The post production industry is arguably unlike any other business. It provides a mix of services and skills, employs highly paid creative people and spends an absolute fortune on the equipment required to provide clients with the creative tools needed to complete the production.

feb-post
Is post production a David and Goliath scenario?
In order to cater for the international market, the facility house must also offer world class services or the post production will be completed overseas. This means a film laboratory, telecine machines and sophisticated grading are the minimum requirements to cater for the dailies of an international film producer.

The bulk of the large post facilities in Gauteng were built on the premise that in order to cater for a complete deck of post services, they had to be BIG: Offer everything that may be required under one roof, and employ top people to drive this complicated, expensive and sophisticated gear. In Gauteng, at any rate, this narrowed the field down to perhaps three big outfits: The Video Lab, The Refinery and ZSE TV, all of whom, certainly in the 90's and early 2000's, competed with one another fiercely for the business.

There were others, but several fell by the wayside - unable to compete in a limited market and a rate price war. While there was obviously specialisation, the businesses focused on two main revenue earners, namely commercials and longform work (which included feature films, dramas, documentary and the like).

2010 sees three large facilities remain: The Refinery (who purchased the Video Lab a while back), Blade and ZSE TV. There are still others, but they tend to be specialist providers, and do not offer the full Monty. What has emerged, however, are a plethora of smaller indie facilities houses offering specialised services often at a lower rate and with significantly lower overheads.

Does this pose a threat to the remaining three? Blade's Steve Harris thinks so. "All the big guys are under threat, and we are tending to gravitate to the longform segment which requires services such as ours - sophisticated telecine machines and grading for example. The equipment is becoming less expensive, but the longformat equipment remains a barrier of entry due to its high cost factor. Our Baselight grading system, for instance, costs over R2 million."

The fact that a lot of origination is now shot on digital as opposed to film is another reason why the big boys may lose out. Digital footage can be downloaded and edited quite simply, without recourse to top end facilities and the lack of film-originated post production is an issue for facilities offering telecines and associated sophisticated grading.

ZSE TV's Eileen Sandrock agrees with the risk associated with the emergence of smaller indie facilities. "We do not offer telecine facilities and our core business is studio and equipment rental, but we package our studios with post-production, office rentals, audio final mix, film processing etc so in effect we are a 'one stop shop'. The barriers to entry on the post-production side have fallen away, and we've noticed a reduction in this side of our business. Whereas post is still very active, it is very often now included in the full package with studios and offices."

According to The Refinery's Charl van der Merwe there is still a place for the larger facilities. "We are able to handle from the smallest to the largest production. We will continue to adapt and upgrade technology. The reality is that what you can do on some of the equipment we have you can now do on equipment that is a fraction of the price, but I believe that the skills and talent required to run these machines are more important than the machines themselves, and I believe we have these people."

So given that there is concern over the emergence of less expensive equipment, and the emergence of smaller facilities offering boutique type services, what is the outlook for the future of the big boys?

"I think 2010 will have the greatest impact on the hospitality businesses, but certainly there will be opportunities for all the rest of us," says Sandrock. "We have already noticed an increase in productivity over that period in the year." Harris agrees: "Last year wasn't great, there was a slight decline in revenue, but it seemed that people were holding back and there was a big surge at year end. We are in fact looking good until the end of May, but I fear we will go to sleep over the June/July period."

"We had a rough year last year," says Van der Merwe. "There was uncertainty regarding our future as a result of the MFP situation, however we stood fast and continued to offer a full range of services. I believe that we are on the final straight right now, and that we will be going forward this year with no compromise: offering quality service from some of the top guys in the business."

Time will tell, although there is clearly competition from the smaller guys. The advantages of a one stop shop and the ability to handle film remain the barriers and will, in the opinion of most interviewed, remain for the foreseeable future at least.