By Benjamin Jones, EP at Image Brew
For me personally, I actually got into this business out of being a gear head. As a kid I always collected things like comic books, card collections, and even stamps. Don’t tease me for that last one. There was a huge sense of pride as I was acquiring, playing with, and caring for these collections. Back in college when I became more serious about shooting video, the idea of collecting camera equipment was no different. A sense of excitement overtook me as I added another lens, pelican case, or light. Each piece of gear not only allowed me to learn a new technique, but it offered me a new creative experience too. Years later when I started Image Brew, I fortunately learned early on that owning equipment allowed me to be more flexible and billable by offering different options and tools to my clients. But we’ll get back to that later.
If you work on set regularly and part of your offering is a technical equipment package or even a basic set of tools or kit, investing and therefore owning is by far the smart way to go. Financially, as an independent creative, it just makes sense. It’s the same reason why a handy man is going to buy his own tools versus renting from Home Depot each time (Hey, I’m an analogy guy). The time you save in pickup and return errands alone makes sense.
Try to avoid the mistake I made for several early years in my career where I just included every piece of gear I owned within my day rate. Separate that out so the client clearly knows that there is a price for your time and expertise, and a separate price for the professional gear they/you will need for the job. This also gives the client the choice to use your gear or rent 3rd party gear for that extra fee, and it’s a creative decision, not a cost decision. They will almost always pick you and your discounted gear for $800 per day, vs you alone for $600, and another $400 for the gear they actually need to rent for this job.
However, if you can sell the gear you own by explaining that it will work great for the job and you’re most comfortable using that versus rental gear, the extra rate you can bill for your gear each day will pay for itself in time. If you stay busy, it can then create an additional net income stream once the gear is paid off. Or, better yet, place this gear income into a separate bank account for future gear investments. Wow, look at you, you’re a business person now! The advent of 3rd party gear rental sites like Sharegrid or KitSplit can make it even easier to pay off your investment. I know these new models can hurt rental houses a bit, but that’s a different blog post.
On the flip side, the advantages of renting should be obvious to any talented filmmaker, but let’s review some of them here. By not owning a dedicated gear kit you may use on most jobs, every job begs the conversation, “What sort of equipment do we want to use to get the best results?” Undoubtedly this answer is different for each and every job, which then makes renting a no-brainer. Any savvy client will appreciate the idea of “customizing” your equipment needed on their job by renting the most appropriate equipment for the task. It’s also important to mention that some gear is so damn expensive that it would never make sense to own, such as a 300K anamorphic set. At a certain point, some of that gear you’ll probably never pay off.
In summary, my advice is that a blend of owning AND renting is a model that will serve most creative professionals the best, and has worked well for my own production company over the years. Each production position will obviously have a different weight on each side of the scale. Obviously a Sound Tech or AC may very naturally be able to offer a modest equipment package on top of their day rate, and this makes life easier for both the technician and the hiring producer or client.
Now in our 15th year of business at Image Brew, the question of owning versus renting is something very much in our regular strategy discussions as we both own and rent gear across all departments. If we find ourselves booked on a project with 12 shooting days, versus 2 for example, we might elect to invest in the equipment needed, instead of renting. This could for instance be a lens we know we’d like to work with more in the future. Instead of paying the rental fee for 12 days, which may equal 2⁄3 of owning the gear, I’d prefer to buy the equipment and keep that equity as an asset within the company. Being a full-service creative production company, this blended model of owning and renting works well for us as we have a good pulse on what types of jobs we win, what gear is usually preferred, etc. Most of the gear we own we do sub rent to our clients and partners regularly, not because we’re trying to hustle it, but because we know it’s the right gear for the types of jobs and budgets we work in.
We also have enough field shoot days booked each month that over the years we’ve been able to slowly invest in some items that are not as sexy per se, but make a whole lot of sense, make our lives easier, and that we use on almost every job. These include items like a Ford Cargo Van, Camera and Grip Carts, Walkies, and even coolers, tables, and chairs for crew catering needs. I joke with my staff that we should start a side business renting our tables and chairs for weddings. They then look at me with a worried face. I’m kidding!
We love renting packages like Grip trucks and will always go that route on larger shoots. It simply allows for all the curveballs you’re thrown on set. But we still do a fair amount of much smaller 2-3 crew shoots, and I decided a long time ago to have a basic yet sufficient G&E package we can offer in house for these projects. Again, I’ve had staff who have given push back on this approach, but for me it’s slightly a personal decision, it’s the stamp collector in me. I just enjoy having the stuff and playing with it. Unlike sophisticated cinema cameras, C-stands, flags, and dirt have a long and bright future, so I’ll invest in that low tech gear all day. For the higher-tech items, we typically look at investments in terms of 2-3 year periods.
As my father taught me as a young kid, if you take care of something, it will work for quite a while, and should retain some resale value when you decide to let it go. We now have a pretty great rule that if a piece of gear has been on the shelf for 6-12 months with no love, cut the nostalgia chords and sell it. The longer you hold on to this old gear the harder it will be to sell or use again on set. This was hard for me at first since camera gear can be a collection of past experiences. But if you’re open to the idea, it felt good to get beyond that attachment. Use that cash to buy new gear you can further your skills with. Don’t get me wrong, I have vintage cameras in our office like so many of us do, but giving yourself some basic rent vs own, as well as hold vs sell guidelines, will only keep us all moving forward and onto the next awesome gig.