City Stage Logo Mark

The Origin Story Of City Stage Studios

City Stage Logo Mark
The Origin Story Of City Stage Studios

Creating Without Compromise:

I’ve known Josiah Sjöström my entire life. We met as kids in the early 90’s at Church and have been blessed to share many seasons of life together over the decades. 

Ben Dixon and Josiah Sjöström
South Padre Island – circa 2004

Josiah has always had a heart for creative pursuits and helping others, as well as an eye for excellent craftsmanship. When we attended college together, it was no surprise that he chose to move into mass communications and video production courses to continue to grow his creative skills. 

Josiah at the lighting board
Josiah at the lighting-board. College circa 2005

I remember the day in 2009 when he originally told me his plan to start Bonza Media: a video production company with a vision to help people tell their stories. 

Josiah likes nice things and is not easily impressed. His high standards of excellence and years of experience in the space created opportunities for him to contribute to a wide variety of projects both locally and nationally – even working on a handful of projects abroad.

Over the years he built Bonza Media into arguably the most well respected production company in the Rockford area and produced a number of successful ad campaigns – some of which included actors from popular shows such as Saved By the Bell(tm), Spaceballs(tm), Diff’rent Strokes(tm), Family Ties(tm), and Adventures in Babysitting(tm).

On set with Bonza Media
Bonza Media project in 2018

However, today most people in the production industry know Josiah as the lighting guy and as a connection to production resources. One moniker he’s acquired is “the Dapper Gaffer” (you can probably figure that one out). Lighting has always been a passion for Josiah, in fact I bought his first lighting kit for him in exchange for video work at one of my previous companies! But aside from lighting, many producers and agencies see Josiah as their first phone call to organize freelancers and the equipment they’d need to pull off their productions. The reputation he’s built over the last ~13 years has really made him a “connector” to help bring projects together behind the scenes.

The Vision Is Born:

Over a decade into Bonza Media, Josiah shared with me his vision to invest in our home town of Rockford, IL. 

We have countless friends that have always felt that if they wanted to be ‘big time’ in their creative pursuits that they’d need to move to New York, California, or some other large metro to be able to create at the level they desired. 

At the time of our discussions, the closest sound stages were in downtown Chicago. As fun as it can be to shoot and create at studios in the city – the traffic, logistics, and other challenges of the city all felt like an unnecessary hassle in day to day work. 

That’s when the vision for City Stage Studios came alive. We asked, “what would it take to create a thriving ecosystem, that would give creative professionals the ability to create without compromise, right here in Rockford?” And that was how the journey began. 

“To do what I wanted to do at the level I wanted to do it, I either needed to move or commute on the regular to a bigger city, and I thought, why not Rockford?” – Josiah Sjöström

Just in recent years, over $750 million of investment has gone into the downtown Rockford Riverfront area. Major renovations such as the old Amerock headquarters being converted into the Embassy Suites by Hilton, a number of high rises converted into luxury apartments, and beautiful theaters such as the Coronado being restored. Even some of our childhood friends have invested in the downtown area building out beautiful venues such as the rooftop venue “The Standard” and the remarkable wedding space “The Union”. 

When the owner of Area Mechanical shared that they were moving to a larger space and no longer needed the facility at 821 1st Ave, we recognized the space as an ideal location to build a sound stage and spark the ecosystem.

It would not be an easy journey. Buying the building in October of 2020, material and labor shortages delayed progress on the project and multiplied costs exponentially, but we persevered all the same. 

Breaking Ground:

Original Office Block
Front office block as it was when we purchased the building

The first phase of the project was to completely demo the offices portion of the building and convert the space into the City Stage Studios creative suites. These offices where made available as part of a monthly membership and tailored for creative professionals.

The drab space that had seemingly not been updated since the early 70’s was completely reborn! Walls were torn down and reconfigured, and everything was rebuilt as a modern creative space.

Once completed, the space attracted some of the best creative professionals in Rockford with Lightwave Creative, Catalyst Photography, Bonza Media, and Frank Slow Films all being the first to call the Offices at City Stage home.

Front Offices at City Stage

Raising The Roof:

For the main sound stage to become a reality, the building had a challenge. The ceiling would need to be at least six foot higher to maximize the ability to film in the 3,000 square ft space. 

To get the details right, Josiah and a team of architects, engineers, and amazing folks at the City Of Rockford building department worked together to formulate a plan on how exactly we would remove the current roof, raise the walls, and put it all back together.

Every detail was thought through from installing a dedicated 3 phase power service and cutting in larger access doors, to working out the best strategy for sound treatment. Heck, we even spec’d an over sized dual HVAC system to quickly cool and heat the stage between takes. 

After 18 months of construction, the stage has opened and is ready for productions. 

Even as we now prepare for our grand opening, it has been fun to host actors from ‘Family Ties’ for Insurance King’s newest marketing campaign and the team at Blue Cross and Blue Shield.

The feedback from the professionals creating here at the Studio has made the entire journey worth it!

The main stage is now officially open for bookings! to inquire for a tour of the facility, or to reserve a date, reach out to our team. 

  • Ben Dixon, Investor & Co-Owner City Stage Studios.