One of my first words of advice to all departing interns for the past 25 years has been “whatever you do, don’t buy equipment.” Now this may sound odd coming from a guy who has been involved with equipment rentals for most of his career, but it is true. Sure, it’s tempting to buy a “package” and keep that slice of the production pie for yourself. So why would I give such advice? Well, for one thing, rentals is a tough business. It takes a person who is slightly masochistic, stubborn and unrealistic to succeed.
While the Owner Operator has been around forever, they were usually a few key crew personnel with well established clientele in a given market. The Red/DSLR revolution really pushed this phenomenon into overload. Now everyone has a camera package. Problem is, that affordable camera soon blossomed into a tripod, cage system, lights, monitors, etc. Now what? Well first thing you do is put the package on the market at a discounted rate to make it competitive. Now realize, the bank that holds the note on that package is not going to cut your payment. Congratulations, you‘ve just lowered your day rate. Then there is the cost of insuring the package. Another cut into your day rate. Do you need a bigger vehicle to haul the package? The constant “arms race” to stay competitive and the fact that tending to that job can distract you from your real job of being a Producer, DP, Sound mixer, grip etc. are the main reasons I give this sage advice to all departing interns.
This “democratization” of production equipment had a profound effect on traditional Rental Houses of the last few years. Some great houses like Tamberelli and Plus 8 went out of business. Others like Rule & Boston Camera merged to survive. A few became major resellers like Fletcher and Abel Cine. Now the major factor that is coming home to roost affecting owner operators and surviving rental houses alike – the ROI. Traditionally you had 5 years, then it became 2 to 3 years to pay off and maybe make some money before your system is obsolete – now you have about 6 months.
Now that the next great wave of technology offerings is flooding the market, is it time to rethink using rental houses instead of buying gear? To let them take the risk on the ever changing deluge of camera systems. Let them figure out the proper accessories and workflow logistics. I know a lot of freelancers who never bought gear. They worked regularly, were not tied to any particular camera system, slept well at night and still look a lot younger than me because of it.