/ 17 April 2024

Enjoy a cinematic journey at The Bioscope

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Russell Grant is the brainchild behind the independent cinema, now at 44 Stanley in Joburg. Photo: Delwyn Verasamy

It’s 2010 and The Bioscope is screening its first movie as an independent cinema — the film is Unhinged: Surviving Joburg

Russell Grant, the visionary behind The Bioscope, reminisces about that first screening back in Maboneng with a mix of nostalgia and humour. “Our friend had made a documentary about Johannesburg, it was quite fun and inspirational.

“It was the perfect film to start with and we had two sold-out screenings for the opening night. Near the end of the second one, I sat on the porch outside and I said cheers to my business partner at the time. 

“Shortly after we cheered, someone rushed outside and said the film stopped. We were playing off a DVD player and that was the main format we used in 2010 and this player had just given up on us.” 

Grant had been using quite an old DVD player, however, the passion for creating a space for filmmakers who did not have a platform to showcase their work was one of the driving forces that night and beyond. 

“We couldn’t figure out how to fix the issue. The person who made the film was in the audience, so he ­narrated what he said in the rest of the film and there was a nice Q&A session afterwards.

“The point of it was literally from day one, we were humbled, we were told from the get go that don’t count your chickens before they hatch. It was a lovely thing to happen.” The Bioscope has grown up now and is settled in 44 Stanley in Milpark. We are in the foyer, which is busy in a welcoming way with film posters on the walls, a table with records and a clothes rack with themed

T-shirts. There is a bookshelf in the corner and when you look up you see Grant’s office — to get there you need to use a fire escape.

The whole space smells of fresh popcorn and regular customers are walking in and out. They are so loyal that Grant had to stop the interview a few times to greet them. 

“They have become family,” he says to me. 

The theatre itself has 47 black leather car seats. Unlike most other cinemas, you are able to bring in some pizza and enjoy a cold one. 

“We do serve some of the best pizzas in Joburg,” says Grant. 

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The 47 black leather car seats, pizza and a cold one give The Bioscope a boutique vibe. Photo: Delwyn Verasamy

For Grant, the 1980s solidified his love for film. “The Lion King was definitely one of my favourites. There was also a film called All Dogs Go To Heaven … I remember being that guy in the friend group who always quoted movies and my friends wondering how I did that,” he laughs at the memory. “I love film so much.” No surprises there. 

When he got to Wits the decision was simple — he studied film and television. Grant says that it was fine that he was taught how to make a film, but there was more at stake.

“What is the point in all of us going to film school and all of us making movies if there are not too many places to show them? In any thriving city, there are the big shopping mall cinemas that screen the Hollywood productions but there need to be these other spaces that can show more local stuff, old stuff and obscure stuff.”

However, creating such spaces for filmmakers is tough.  

“If you were to start a restaurant, there are thousands of books that can help you, there are even more models you can choose from and there are people who can mentor you and walk side by side with you until you get it right. For us, there weren’t too many of those options and that was really the point of why we started,” he says. Nothing like what they had existed in Johannesburg. 

There was a period where the city had independent cinemas but those all closed down. More and more shopping malls started mushrooming and they had cinemas that were bigger, better and had more international films. 

But why are people now moving back to the more authentic independent cinema spaces?

Grant says that what they started in 2010 is what he likes to call the artisanal revolution. 

“After decades of mass products, society wanted to move back to the artisanal, the boutique and great quality. It’s not in households nationwide, it is not in cinemas at malls nationwide.”  

Unlike mainstream cinemas, The Bioscope curates more of an experience. It has moved on from screening movies on DVD. With its new technology, it is now able to also screen international films, although local movies still take priority. 

“In the past, it would have been easy to say that this is a Bioscope film or not because before, we could not access certain films, so we were not even trying. They were never Bioscope films because they were never possible,” he says.  

The upgrade in the technology has enabled the venture to have more range: from legacy movies to advanced blockbusters, both local and international. 

Fourteen years later and the plans are still humble for the future of The Bioscope. 

“The plan was never to duplicate, the plan is to always make sure that our space is the best space there can be. So the end goal is always to just keep going,” he says.