Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Owning Gear.

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.


The Grip Works said...

AJ - Thats a very comprehensive and insightful addressing of the issue.
Part of the problem is Production and The Studios not wanting to share any part of the pie.
Its kind of tragic that they do not see the benefit in crew making money from rentals.
This is more or less a peculiarity of the situation in the United States and maybe Canada.
To address your reply to my earlier comment - I dont mean to be discouraging. I, myself have a rental company here in India.
Also in other countries that I have visited, the Grips & Gaffers often own their gear.
In the US, I find that is more the exception than the rule.
I have a couple of friends who are Key Grips who do the Tom Cruise in tights type films. They are both LA based and both own a couple of 48 footer trucks.
They both talk about how impossible it is to get their gear onto films without virtually giving it away.
These are probably the biggest name grips in the business ... and they struggle in the US.
Something needs to change ... its not fair ... but I don't see the studios losing sleep over it :-)

A.J. said...

The Grip Works - Thanks for the comment and insight. Obviously, I should have stated that my observations on the topic only relate to how things are done in Los Angeles. I have no idea how equipment rental is handled in other parts of the U.S., let alone other countries. But I'm glad it's working out for you!

While I agree that it sucks how hard it is for Keys and Gaffers to get their gear onto shows, I'm not sure how "it's not fair" that they don't. Studios, when it comes down to it, are in the business of making money, and sometimes (often times here), it's not beneficial to their bottom line. Yes, it sucks, but I don't see any reason why they would change. They hire us for our skill and expertise, and that's what they pay us for. Seems pretty fair to me.

Don't get me wrong. It'd be great if we could all get kit and equipment rentals again, but I see that more as a plus for us than it is for them. In no way do I feel like they owe it to us or anything. That's my basic opinion anyway. Am I missing something?

The Grip Works said...

Well ... its just that over the years, the real value of your wage has plummeted . Ask the guys (Michael , Darryl ?) who've been around 20 years or more.
Part of the method of insuring yourself against the lowering of your pay as you get older and have greater responsibilities in life, is to own gear to supplement your diminishing wage.
Of course the studios want to make more money ... but In the same year that Hollywood made record profits (2012), they also negotiated our rates down with the unions.
As the studios are run increasingly by accountants and less by film makers, they will always look for ways to shave more money off the below the line.
The equipment is just one of them.
You will see over the next years, a stagnation of your wage (so a drop in real terms) and harder terms of employment - longer working hours as part of a standard day (when did it become a 12 hour standard day) , harder to achieve medical benefits - more days to qualify. Excluding family dependents from medical cover.
These things are less important when you are young and gain significance as you get older.
I hope I am wrong - but It looks that way.

A.J. said...

Ah. That, I totally understand. We're definitely losing more and more as the years go by, all while working even harder.

But I still stick to my original thought that it seems fair to me if we don't get an equipment rental. To count on getting a rental fee supplementing your wages seems a little irresponsible to me, especially when such a thing was never written in stone (or in this case, a union contract). I view it more as a bonus than a "paycheck".

I will, however, agree and say it's unfair that we're not getting the compensation we deserve for our work. Which is a whole other post (read: rant) entirely.

Michael Taylor said...

I think it all comes down to your individual circumstances. In the right situation, owning and renting equipment can work out, but it's certainly not for every grip or juicer -- especially now in the US, as Sanjay pointed out, when it's increasingly difficult to get your gear on a show.

At the studio where I do most of my work, the only way you can get gear on a show is if it's a piece of equipment the lamp dock does not own, and can't sub-rent from another rental facility. One best boy I work with from time to time solved this by inventing and manufacturing his own lamp -- a type of light that nobody else offers at the moment -- so he's able to get them on shows all over town. And he needs to, because the cable-rate shows he's been working pay him nearly ten dollars/hour less than full scale. With a wife, two growing kids, and house payments, he needs that rental income to keep his head above water.

During my dozen or so years gaffing commercials and music videos, the DP and I went in together on a pair of 4X4 Kino Flos, which rented for $60/day apiece at the time. This worked out well for a while, but then Kino Flo started offering a 2 day weekly rental, so we had to match their price -- and things slid rapidly downhill after that. The lights paid for themselves and then some, but at a certain point it was hardly worth the effort to drag them downstairs to the car and haul them to a job. By the time the commercial market in LA blew up and went to Canada (the late 90's), I was happy be done with those Kinos -- I didn't have room to store them anymore, so I let the DP have my half of the Kino kit and that was that.

The wage situation is bad, though, no doubt about it. In the early 90's, I was averaging well over $600/day -- easily over a grand in today's dollars -- but now I probably average $300, or less than a third what I made back then in inflation-adjusted dollars. Unfortunately, I think Sanjay is right that things will only get worse in the future. The studios are now owned by huge cold-blooded corporations whose only interest and allegiance is to the bottom line and keeping the shareholders happy -- and they do that by minimizing costs wherever possible. With so many states fighting amongst themselves to lure productions, and increasing levels of offshore production, we're all in a race to the bottom.

There will be no winners at the finish line... just a horde of exhausted losers.

It sucks.

A.J. said...

