Sunday, July 22, 2012

One DP’s Perspective To Rent or Own; What Makes Sense for this Cinematographer? Guest post by James Mathers


Dear Reader,

This is a column that recently appeared in the DCS's newsletter, written by my friend James Mathers.


One DP’s Perspective

To Rent or Own; What Makes Sense for this Cinematographer?
by James Mathers

As a Cinematographer who owned ARRI 35mm camera packages in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, I was one of a small handful, most of whom worked on commercials. Since it required such a large initial investment, there were not too many others who could put such packages together, even one like mine, which was relatively small and mostly purchased used. The package consisted of a 35BL, and a couple of non-sync models for Hi-speed work, all sharing a single set of primes and a couple of zooms. Indie movies with budgets from one to five million were thriving at that time with a robust home video and foreign sales market. 

My package was everything I knew I needed to accomplish shooting these small pictures and I rarely required outside rentals. Although it certainly didn’t work for larger productions, it made a lot of sense on the pictures I was shooting at the time. I was able to offer Producers a good deal, help supplement my wages, and keep busy enough to easily amortize the investment. This was aided greatly by the relatively long life cycle of the gear, which I could essentially upgrade every time a new film stock came out. The useful life of these items, some of which are still in use today, could be counted in decades. When I sold-off this gear, even after many years of solid rental income, I was able to recoup most of the original purchase price and pay back the investors,

Flash forward twenty years, where the useful life of sought after cameras is counted in months, distribution is extremely allusive, and budgets for Indie movies have shrunk precipitously. Lots of small movies are being made, and a general democratization brought on by advances in digital technology has put the means of production into many more hands. A lot of good has come from these developments, but they are challenging the financial model of Cinematographers owning gear. In addition to obsolescence, another factor stems from the lower cost of entry, which has caused an explosion in the number of cameras out there. Where once there were hundreds of motion picture cameras in the world, now there are tens of thousands. With new owners ranging from Producers to other crew members, and with the explosion of small rental houses all vying to amortize their gear over a very short useful life cycle, the competition is fierce.

Where I used to be able to supplement the relatively low wages on an Indie picture with a camera rental, I’m finding nowadays, (with even lower wages offered,) there are so many other sources available to the Producer, that it is hard to get a fair rental rate. Most privately owned packages aren’t properly lensed or accessorized, and it can be extremely hard to convince a Producer they should pay more, even if the more complete package will allow you to do a better job. Add to that the fact that more and more productions are moving to distant locations, with the added cost of shipping and baggage, plus the customs complications of crossing international borders, making it even harder to compete for the Cinematographer wanting to travel with their own gear. Additionally, with so many productions chasing location incentives, Producers many times stipulate that the “spend” must be local; so in other words, the rentals need to go through a local vendor to qualify for incentive rebates and tax breaks.

Just like Actors, there is a tendency for Cinematographers to be type cast, and even though I enjoy doing varied types of projects, and try to avoid being locked into one type of production, I am best known for shooting Indie features. However, not every camera package is suitable for every job; while my RED Epic package may be good for Indie features, it may not be best for run-and-gun documentaries or those requiring too fast a turnaround. And when I do a TV series or a larger feature, Producers are not interested in getting the gear from a single Owner/Operator. They want near instant backup replacements, round the clock service, and the ability to add any number of extra cameras on a daily basis as their productions necessitate; this is a tough bill to fill for guys like me who own one or two packages. Some of my recent projects have also been in 3D with either 2 camera mirror rigs or twin-lensed single body shoulder mounts. The point is that different jobs require different cameras and who can afford to own them all?

The answer may be the Rental House. In order to analyze the potential benefits of such operations, I interviewed a couple of DCS friendly rental vendors with quite different business models, Bob Harvey, Sr. VP of World Wide Sales at Panavision and Paul Friedman, Owner of LensProToGo. We all know Panavision, the global motion picture equipment company that designs, engineers, manufactures, and rents cameras and lenses. They also rent other manufacturers’ gear, and in fact, have one of the largest stores of ARRI cameras and PL glass in the world. Panavision is over half a century old, “brick and mortar,” steeped in entertainment industry tradition, while LensProToGo is a relatively new company borne of the internet age that ships cameras, lenses, and support gear to photographers and filmmakers anywhere in the US.

