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The State of Cinematography: Insights From The Rental Houses

COW Library : Cinematography : Debra Kaufman : The State of Cinematography: Insights From The Rental Houses
CreativeCOW presents The State of Cinematography: Insights From The Rental Houses -- Cinematography Editorial All rights reserved.

Camera rental houses have a unique perspective on the film and television industry, because they've seen it all. As far back as the 1920s, they were supplying gear to productions, and watched the industry move from studios, to independent productions and owner operators who may own cameras, but not all lenses, lights or cranes. They've also watched technology move through film to video, and into files.

Along they way, they've had to make careful decisions about which gear is going to stick around long enough to pay for itself. And because those decisions make the difference between life and death for their businesses, rental houses have had to keep close watch on the entire breadth of the industry, with an eye to its future.

Creative COW's Debra Kaufman offers the most comprehensive look yet into the world of cinematography gear rental, and the insights these business operators offer for what's happening in the industry today, and where it might go from here.

F.W. Murnau's Sunrise.
From F.W. Murnau's Sunrise.
Camera rental houses go back to the earliest days of the industry. Panavision's Dave Kenig notes that rental houses had advertised in American Cinematographer magazine as far back as 1924.

However, rental houses were not the sole owners of camera equipment in the early days of filmmaking. Kenig reminds us, "Although the studios had their own camera departments, it was not uncommon for cameramen to own their equipment. Two famous names from the 1920's come to mind: Karl Struss who owned a Bell and Howell 2709 and Charles Rosher who was one of the early Mitchell owners. Both worked with their respective instruments on F.W. Murnau's Sunrise."

Rental houses, which flourished on both coasts and other major urban areas, also existed to supply corporations' in-house production units (primarily 16mm) and freelance cameramen who needed to rent additional equipment. Today, rental companies continue to flourish on the East and West Coasts and urban areas, as well as some new locations that have become production hot spots due to tax incentives.

These rental houses don't just offer cameras, but a range of accessories from lenses to lights. Although technology and time would seem to strike a blow against the existence of rental houses, Kenig says they are doing better than ever. "Today there are probably more camera rental houses than ever due to the proliferation of digital equipment," he says. "Many of the older survivors have now transitioned over to digital cameras while many new smaller houses have appeared."

Because they're located nearly everywhere and rent nearly everything, the rental house is a gauge of our industry, from the impact of tax incentives to the demise of film.

We spoke with an impressive list of professionals to find out what they had to say about the trends they're seeing in the industry and the rental business:

This is Part 1 of a two-part series on rental houses and how they reflect the bigger trends in the film/TV industry. Part 1 looks at the challenges that have forced changes on the industry, and Part 2 focuses on the pro-active measures that rental houses have taken to thrive in today's marketplace.



Birns & Sawyer owner/cinematographer
Bill Meurer presents
The Filmmakers Showcase
Rental houses live and die by their ability to stay on top of trends, outfitting cinematographers with the gear they need to make productions efficient. One major trend has been the move away from film to digital cameras.

Clairmont Camera Senior EVP Alan Albert reports that his company had always been into film-based productions until the advent of the Sony F900. "We saw that there was going to be a shift in the dynamic of how production was being accomplished," he says. "We didn't know how big or how impressive the change would be, but we saw change was coming."

After judging that the Sony F900 was designed more for ENG applications than feature films, Clairmont Camera did some R&D and made considerable changes to the camera to make it user-friendly to a film-style crew. They made similar changes to Fujinon and Canon lenses.

"A lot of ASC cinematographers were beginning to see there was a value to shooting digitally from a standpoint of workflow," Albert adds. "They began to look at digital as another paintbrush. In parallel with that, camera, lens and accessory manufacturers were actively making changes to the equipment. Film professionals were speaking out and having a strong input on the development of new cameras and lenses."

In October 2011, Birns & Sawyer, founded in 1954 in Hollywood, auctioned off its inventory of 16mm and 35mm film cameras. "We should have gotten rid of our film cameras a few years earlier," says owner/cinematographer Bill Meurer. "What hobbled the company was that we weren't big enough to have our high-end Super 16mm and 35mm cameras as well as digital. We couldn't compete in film effectively and we need more revenue to buy lenses for the RED Epic, ARRI Alexa, Sony F5 and F55 and the Canon C300. That's where we see the future for the next three years."

