In the comments for a previous post, Anonymous writes:
Why is it that on the lower rung/entry level of electric, NO ONE seems to talk about equity/assets/ owning gear? I've noticed on the top tier of features, a LOT of the guys (and girls) either own their own gear or have access/ good relationships with people who have access to gear. [...] It's a bargaining tool. It's something that a young electric could work on, which allows them to up their rate, gain a good reputation, etc yet no one talks about it. Yes, there is a risk in owning gear (it may sit around and not get used) for the most part I've noticed this hasn't been the case. A lot of people who work quite often have either owned their own gear or even also custom made specific lights [...] which can be used a bargaining tool with an APOC on productions..just saying. Rather than 'just wanting to get on a bigger set/shoots', I wish there were people who would be educating the new crop of G/E that they have SO many options to getting to the next rung! They don't just have to sit there and cling to the hope that someone will just 'notice' them..they can make things happen for themselves, too!
Fist off, I think it's a pretty incorrect statement to say that NO ONE talks about owning gear when they're just starting out. I know I've personally been involved with discussions about it multiple times. Personally, I don't own gear because it's not worth it for me. As basic as some of our equipment may seem, it all costs a surprisingly high amount. Just one C-stand or baby stand alone costs somewhere in the $200 range, brand new. Carts are four figure prices. Even a humble milk crate is around $20. Hell, bags of sand are about $40. And that's not even getting into the expensive stuff like lights. It's all a pretty hefty price for someone, anyone, to pay, let alone someone who's just starting out in this business. Sure, you can probably score some gear used or 2nd hand, but the still decent stuff isn't that much cheaper. I'm a firm believer in you get what you pay for, and I don't believe in owning crap.
Not to mention all the work and cost that goes into maintaining the gear, storing it*, transportation, and obtaining insurance. Or that part about creating an LLC and the extra paperwork when it comes to tax time.
Even if I were to invest in my own equipment, I'd invest in grip rather than electric.** A large chunk, if not most, grip stuff has been the same for decades, holding its value over time. Stands, frames, sand bags, apple boxes, furniture blankets, clamps, etc, have remained pretty consistent through the years and are all pretty easy to maintain compared to other departments. Lighting is constantly evolving (arc lights and LEDs, anyone?) as are cameras (that super expensive camera you just bought will be out of date in six months... or less). Not to mention the abuse*** we put everything through. You can grease your fingers and drop a gobo head on the concrete ground all day and it'll still work as advertised. You can't say the same about lights and definitely not cameras.
But more the point of the original comment: There's a HUGE difference between a big show and an entry level one.
Let's say I landed on the sweet, sweet gig of being a lamp op on a totally fictional and made up big budget feature (like, Tom Cruise playing a Mavel superhero big). If I own any gear, it's sure as hell not going to end up on this show. I'm just a lamp operator with no bargaining power when it comes to getting me hired.**** Hell, Production doesn't even hire me. The Best Boy does. And he's going to hire me because I'm a good lamp op. He doesn't give a rats ass if I own any gear or not. If anyone's getting gear on the show, plus the rental fee that goes along with it, it'll likely be the Gaffer or the Best Boy.
Okay, so now let's pretend I'm the Gaffer on Tom Cruise Wears Tights And A Cape And Saves The World (aka: TCWTAACASTW for short), and I have gear for rent. Production has money. Are they going to rent from me? Not necessarily. On a show that size, they're hiring me because they want me as a Gaffer. The equipment factor is secondary, if it's even a factor at all. At this level, they're not looking for a "Gaffer that comes with gear." They're looking for a Gaffer that can do the job. Period. One thing has nothing to do with the other. In this case, it'd be more beneficial to me than them if I get my gear on this show. Production isn't getting the perk of getting equipment with the Gaffer; the Gaffer's getting the perk of getting their gear onto the show.
And how much gear do I have? Is it enough to supply the bulk of this show? Just owning an Arri Kit and some clip lights isn't going to cut it. We're talking 48 footer territory here. And, how much is Production willing to pay? Is it enough to cover my expenses/worth the hassle? Not only that, but how much are other rental houses willing to pay? Because I guarantee you they will at least poke around for other bids, and if someone can do it for cheaper, you're out of luck. All those questions are deciding factors to whether or not you can get your gear on a big show... If such a thing is even possible.
Yup. You read that right. IF it's possible. Big shows come attached with big studios and big contracts and sometimes, a "conflict of interest" arises. For example, some studios let you bring in your own equipment. Great! Some studios, however, require that you get gear from them. You want to shoot on their lot and use their stage? You have to use their gear (and write them a check for it). Bringing in your own stuff, especially if it's something the studio lamp dock already has, can be considered "a conflict of interest."
And it's not just studios or the big shows. I've been on more than one "medium" sized show where Production had struck an exclusivity deal with a rental house: The rental house gives Production a sweet, sweet rate and in exchange, Production promises to not rent from anyone else. Ever. Meanwhile, despite me working on the show, my hypothetical gear is still gathering dust in a storage unit somewhere, hemorrhaging money by the minute.
Ask anyone who owns a complete lighting package (as in at least a truck's worth and not just enough to fill a cargo van): It's getting harder and harder to get your gear on a job.
Now, let's get to the "lower rung/entry level" shows. I will admit that having your own gear can be a bargaining chip here. There are countless "passion project" production companies out there looking for crew that can bring their own gear, but the question is, are they willing to pay for it? And if so (and that's a big "if") how much? Is it worth it? I can pretty much guarantee that you won't recoup your initial investment with just the one job, but yes, it might get you more work. But chances are, it'll be a lateral move from job to job. You can only get that gear onto shows that fit the job. That cargo van of miscellaneous gear you have isn't going from an ultra low budget shoot one weekend to TCWTAACASTW the next. It's going on to another ultra low budget film.... And another... And another. There is very little crossover from having your own gear on a low budget show to getting it on a high budget one. (Exception: You're already doing the big shows with your own gear and are "slumming it" during slow times on smaller jobs.)
There is, however, another option to owning gear that is often overlooked: Co-ops. There are (small) rental companies out there where the equipment is owned by a group of people. That way, not any one person is holding the burden of investment, and the gear has a higher chance of being rented out. Sometimes, you don't even have to be a member of a Co-op to reap the benefits. Often times, if you get their gear on a show (and this is true for a number of companies, especially the smaller ones) you get a cut of their profits. A win-win situation. However, the same questions asked above applies (how much gear is available; cost; insurance; etc.).
Owning your own gear at the beginner level probably won't be a big money maker, but what it might do is expose you to more (still low paying) jobs and in turn, more contacts. However, more contacts doesn't necessarily mean you'll climb up the ladder faster. After all, it's often about being at the right place at the right time meeting that right person who can get you on a bigger job. It's kind of like playing the lottery: You can up your odds by buying more tickets, but really, all it takes is one.
I'm not saying it's a bad idea to own your own equipment and I'm definitely not saying there aren't any benefits to it. These are just my own personal thoughts on the topic and are based on nothing but observation and my own experiences over the years. And, as always, there are a few exceptions to all of this. Basically, it all comes down to whether or not the risks outweigh the rewards and whether or not it's worth it to you.
For me, it's just not worth it.
* It might not be a problem if you have a garage, but most people I work with either live in an apartment or have a family that actually uses the garage to store cars. It used to be that you could store gear in certain rental houses, but I hear that's becoming more and more rare.
** But I'm not a grip. It wouldn't make much sense for me to invest in grip gear.
*** Don't be gentle. It's a rental!
**** Board Ops are a different story. As are kit rentals.