South Africa’s Known Associates Launches Unscripted Division, Acquires Production Outfit Zero Gravity (EXCLUSIVE)

Rexa Vella

South Africa’s Known Associates Launches Unscripted Division, Acquires Production Outfit Zero Gravity (EXCLUSIVE)

South Africa’s Known Associates, the fast-growing parent company of Johannesburg-based Known Associates Entertainment (KAE) and Cape Town-based Moonlighting Films, is launching into unscripted programming, Variety can reveal.

The company has acquired a 60% stake in Zero Gravity, a production outfit founded in 2017 by former Endemol Shine Africa and Trace Studios CEO Sivan Pillay, and will team up with South African media giant Primedia to “relaunch multiple new high-end unscripted formats,” according to Pillay. Though specific titles covered by that agreement have not been finalized, Primedia’s catalog includes hit series “The Masked Singer,” “Deal or No Deal” and “Ready Steady Cook.”

“For us, it’s a natural progression,” said Known Associates chairperson Joel Phiri at the Joburg Film Festival. “We’re bringing our production expertise, and it’s keeping in line with our acquiring [production services giant] Moonlighting [in 2022]. It’s linking with our servicing facilities and growing that side of the business.”

The acquisition is a sign of things to come from the company’s unscripted division. Earlier this week in Johannesburg, Known Associates announced the upcoming series “Bafana the Boys” (pictured), a six-episode, “Last Dance”-style documentary series from filmmaker John Barker (“The Umbrella Men”) about South Africa’s 1996 African championship-winning soccer team.

Other unscripted titles on its slate include “Gospel Superstar,” an “Idols”-style talent competition launching on South African pay-TV channel e.tv in July, and “Lebo M Is Home,” a 10-episode reality series that follows South African producer and composer Lebo M, known for his songwriting and vocal work on the soundtrack to “The Lion King.”

Pillay is a respected industry veteran with more than two decades’ experience in the South African TV business. His company, Zero Gravity, which focuses on creating, producing and distributing scripted and unscripted content, partnered with Red Pepper Pictures to bring the “Big Brother” franchise back to Africa after a long hiatus.

“Between Known Associates, Zero Gravity and Primedia, there’s a willingness to work and create an ecosystem to develop high-end content — unscripted and scripted, eventually — and to build a partnership that can tick a local box, in terms of being successful, and tick an international box, in terms of being able to distribute African-produced content all over the world,” said Pillay.

“It’s about us being able to identify great local talent, to make really high-quality shows and to make a significant benchmark in the market for what African content can look like, and why it can appeal globally.”

The acquisition is the latest in a series of moves by Known Associates, which last year closed a multi-picture licensing agreement with Amazon Prime Video that grants the streaming service exclusive SVOD access to over 20 South African feature films. In 2022, the company acquired Moonlighting Films, one of South Africa’s top production services companies, which recently serviced “Mission: Impossible 7” and the HBO Max series “Warrior.”

Founded in 2014 by Tshepiso Chikapa Phiri, Known Associates expanded in 2018 to include the production house Known Associates Entertainment, which was co-founded by Emmy Award-winning director-producer Dan Jawitz, with film financier and executive producer Joel Phiri now serving as chairperson. The company’s slate includes “uBettina Wethu,” the South African adaptation of the Colombian telenovela that inspired “Ugly Betty,” which recently wrapped production on its fourth season, and “Ambre,” a sci-fi drama series produced with Ivory Coast public broadcaster RTI that marks the first co-production between the two countries.

KAE currently has close to two dozen projects in development or production, including the Lagos-set comedy drama “Victoria Island,” from New York Times bestselling author turned TV creator Taiye Selasi (“Ghana Must Go”). Selasi is writing and executive producing through her production company Cocoa Content, with Fremantle and “Severance” executive producer Nicholas Weinstock also on board.

The Joburg Film Festival runs Feb. 27 – March 3.

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