Michael - Absolutely, things will get worse in the future. Not only do we have runaway productions and "cable rates" to deal with, but with technology where it's at now, most everyone can afford a type of camera and distribute content themselves (helloooo internet). On the one hand, that's pretty awesome, but on the other, it dilutes our industry and in a way, belittles our crafts.

And don't even get me started on homemade lights... :)

JB Bruno said...

From the perspective of a low-budget line producer, AJ, this post should be required reading for those starting out thinking of getting gear.

Kits are one thing - always good to be able to do a kit fee both as a way for me to get money to a crew member instead of a rental house for expendables and such, and maybe saving a little.

The truth is, unless its a REALLY small project and I can use ONLY your gear, the rental houses I use give me ridiculous rates (like 1.5 day weeks) and throw in things that someone building a package can easily rent out, so it doesn't make sense for me to rent it from crew.

I have a few G&Es who have everything from small to substantial packages, and maintaining, as you correctly state, is a bitch. At some point, you have to be concerned about being more of a vendor and less of a skilled crew person (are you taking gigs you would not have just to justify your up-keep? I've seen that happen).

All in all, great analysis - hope others see it.

A.J. said...

JB Bruno - Thanks for chiming in! It's great to hear different perspectives, especially from a line producer on this particular topic. And you definitely touched on a point that I left out regarding vendor vs. crew. I've seen that as well.

Feel free to pass this post along to anyone you think might benefit from it.

Anonymous said...

The thing I've always mentioned being the start of problems is the snowballing effect of gack. You buy a light, then you need a stand to put it on, a bag for the stand, a stinger for power, putt putt for the power, on and on.

Its gone on like that for me, and now I'm ready for a truck to keep it all in. I have a great rigging package, and an array of decent Tungsten, but I don't have any hot ticket items like LEDs or HMIs. In my region, you never see a just 'GRIP' truck rent out.

D said...

Personally what I've found is that the longer you work in this business, the more important it is to have something working for you. I didn't own anything for years. It seemed like big hassle etc. all the things AJ said. About ten years ago, a partner and I bought a 48' rigging truck. It paid for itself in six months. We now own two and that check sure is nice when it comes in. I would suggest aligning yourself with some up and coming gaffer (my partner is a Rigging Key/ Key Grip). That's one of the few ways to get it on.

Michael Taylor said...

D is absolutely right -- it's definitely better to have something working for you to generate additional income in this business, especially as you get older. But as the first sentence in my previous comment notes, it all depends on your individual circumstances.

A good friend of mine (who used to be on my crew when I was BBing, then gaffing commercials) is now a big time rigging gaffer who does huge features. He bought a 40 foot rigging trailer a few years ago, paid for it after a few shows, and is now rolling in gravy with every new job. But it was his position as rigging gaffer that allows him to do this -- if he was a juicer, it would never work. As a BB, maybe -- so long as he'd be willing to cut the gaffer in on the profits as a partner.

When I was gaffing commercials, the Paramount lamp dock kept undercutting us to the tune of a .3 day week -- that means they offered their gear for a full five days at the price of 1/3 of a day. An individual has a hard time competing with that.

As the Oscar winning song from the movie "Hustle and Flow" went, "It's hard out there for a pimp..."

Anonymous said...

Another option is being a repeat customer from a rental house or friend. Even if you are not partnered with them they often give you a percentage of the rental for bringing them business. This makes the most sense to me when you are beginning or don't want to go through the hassle of owning the full range of gear. You build a rapport with a rental company/friend or two and they are then more inclined to give you and the production companies you work for deals. Everyone is trying to beat prices, this is just one way to try to ensure that you get the gear you want (and all of it).

A solid option to begin with, particularly for grip, is just owning specialty items like a nice slider. As long as you have the contacts to back it up it can work and pay for itself in a short period of time.

As has been noted, owning your own gear is not easy. It can be expensive and as soon as you let it fall into someone else's hands, they will not care for it like you do.

A.J. said...

Anonymous - Good point. You can't just buy a light and be done with it. You need all the other stuff to make it all work. Glad to hear it sounds like it's working out for you though!

D - I think if the right opportunity presented itself, I might dabble a bit in investing in equipment, but as I mentioned in the post, there's a huge difference between buying a lighting (or grip) package when you're just starting out, like the the Anonymous commenter was suggesting, and investing in a 48 footer. Guys starting out see equipment as a way to land them jobs (("Hire me and I'll throw in free gear!") while guys with a more established career see it as an income generator.

Michael - It absolutely depends on the circumstances. If I was mainly BBE or Gaffing on commercials, I might be singing a different tune. For now, I'm just a humble lamp op.

Anonymous - I second the "as soon as you let it fall into someone else's hands, they will not care for it like you do" part of your comment. It's usually a pain in the ass for me to work with someone's personal gear if they're around and "watching." I try my best not to mistreat or abuse anything, but film equipment, whether you mean to or not, will get a scuff or two on it just from light usage. Equipment owners get such a sour look on their face if you so much as accidentally drop a scrim bag on a carpeted floor.

JD said...

"Oh wow! You have a medium sized Tungsten lighting and grip package! We can certainly use your experience and skills on our shoot. We can pay you (low rate), can we use your equipment for free, were low budget."

Hear this all the time, great scrip, good cat, interesting and challanging locations, under budgeted. Sorry, no thanks.... It costs me real money to drive my truck to location and your rate doesn't begin to cover it.

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