Panavision's Bob Harvey
Panavision Executive VP
Global Sales and Marketing
Bob Harvey
But if you think film camera rentals have disappeared, think again. At Panavision, a significant portion of the camera rentals is still film. "About 25 percent of our bigger features are still shot on film. Star Trek and Spider-Man are still on film," says Panavision Executive VP, Global Sales and Marketing, Bob Harvey. "The producers are agnostic and the director and cinematographer, depending on who they are, have the power to make that call."

A big feature film might rent six to eight cameras at a time. "Our most current camera, the Millennium XL is always out on features," says Harvey. "Film cameras are not going to museums — at least up until today. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?"

In New York, AbelCine also rents film cameras, including the Aaton Penelope. But East Coast Manager, Rentals, Mike Nichols, notes that productions are trending away from film. "We do rent the Aaton Penelope cameras from time to time," he says. "The Aaton is a boutique camera, but some DPs like to work with them, so we get the periodic call."

Film rentals have also dramatically declined at rental/sales facility Rule Boston Camera, says General Manager Brian Malcolm. "Three years ago, it was 25 percent of our rentals," he says. "I would say we're down to three percent. That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but there's no market for them, although we're seeing a resurgence of people interested in shooting 16mm."

Clairmont is also still active in film camera rentals for feature films. "But digital for theatrical release is making strong headway," Albert says.
"The cinematographers have almost universally embraced digital. It's becoming a very normal tool to pull out of the toolbox. It's become a mainstream way of acquiring images in the professional world. In terms of 35mm, the last episodic TV series that Clairmont supplied film cameras on just wrapped. This was Breaking Bad, with 3-perf Arriflex Arricam LTs. At the moment, we have nothing booked with film for TV, and as far as that world is goes, I think it will continue to dwindle on a year-by-year basis. Eventually it won't be practical to shoot film for TV."


Whereas big feature films may still use film, 99 percent of TV shows have gone digital. "This makes all the sense in the world," says Panavision's Harvey. "They were shooting tape before, now they're shooting to cards. But it's still not film." He counts the ARRI Alexa and Sony F55 as two popular cameras at Panavision.

Video has had its own dramatic technology evolution. Bexel Chief Technology Officer Tom Dickinson notes that in the mid-1990s, Bexel carried only two video camera choices: Sony Betacam SP and Digital Betacam, to offer both an analog and a digital solution. "It was a great business back then," he says. "It was easy to buy a lot of one camera and rent it to everyone. Every TV show shot DigiBeta, and if they didn't shoot digital, we'd rent them analog."

It's hard to remember back to when the choices among video cameras were so few. Now the industry is awash in formats, codecs and cameras. The first big shift was when, after years of development, the ATSC (Advanced Television Systems Committee) established 18 flavors of High Definition.

Sony and Panasonic took different paths, towards 1080i and 720P respectively, and both manufacturers began developing cameras and technologies to handle their chosen solutions. Meanwhile, TV networks, productions and cinematographers also had to choose. "Cameras couldn't do both," says Bexel's Dickinson, "You had a battle that created our challenge of having to support more formats. The glory days were gone."

Rental facilities have to offer lots of choices, but choices that make sense in the bigger financial picture. AbelCine, which offers sales and service in addition to rentals, also carries the ARRI Alexa, the Phantom, RED, Sony F5 and F55, Canon Cinema EOS C300 and C500, as well as the Canon 5D Mark II. Bexel is invested in the Sony F55 and the Canon Cinema EOS C300, as well as disc-based POV cameras.

AbelCine, which offers sales and service in addition to rentals, also carries the ARRI Alexa, Phantom, RED, Sony F5 and F55, Canon Cinema EOS C300 and C500 as well as the Canon 5D Mark II.

"We pride ourselves on knowing the trends in our industry," says Fletcher Camera's Borys. "When you're not on the East Coast or West Cost, it forces you to be out of your comfort zone, to know that you're buying your technology to be as competitive as the Coasts."

With the proliferation of cameras, cinematographers have more choices than ever. "It is a double-edged sword," says Clairmont Camera's Albert. "It's good to offer your client a choice, and that's what we and most rental houses strive for. The problem is that you just can't own every single item. It doesn't make sense for every rental house to have every camera in every grade." At Clairmont, the workhorse cameras are the ARRI Alexa, RED Epic, Sony F55, the Canon Cinema EOS C500 and also the Canon C300.

Rental houses, like post production facilities, also had to adapt to file-based workflows and ultimately, to the ensuing resistance and confusion among clients. "With file-based workflows, it took awhile for people to be comfortable that they weren't losing their data," says Dickinson.
"People like holding a tape in their hands, not a file drive, since we've all had computers that have crashed. We're not an industry that changes rapidly, and once people get used to a certain workflow, they aren't anxious to break that routine.

