Equipment costs money: devaluation of gear/labor in the industry

I’ll admit here that I will speak freely about things I’m fairly acquainted with and blend them with hypotheses, assumptions and broad strokes that I won’t necessarily have evidence to back up. I’ll do my best to support my ideas with trends that lead me to my conclusions or avenues of thought.

I believe we’re seeing a devaluation of equipment in our industry, a reluctance to pay for quality possibly because the quality itself has (willingly) become confused. Technology rises, people flock into the film industry for whatever reason (so many directors, so many DP’s), and an investment suddenly proves yourself.

In North Dakota, I doubt someone thinks: “I’ll buy a Steadicam and that’ll get me on a big movie.” If they do, the notion is short-lived, the monthly payments exceed the income, or if they paid cash, then the scant work might lead the investor to think “I could sure use that $60,000-$100,000 someplace else.” However, in LA, purchasing gear to get into the film industry seems so en vogue that I wonder what’s coming next. Probably as equipment goes onto sets for free, so too do they expect labor for free. Oh, wait… they do.

First, here’s a story for you:

The story goes that Jim Jannard went to Panavision years ago, hearing they had a new HD digital cinema camera coming down the pipe to be named “Genesis”. He was so enthused by the idea, he asked to buy one. “We don’t sell cameras, ONLY rent them,” was their response. Allegedly, he offered a blank check to the company, who again refused, probably thinking “Who is this guy?” Allegedly, he was so perturbed by their obdurate stance that he set off to create his own camera. On the horizon, the RED One digital cinema camera would be born.

A digital revolution would be the first of two waves to hit the film industry. The second, in my mind, was close to follow: equipment gets you in the door.

Red One was popular (when it worked), and after a few months, the bugs were mostly worked out and the stability made it A cam on many projects. I remember first seeing a RED One in 2008/2009 (the sensor upgrades weren’t trickling out yet). Probably by 2010, I knew a number of owners. Many owners, I knew were working with their cameras as an “owner/operator” or “owner/DP”.

Years ago, I interned at Panavision Florida, and had the pleasure of meeting a few guys who owned Arri SR2’s or Panasonic SD800’s. They owned a camera and AC’ed or operated on the shoot, so they’d bring the camera in to build out an accessory package. Fast forward: the average RED One or RED MX owner had to have pretty much a full accessories package including lenses. Why? Because if you’re renting from one vendor for a cheap price, it’s hard to get another vendor to match the percentage discount on the accessories, knowing that person is killing your business. So, the owner has to build his kit completely, or find places to sub rent.

I’ve known camera owner / DP’s who went out for $350/12-hr day with their RED One/MX package (all accessories, support, a few lenses, etc). Now, a common practice for most equipment rental is 100-day payoff: pay off the equipment in 100 days, so 1-day rental should equate to 1/100 of your investment, or 1%. I’ll give them a break and say their investment cost $32,000 for the whole kit (they bought old lenses, an old fluid head, etc). So, a full rental should be $320/day for the kit. Their labor? $30/day. On a 12-hr day, that’s a whopping $2.14/hr. Maaaybe they discounted their kit to $192/day (student rate of 60% discount). Their labor rate = $11.29/hr.

The first wave is well under way: indie filmmakers aren’t interested so much in film anymore: film camera bodies aren’t heavily discounted by rental houses OR owners, same for film stock, developing, telecine, etc. Further, they’re now told, “You can’t just roll forever. You have to cut!” After RED One/MX, everyone wanted 4K ONLY. HVX200 with film adaptors wouldn’t cut it anymore, and besides, that’s not what’s popular. 4K is popular! And the owners gotta make that loan payment, so they’re cheap!

(Forget for a moment that as of writing this, most digital intermediates before film-out take place at 2K, or film out for exhibition prints at 2K. As far as I am aware, most digital projectors in theaters are not 4K).

Other manufacturers are getting onboard: Sony F65, Canon C500, and of course RED with the Epic.

Now, I get the call to come provide Steadicam for a shoot, either dayplaying or for the run of the shoot. Of course, they just filled out their camera package by hiring crew (so barely any rental). I quote my rental based on the 100-day payoff, and you practically hear them drop the phone. Suddenly, they found that other vendor described above: I can’t discount as aggressively as their camera vendor… but the caller thinks, “maybe someone else will?” Off, to Craigslist!

The best Steadicam operators have invested well over 6-figures in their equipment package, between sled, arm, vest, accessories, cables (some will say they own $15,000 in cables alone), wireless follow focus, cases, etc. I may have a live TV gig that requires a gimbal arm focus control, or a commercial that requires a vehicle mount. With the rate these digital cameras are coming out, we suddenly have to own power cables for all of them ($200-300 with every connector change, and backups in case one fails).

Upon hearing my rate with rental, a common response: “Wow, that’s more than the DP is making!” How should that statement predicate me lowering my rate? If he accepted $250 for a 12-hr day, does that mean I’m obligated to take less? Out of respect for my superior? If he came out for that rate WITH GEAR, that’s unconscionable and I can’t do anything about it.

This is no way to conduct business, my friends. Favors among friends are one thing. Evaluating a project as worthy of some goodwill is commendable. However, the difference between one-time offers and modus operandi become clear over time.

I would dare to say: we are willing participants in the killing of our industry.

Rental houses now HAVE to discount to stay competitive: longer rentals for shows get unprecedented discounts on accessories, like 30%+ off Preston HU3 rentals on a longer show at the danger of the AC’s friend renting his Preston to production at 25% discount of 100-day payoff. Camera manufacturers donate cameras to sets or staff shoots with their own camera technicians with spare bodies. R&D is no longer done exclusively in the lab but rather on set! What a bargain: R&D is recouped as marketing expenditure in the form of renting out NEW cameras gratis! How can a Canon C300 owner compete with Canon! RED owner with RED! They reap the benefits of R&D without ever performing it. They get the feedback, incorporate what they can, and market it as “the camera used on “The Amazing Spider-man 3D”.

Of course, now the filmmakers who have seen some success since they embraced the digital revolution want to shoot film… but the bodies cost so much! And the developing, telecine, and film stock is expensive! Everyone has fetishized film, thinking it will create quality to enhance their story rather than use story to enhance the movie. A flurry of cameras that every filmmaker hopes before day 1 will look beautiful, and before day 2 just hopes it boots up properly. You get what you pay for.

Gear costs your production, one way or another.

OUTRO:

In 2010, “The Social Network” was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, and was shot on the RED MX. Allegedly, RED provided cameras to them directly.

IATSE created the Tier system to cater to projects of all budgets. Now, they have a “New Media” contract where the crew themselves negotiate their own rates; skilled labor without a collectively bargained rate.

In a 2007 study, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences found the cost of storing 4K digital masters to be “enormously higher – 1100% higher – than the cost of storing film masters.”

Many new shows shooting HD are using Arri’s Alexa, shooting at 2K or 1080p. Why? I’d suggest the best reasons are: camera made by a camera company, exhibition is 1080p, works with existing accessories and designed with input from users.

More DP/owners are advertising that they own a Steadicam and will provide it to production included in their “rental”.

If you see a Panavision camera being prepped at Panavision, you’re most likely catching it before it’s shipped off to be on display somewhere.

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About wbd3

Camera / Steadicam owner Operator based in Los Angeles
This entry was posted in filmmaking, Steadicam. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Equipment costs money: devaluation of gear/labor in the industry

  1. so what’s the answer? I know that’s the most annoying response, but it is the only thing I think after a lot of your posts. I agree fully with pretty much everything you post and I see the direction the industry is heading in, and I hate it, but I don’t know what the answer is.

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