Q Studios
Q-Studios in the industrial suburb of Kew provides truly massive spaces, allowing the facility to cater for big film clients as well as commercials and TV series.

South African film and TV content production has an annual turnover of about R5.5-billion (US$800-million). That’s a decent showing by any standards. But consider this: Gauteng province is the production home of 70% of the country’s TV content and 85% of local films. That’s the lion’s share.

And Johannesburg is the centre of the action. Geographically and historically pivotal to South African media production, the city plays second fiddle only to Cape Town in the commercials and magazine spheres.

For this volume of production, there is a lasting need for studio space. And studios come a dime a dozen, in all forms, sizes, combinations and capabilities.

But let’s take a look back for a moment.

It’s hard to believe that Jozi’s first film was shot in 1896. It was a decade after the city was proclaimed and the same year that Thomas Edison’s moving pictures debuted in New York. Scenes shot from the front of an inner city Johannesburg tram show the bustling new town rising up on its dreams of gold (see History of Film in Gauteng). So film production is almost as old as Johannesburg itself.

Studios were not far behind. In 1915, entertainment mogul Isidore Schlesinger started a production house on a tract of open land in the Johannesburg suburb of Killarney. It was on these sound stages that his company African Film Productions turned out 43 features over the years and where an enduring legacy of filmmaking pervaded changes in ownership – and national government. That is, until an ignominious demolition in 1972 that made way for Johannesburg’s first shopping complex, Killarney Mall.

TV finally came to South Africa in 1974, and began to eclipse film production. Most of Gauteng’s biggest studios are run by broadcasters, or owned by companies affiliated to TV, by virtue of product or a shareholder relationship. In no particular order, here is a taste of what’s on offer.

Broadcaster studios

M-Net Broadcast Services in Randburg and Henley Television Facilities (read: SABC) in Auckland Park are giants on the radar with massive capability and impressive infrastructure. But if you were looking for studio space to shoot your million-dollar movie, you would not go knocking on their doors – these studios are used exclusively for in-house productions.

Studio 6 is M-Net’s showpiece studio. Built in 2000 to house the Big Brother house for the first incarnation of the worldwide Endemol reality hit, the studio has been home to a whack of big money productions since then: Power of 10, Deal or No Deal and Are you Smarter than a Fifth Grader? Its 500-square-metre floor and 6-metre-high lighting grid allow for impressive sets and sexy camera crane shots.

However, since the 2010 Fifa World Cup the broadcaster has now reserved it exclusively for SuperSport. M-Net Broadcast Services studio manager Wayne Russell says this was a strategic decision: “Our main focus is to look after MIH Group programming. It made sense after the world cup to keep SuperSport there.”

The studio is high definition (HD) enabled so it made techno sense to pair it with HD SuperSport. Two of the seven M-Net studios are HD but, because it has a large number of standard definition channels to service, the current studio offering remains at this level. There are also no plans at this stage to build more studios.

SABC’s Henley Television Facilities also boasts seven studios and is the country’s biggest studio broadcasting facility under one roof. The TV studios were built in 1974 to service the national broadcaster’s expansion into TV and have remained structurally unaltered since.

The proximity of dressing rooms, the massive decor bay and the infrastructural design-sense bear testimony to an era where – despite the reprehensible politics – money, sense and foresight ruled the day. Although they are marketed as available for hire, Henley studios are used for current in-house productions or are leased to production houses at good rates for long-running SABC shows.

Generations has occupied the facility’s biggest studio, Studio 5, for over a decade – a cool 700 square metres of floor space. Other productions are Isidingo, in Studios 6 and 7 (total 600 square metres), and Muvhango in Studio 3 (297 square metres). Noot vir Noot and other occasional shows use Studio 4 (305 square metres) and Studios 1 and 2 are used exclusively for sport.

While the Henley studios are never empty, there is a dire need for a system upgrade. Marius Janse van Rensburg, facilities general manager, says the broadcaster will have to decide soon whether they can afford the R400-million ($60-million) or so to bring the studios into the digital age. It’s hard to believe, but Henley still operates on analogue.

Things are better off in the news department with four studios that are continually upgraded. Studio 9 will be back on line in February 2011 after a state-of-the-art overhaul.

Global Access

Across town in Fox Street, central Johannesburg, is Broadcast House. This is where the SABC was housed before Auckland Park but now this famous address is home to Global Access, with three fully equipped digital studios.

Global Access has a unique satellite partnership with MultiChoice, making it the only provider of occasional airtime on the DStv platform. Using this and other private network technologies, Global Access’s focus is specialised media delivery that includes major corporate clients such as Absa bank.

Sasani Studios

Sasani Studios is by far the biggest and most sophisticated studio offering outside of the broadcasters. Interestingly, the Sasani site in Highlands North is where the old Killarney movie factory moved after1972.

Since then the company has been through a number of incarnations. “It was Balforia Farm in the 1940s when Isidore Schlesinger chose it for his African Hollywood,” says Deedee Barnett, Sasani site manager. “Kerzner also had it for a while, and then there was Interleisure, Toron ... Then television came along and they created VideoRSA and that’s when things changed completely.” Did they ever.

Sasani is the largest multifunctional complex of its type in Gauteng, with two TV studios and six stand-alone studios, ranging from 62 square metres to 1 000 square metres. The largest of these is of such a size it really deserves that outdated name “sound stage”.

But, ironically, film and TV commercial work, which was the facility’s mainstay in years gone by, has dwindled. Suzanne Marais, head of production, says this work is down to one or two commercials a month. “SABC work has also dwindled, which is a great concern,” she says. “We’ve had only two productions lately, Relate and Jika Majika.”

