SkyRink Studios – from pipe dream to solid reality

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INNER CITY OPEN AND SAFE FOR BUSINESS : At the SkyRink launch on 27 October 2016: Frank Mohapi and Marvin Mathibe

SkyRink Studios, Johannesburg’s new TV and post production facility, had its official launch in October 2016. Screen Africa spoke to two of the partners in the new venture, to trace their journey from a crazy idea to reality.

Any producer would understand and recognise the scenario: you have a production that you urgently need to get into a studio but every studio in town is booked up, forcing you to postpone your production and wait until December, when the rush dies down, so you can shoot while everyone else is on holiday.

This is the situation in which Marvin Mathibe found himself a few years ago – while working on a co-production for the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). He approached Frank Mohapi to assist in finding a space for the shoot.

“It made us aware of the scarcity of facilities and the huge amount of content that needed to be developed,” Mohapi says. “We said, it’s high time that we look into creating our own facilities.” The two of them devised an idea to establish new studio facilities and, together with partner Miles Britton, decided to tackle this considerable undertaking.

Inspired by the fact that the ballroom at Carlton Hotel in the Johannesburg city centre had been used for the production of Strictly Come Dancing, Mohapi and Mathibe approached Transnet, the owner of the building, as well as the Carlton Centre, to ask if they could make use of that space on a more sustained basis. The property manager proposed that the old ice rink at the top of the Carlton Centre’s eight-floor parking facility would also be a space worth considering. Upon seeing the space, Mohapi, Mathibe and Britton soon decided it was the right home for the new enterprise.

The partners set about developing a business model for the planned studios. They drew up a proposal that included a projected R56 million budget and approached the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC). With the support of Basil Ford, head of media and motion picture unit at the state-owned finance institution, they moved forward with their plans. A team was then assembled at IDC under the leadership of Mr Tayengwa Maswai to see the project through. After engaging architects, engineers and other consultants, the budget jumped up to R230 million, which was approved by the IDC on the condition that the partners raise ten percent of that themselves, which they did with the help of the National Empowerment Fund (NEF), under the leadership of Ms Zama Khanyile’s team led by Palesa Mzolo and Olebogeng Marakalla.

“We also got letters of intent from producers in the industry to say that they would make use of the facilities when they were operational,” Mohapi explains.

Construction began with the laborious first step of the removal of the ice rink, its grand stand and all the various accessories, as part of the initial Transnet tenant installation, to reduce the space to a shell. Then the building of the six studios spaces and the installation of soundproofing and production technology got underway. This has been a lengthy process and what Mathibe calls “an interesting journey.”

Mohapi, Mathibe and Britton took great personal financial risk by throwing themselves into their ‘crazy idea.’ They laughingly recall the project’s early stages, which often involved the two of them driving around in Mathibe’s overworked Toyota Tazz – which they nicknamed Smokey Robinson – praying that the car would get them to their destination before breaking down, and dealing with non-functioning windows in the non-air conditioned vehicle. They would often park at a distance from whatever potential funder they were visiting, fearing that a glimpse of old Smokey may adversely affect perceptions of their financial viability.

“It was difficult and there were a lot of obstacles,” Mathibe says. “And the reality was that there were disagreements and frustrations. But at the end of the day we had this common goal, which we kept in our sights. And what made the difference between us and maybe some other guys who tried the same kind of thing was our business plan and our knowledge of the industry and the market for studio facilities and the way we could defend each and every point in our business plan, quoting sections of it like lawyers. This is what really impressed Basil Ford and his team at the IDC.”

“But what also impressed him,” Mohapi adds, “was how we had managed to get commitments from various suppliers – major companies – without even having any funding committed yet. That was an indication of our commitment to the project and our belief in it. This despite some of the people we met during the development of this business, laughing at us, saying it’s just a pipe-dream.

The concept took on wider significance when the city of Johannesburg got involved. The city council saw the development as a major contribution to the ongoing efforts to gentrify and regenerate the city centre.

“SkyRink does not stand on its own here,” Mohapi clarifies. “We are working together with almost every business on Main Street, from Gandhi Square through ABSA’s complex right down to the Maboneng Precinct, aside from our close partnership with Transnet to create an inner city area that is booming, safe and open for business. The city understood the value that we could add. And we were not the only ones wanting to make use of the space – there had been other proposals for all kinds of business ventures, but ours in particular appealed to them.

Now, post-launch, construction and installations continue at the SkyRink studio complex, working towards Mohapi, Mathibe and Britton’s drive to create a full, end-to-end production facility, including production offices and post-production suites, creating spaces, not only for the use of established producers and broadcasters, but for the development of new content and the training of new personnel. After years of development, the crazy idea that is SkyRink Studios is now a reality, and an example of what can be built on the basis of pure self-belief and dogged determination – the hallmarks, after all, of anyone who succeeds in this industry.

SkyRink Studios will be ready to host production houses in need of production and post-production facilities, as of January 2017.

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