"As card-based recording has become reliable and card readers inexpensive, Bexel has made sure to be able to provide a full variety of cards."

Dickinson sees the end of videotape. "It's becoming an IT-based industry," he says. "A drive in the editing room is a $3,000 system to buy versus a record deck. The technology is coming from computers, not camcorders and consumer DVD players anymore."

Also exactly like post houses, rental facilities are torn between the pressure to buy all the latest gear and the need to make choices that will allow them to amortize the expense of purchasing that gear. Dickinson notes that, since 60 to 70 percent of the company's work is sports and live events, a certain amount of 4K products have been justified. Bexel has bought the Evertz Dreamcatcher 4K server, but he's not ready to buy more 4K gear at the moment. "I don't see 12 months of constant work in 4K," says Dickinson. "3D was a bubble that burst fast and people are wondering if 4K is really going to last."


When cameras cost six-figures, rental houses had a monopoly. That's not the case any more, with the increased use of prosumer cameras being used for at least portions of films and TV shows. "The Canon C300 and Canon 5D Mark III are the cameras that have singlehandedly changed the marketplace," says Rule Boston Camera's Brian Malcolm. "But the Alexa has saved the rental house. They brought back the need to rent cameras."

Rule Boston Camera's General Manager Brian Malcolm

Betting on the idea that new technology can bring great rewards, Birns & Sawyer was the first to professionalize the Canon 5D Mark II, in order to support the TV episodic House. "We made enough money the first six months of 2010 renting the 5D and accessories to build out our North Hollywood location for cash and move there," Meurer says.

Clairmont Camera's Albert, who admits that prosumer and lower-priced professional cameras are nibbling at the edges of their business, points to the RED ONE camera as unleashing a new trend. "It was a unique product in many ways, not just from price point," he says. "It was advertised as just under $18,000, although with accessories, it could be low $30,000 to $40,000. Still, at that time there was nobody else manufacturing cameras at that price point, and it had a significant impact on the pricing structure of the cameras we buy today from any manufacturer."

Still, every rental house has to draw a line in the sand. "I am not trying to fight the war of the GoPro," says Bexel's Dickinson. "I tell people that if they want a GoPro to go buy it themselves, and I'll sell it when they're through with it. It's hard to make money with that and the same with the Canon 5D Mark II. That's a great companion camera with the Canon C300 and C500, but usually someone on the set owns one and they make a deal for it."

Many, if not most rental houses, are ceding the lower end of the market to owner-operators, and focusing on the more expensive cameras, as well as the lenses and accessories. Zoe Borys, for one, is philosophical about losing this tier of the market. "We do sometimes collaborate with companies that do prosumer work," she says, "with the idea that when the director goes to a higher storytelling level, he will come back to us. We're cultivating a world of filmmakers knowing that a certain number will survive."

AbelCine's East Coast Manager, Rentals, Mike Nichols

ACs and cinematographers have been renting their own gear to productions for decades, but rental houses note the downsides. "This practice has proven to be more of a moving target for these people than they anticipated," says AbelCine's Mike Nichols. "Some productions are moving away from wanting mixed vendors because there are insurance and liability issues. And if you don't have the proper test equipment, maintenance of lenses can be tricky."

Borys agrees. "More and more, going to a rental house is a big part of the completion bond and how you get insured and financed," she notes. "Everyone wants to know your vendors and what your contingencies are."

Still, rental house executives agree that the issue of owner/operators supplying camera bodies does continue to chip away at their business. SIM Digital tries to work closely with the crew. "We have a more collaborative approach with the camera assistants," says Jim Martin. "If we've provided a camera package and the camera assistant wants to get his matte box out there, we add it for less money. You have to take the fact that you're making less money into the price points, but it is important to do work with the CAs. But we do draw the line if the camera assistant has his own camera body. We won't do that."

Birns & Sawyer's Meurer reports that, "most rental house companies are camera-poor."

"We can't buy all these cameras that aren't paid off before they go obsolete. Rental houses are struggling to be profitable, and the trend of owners buying cameras doesn't help," he says, noting that he knows a cameraman who bought an Alexa and is now renting it to features.

Long gone are the days when a facility could open the doors with a range of 35mm and 16mm cameras and accessories. Rental house owners are faced every day with making weighty decisions based on incomplete or unknown information: Will tax incentives always prove enticing in XYZ state or city? Will 4K take off? Which camera will gain popularity? What other services do I need to offer?

In Part Two, we take a look at some of the solutions that rental house owners have come up with to serve the film/TV industry as well as their own bottom line.

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