The TV soaps now dominate content production at Sansai. In fact, the most recent studios were custom-built for ETV’s Scandal and Rhythm City when those productions were moved from the channel’s Hyde Park studios.

“It’s a wonderful thing having long-running show,” says Barnett. “We had Frans Marx and Egoli here for 18 years; everything gets utilised. Nobody wants to be stuck with empty spaces.” The facility also houses the current Big Brother Africa house for M-Net, with the fourth series on the horizon.

Red Pepper Pictures

Red Pepper Pictures has the only virtual studio in the country, producing some stunning stuff in its day. But the popularity for virtual sets has sadly waned and the system is lying dormant, says Marius Maritz, head of facilities.

“But good news is we are looking at an upgrade, as there are new developments on the international scene,” he says. The advantage of a virtual studio is that all set costs are eliminated and replaced by keyed backgrounds that create the (very successful) illusion of three-dimensional space. That aside, Red Pepper has recently expanded with three additional studios which include the 320-square-metres Studio 2.

“We also have permanent long-running live shows like Powerball and our Melville studio on the corner of 7th and 4th Streets is 240 square metres, with great height,” says Maritz. “We were shooting Jam Alley there until we moved it and we’re looking to upgrade it next year.” The company is the also longtime producer of the ETV kids’ brand Craze-e.

Urban Brew

Urban Brew Studios are perhaps best known for live TV transmission. Founded in 1983, this independent, empowerment-driven communications company offers the only independent live broadcast platform in the country.

The five studios turn out staple SABC shows like Friends Like These, the live Lotto draw, 3 Talk with Noleen and Generation Game. But their client list extends to all the other broadcasters and to a heap of big name corporate clients too.

Q Studios

Q Studios in the industrial suburb of Kew is the wild card in the deck. Providing truly massive spaces, the facility caters for big film clients as well as commercials and TV series.

Recent notable productions include interior scenes for the hit movie District 9, Mrs Mandela for BBC 2 and BBC 4, Strike Back for Sky and the soon-to-be-released film Africa United.

Ilse Hahn, who could be described as a film industry philanthropist, bought the studios in 1992. “When I took over the studios they were very run-down and neglected,” she says. “But they have a story dating back many years and so it is fitting that they should grow and be restored to pristine condition.”

Since then, she and studio manager John Difford have worked to create a unique offering: a big space for big productions at an affordable price. This makes Q Studios unique, says Difford. “There was a shortage of really big cost-effective studio space, so we have filled a gap,” he says. “So far it’s worked, and we’ll continue and convert our other six warehouses to big studios as long as there is a demand.”

The current studios are all “dry hire” (they don’t come with lights or any other film equipment), which makes the facility different to most in town. Recent productions on the site include Endemol’s Deal or No Deal and The Kids are Alright, as well as Ochre’s Takalani Sesame.

A unique moral selling point for Hahn is the facility’s relationship with the neighbouring community of Alexandra township. Staff are drawn from local organisations and the Togetherness Fellowship, which works to uplift the community with particular focus on children. Q-Studios is also a founder member of the Kew Action Group, which employs street cleaners and security staff from the same sources. This involvement has had a notable spin-off. “Kew has not been a high crime area of late,” says Hahn. “In fact, there has been no recent crime to speak of.” And hats off to her.

Atlas Studios

Atlas Studios is located in Milpark, Johannesburg, near the SABC. A hallmark of the facility is its old-world industrial charm: the red brick and metal truss building was Atlas Bakery until it was refurbished in 2002 by film entrepreneur and current MD, Jonathan Gimpel. Proximity to the northern suburbs has made it attractive to many industry clients.

“Over the past seven years, our bigger studios have hosted over thirty dramas, sitcoms and game shows, including Coconuts, Nomzamo, Askies and we’ve just completed Frank Opperman’s Pottie Potgieter,” says Gimpel. “Our anchor tenant Villa Rosa has been with us for the past five years.”

Like other facility houses, Atlas has been affected by the SABC downturn. The year 2009 was, Gimpel says, “the most challenging of all the years to date. We only hosted two SABC productions for the entire year which was only 20% of what is normally shot here.” Atlas recently completed their largest studio measuring 320 square metres, which debuted with the current affairs show Drawing the Line.

Stark Studios

Stark Studios is the newest studio complex in Gauteng. Built from scratch in the residential suburb of Fontainebleau, Randburg, this venture by Stark Films demonstrates the level of confidence in the local TV industry similar to that shown towards film in the early 20th century.

It has two very large studios (750 and 500 square metres) designed to specification as a home for the M-Net soap Binnelanders. These are supported by post-production facilities and services tailored for the production. It was a bold investment decision, which is already paying off.

Smaller spaces

Smaller studio spaces are a dime a dozen. They cater for magazine and kids’ programming as well as music videos and smaller-scale commercials, and vary in size. Within city limits there are Realtime Pictures in Linden; Clive Morris Studios, Frame 24 and Camera Facilities in Randburg; The Production Works & Avery Studios in Melville; and D3 Studios in Balfour Park.

Moving further out of Johannesburg are Lonehill Studios, used exclusively for the SABC 2 soap Sevende Laan; Genesis Studio in Rivonia, owned by Telemedia, a major supplier of satellite and microwave links nationally; Foghound Studios, Gold Island Studios and Jelly Bean Studio in Midrand who specialise in commercials and film; and Senepe Studios in Pretoria.

With all this space for hire and regularly used, Gauteng studio space is sitting pretty.

For a full Gauteng studios specification report, download the A to Z Guide to Studios in Gauteng.