 to 6 weeks on average, and then you edit it. The editing can also take 6 months and while you’re doing that you do other things because it’s not a constant 09h00 to 17h00 job.

Okay, great. Ronnie, it was fantastic chatting to you today. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat.

Yes, thanks so much and we’ll chat again soon, I hope.

Yes, definitely. Thank you so much.