From Absconsion to Obsolescence: current challenges facing the rental equipment industry

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A rental advert in a 1924 edition of American Cinematographer magazine.

SCREEN AFRICA EXCLUSIVE:

Camera rental houses have been in business from around the 1920s. Scouring through an archived 1924 edition of American Cinematographer magazine, I found numerous ads for ‘equipment for rent’. Even back in those days there were DoPs who owned their own cameras but couldn’t afford lenses, lights or hefty equipment like cranes and dollies, and so – through necessity – the rental industry was born.

The unique specialty of any good rental house is the ability to stay on top of technology and changing trends. In the mid-1990s, there were really only two video camera choices: the Sony Betacam SP (analogue) and Sony Digital Betacam (digital). Nowadays the industry is awash with formats, codecs, cameras and hundreds of different types of lenses, offering TV producers more choices than ever.

The first big shift was when, after years of development, the ATSC (Advanced Television Systems Committee) established 18 different categories 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, production companies and cinematographers also had to choose, because cameras couldn’t do both, and so created a battle that challenged rental houses by making them have to support more formats. What’s more, when cameras used to cost six figures, rental companies had a monopoly – but with the increased use of ‘prosumer’ cameras being used for at least portions of TV shows, that is no longer the case.

Travis Boult, of Camera Hire in Adelaide, Australia, maintains that: “Rental facilities have to offer lots of choices, but choices that make sense in the bigger financial picture”. Even the smaller rental companies generally carry selections like the ARRI Alexa, the Phantom, RED, Sony FS7, FS5 and F55, Canon Cinema EOS C300 and C500, as well as the Canon 5D Mark II, the Sony a7S Mark II and various SD-card based POV cameras. Each rental house has had to decide what video cameras to purchase and support.

As the number of formats and, more recently, codecs change rapidly, rental houses must be cautious about amortising technology that may be obsolete before it’s paid for. Although changing technology and time would seem to strike a blow against the existence of rental houses, Dave Kenig of Panavision in the USA says they are, in fact, doing better than ever. “Today there are probably more camera rental houses than ever due to the proliferation of digital equipment. Many of the older survivors have now transitioned over to digital cameras, while many new smaller houses have appeared.”

Meanwhile, Stacey Keppler of Zootee Studios in Cape Town feels technology changes are not felt as severely in South Africa as in the States or European markets, because the South African market seems only to rent what they know. “For example, the Panasonic Varicam seems hugely underrated here, or even the newish EVA1 gives you 10-bit 4:2:2 and dual native ISO onto an SD card, which is really great and certainly better than Sony’s FS5 – but we haven’t bought one yet, as people would rather rent an older Sony FS7, which is tried and tested amongst their peers, than ‘experiment’ on other camera formats,” says Keppler. “This is peachy for rental companies though, because we don’t have to stock every camera under the sun. So local filmmakers and content creators being sceptical of what they don’t know actually makes stocking our inventory a lot easier.”

Jenny Balee van Vlerken of Bangkok Video Services agrees, maintaining that technology shifts are a double-edged sword. “While it’s good to offer your customers a choice, the problem is that you can’t own everything and it doesn’t make financial sense to have every grade of camera in your rental house.”

Many, if not all, rental companies no longer have a monopoly on the cameras used in film and television productions, and so lenses and accessories have become the emphasis.  For Camera Hire in Adelaide, lenses are a big investment. “Digital cameras have a shelf life of about three years,” says Boult, “but lenses will be around for twenty years plus.”

Similarly, Rule Boston Camera, a rental facility based in Massachusetts, USA, has a full line of accessories and has concentrated its inventory on building out this part of the market. “We have an eye towards what people need, be it lighting or dollies, jibs and so on,” says general manager Brian Malcolm. “Lenses in particular are a great investment, as their price has gone up — not down — and there are more choices out there.”  According to Malcolm, ten years ago, almost everyone rented a complete camera package. “Now, every other job is to accessorise someone’s C300 or Epic,” he says. “DPs are being hired because of their talent, but also on the basis of their personal camera package. And they come to us for the accessories.”

Embracing change is usually the way to keep the doors open and the company flourishing – and, while rental houses have demonstrated nimbleness in adjusting to industry changes, at the same time their executives realise that their business has become more precarious and changeable than ever before. Which brings us on to an unfortunate challenge that rental houses of today have to cope with: theft.

Theft in the rental industry has, unfortunately, become an unavoidable issue worldwide. American and Canadian rental companies have formed a trade organisation called the Production Equipment Rental Group, which runs a collective database to try track and recover missing equipment being offered for resale throughout the world. Last year’s listings were valued at more than $20 million for small rental houses alone. Most thefts fall into one of three categories. Some are direct break-ins to rental facilities, others have been cases of theft from production vehicles. Some of the thefts are clearly done by professionals who know exactly what they are after, while others appear to be random crimes of opportunity. Perhaps the largest category has been by fraud, where customers with fake ID have rented gear and disappeared.

Insurance for rental equipment is different in each country, and for Stacey Keppler of Zootee Studios, it’s a tricky subject in South Africa. “There is essentially only one underwriter that will insure smaller camera rental companies and it would be ideal if there was some competition in the market, or even if insurance excesses weren’t so high.” Keppler continues, “The threat of absconsion holds us back a lot. It is seen as a ‘trade risk’ and not covered by the insurance underwriter. ‘Absconsion’ is essentially when we hand over our equipment willingly to someone who then does not return it. Ever. Yes, one would think this is just plain theft – but to the insurance underwriter, it is not. These scammers have different ways of deceiving us and, as a result, our registration protocol has become more and more elaborate which frustrates honest customers. Every year these scammers get smarter which forces us to do deeper background checks into our new customers. But the fact is, every new customer is a risk – and this shouldn’t be the case”.

As a matter of interest, do you know which camera is the most-rented world-wide? The humble Sony a7S Mark II mirrorless camera tops the list, while ARRI’s Alexa takes a close second spot!

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