As different as these two operations are, both executives echoed some of the same thoughts regarding the benefits of rental. One concept is that when renting, the risk of obsolescence is passed along to the rental company who has a better chance of keeping the gear busy between many potential users. This is especially true as the gear gets more specialized, since no one can ever afford to own a piece of gear that they might only have occasion to use once or twice in a career. Another risk passed along to the rental house is the chance of equipment failure. Lets face it, once in awhile, some piece of gear is going to go down during production, and I sure hate when it’s something I have provided. I’m happy to put that onus on the rental company, and they are better prepared to deal with it, by providing emergency tech service and/or back up gear.

As previously mentioned, most single camera owners don’t have very complete packages. They might cobble together enough to shoot their own experimental projects, but usually lack the depth of gear to do full fledged feature production. Most rental houses are happy to work with such Owner/Operators to include their cameras as long as the rental house provides the bulk of the package. Bob Harvey likens it to the long-standing tradition of Cinematographers providing their own filters, Operators their camera support, and AC’s providing follow focus systems as kit rentals to the productions. Now they might bring a camera body with the rental house filling in the rest, especially the lucrative lens and accessory items. Whereas in the heyday of the film, the motion picture camera might be the most expensive component, nowadays it is sometimes the lenses commanding the lion’s share of the rental budget.

As the name suggests, the initial focus, (pun intended), for LensProToGo was providing such additional lenses along with Canon and Nikon bodies; however, with the DSLR revolution, they soon branched out and now carry a host of Digital Cinema cameras including the C300, Sonys, REDs, as well as full camera support, G&E, and even Sound. Paul Friedman points out another advantage for those who might be thinking about buying certain expensive items is that rental offers the chance to thoroughly test in the field for your particular application before you make the big investment.

One of the nice things about owning a package is that I know I have the accessories and lenses to get the job done right without having to argue with Production about the cost. Bob Harvey counters with the point that as long as the gear is available, a large Rental House providing the bulk of a package can be flexible in throwing in additional items that may be desired by the DP, but may not be in the budget.

As opposed to arriving on set and handed gear you’ve never worked with before, another advantage when you own the camera is that you are intimately familiar it, which can be a great comfort, especially on a short term assignment with limited prep. I had this experience recently with the Canon C300, nervous to have a camera owned by the Producer provided to me that I had not previously shot with. Luckily I had attended some training offered to DCS members by Canon. Manufacturers are realizing the need to familiarize crews with their quickly evolving gear and many are setting up such training. But not having the camera in hand the night before flying in for a shoot, I was relieved to find an interactive virtual menu simulator which Canon makes available on-line. I could practice and get familiar with where all the critical settings were, and really dig into the menu without even having the camera in hand. The shoot turned out well, I loved the camera, and kudos to Canon; the site is quite well done. (A link to check it out follows this article).

I have to admit that I still love the idea of going to my closet and pulling out the gear I know and trust, with all the accessories and lenses to get the job done right. However, most of this year, even though I’ve been busy on a variety of projects, my trusty camera package has sat idle in storage, every day sliding closer into obsolescence, a luxury I can ill afford. At the same time, without the proper staff to check gear in and out, or scrupulously repair and maintain it, I remain very reluctant to rent to productions I’m not shooting. I’ve begun to ask myself if perhaps the answer for me might be a relationship with an established full service rental house, not just as a client, but also a partner. After I wrap an upcoming feature which has previously contracted to use my cameras, I’m going to be seeking such an arrangement. I’ll look for a long-term subrental situation where I will leave rental management to the professionals. Of course, with some rental companies commanding up to a 50% revenue split, I’ll have to share the income, but that could still be a whole lot more than what it has been bringing in lately.


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