A Filmmaker’s Guide to the Rental House
*We want to thank Rule Boston Camera for providing insight into their process and collaborating on this post with us.
Rental houses can be intimidating to someone who hasn’t used one before (they were for me, at least). It may seem easier to purchase your own gear and continue onward acquiring more and more until you’re your own self-contained rental house. Although that works for some people, many can’t afford that luxury. This is where a rental house comes in. The items that cost too much to justify purchasing on their own can still be obtained by building the rental cost into the budget with your client, even if that client is yourself. Rental houses provide an important service to filmmakers and the relationships that you establish with them in your time as a professional can be crucial to making the productions you work on run more smoothly and efficiently.
*Note: The model that I’ll be discussing throughout this post will refer and apply primarily to the traditional rental house.
For those that are unaware, a traditional rental house is a company that owns/consigns and quality controls all of their equipment and hires rental agents that make direct contact with Producers, DPs, Gaffers, etc. They will typically work one-on-one with you to ensure all gear required for the shoot is covered, and have a set protocol that most rental houses have followed for many years. Over the last couple of years, however, online box stores and equipment sharing websites have made an impact in how filmmakers are able to rent. Websites like KitSplit and ShareGrid have opened up the market to allow users to post their personal gear online for rent while the service ensures people renting the gear will have proper insurance/damage coverage. Online box stores allow users to select what they want to rent from a website and create a shopping cart of the gear they’re looking for to simply check out to have shipped to them or pick up when scheduled. It puts most of leg work online and both of these models have their own set of advantages and disadvantages that we won’t be getting into here.
Building a relationship
Rental companies are a service industry. To stay competitive, these businesses are inclined to be your friend - they thrive on providing good gear and customer service to survive. As a young filmmaker, or someone that’s new to town, these guys want your business. Many rental companies will invest early on in a filmmaker and help them get gear at a discounted rate to fund their passion projects. They’re willing to check out gear that may not be going out that weekend on the cheap because they’re investing in the relationship. Hopefully, you’ll return the favor and bring your business to them with big jobs in the future, and you can thank them for being there when you needed gear starting out.
Although it may be daunting, going in to introduce yourself to some of the sales reps and explaining what you’re up to could lead to a great relationship down the road. Pick a day that’s slow for them (I’d say Wednesday’s are usually a good bet) and go make some introductions! These guys and gals have reason to be invested in the community they serve, so go say hi!
Building that relationship will also bring you closer to the sales and equipment teams, which in any good rental house, will have incredible insight into all of their gear. And if they don’t, there is a high probability that they can direct you to someone that does. This comes especially in handy when your project requires a special tool, or maybe you’ve been eyeing a piece of gear but haven’t gotten the opportunity to use it.
Example: I was looking into the serene arm extension for the Easy Rig and felt like it would be a great tool for an upcoming job, so I called a sales rep at Rule and asked if it was possible to test it out. They said it was around for the week, so I scheduled a time, brought a camera, and they supplied the gear at no charge for me to walk around the building and get some test shots to see how it felt. These people will typically answer all the questions you have, give you advice on what tools to use for a specific setup, and can just be a great resource for discovering more about the industry and how everything fits together on set.
Rental houses will also be your best friend in the event a piece of gear goes down on set. When gear is rented through the rental house, there is a high likelihood that it has gone through their own quality control to ensure it’s going out to you in tip top shape, and if anything were to happen on set, they often have backups or extra options to ship out to you as soon as they can. This is a huge benefit over using gear that is owner/operated or sourced from a single person. A set with any semblance of a budget is losing money and content for every second of downtime that hasn’t been planned, and if that is something you could have controlled as the cinematographer, camera assistant, gaffer, etc., people will be looking at you to blame. Having the safety net of a rental house in these situations can be your saving grace in the event of a catastrophe.
Gear mishaps are also less likely to happen under a traditional rental house, as agents will typically urge anyone renting to take advantage of the free checkout day provided to do their own quality control. Even on a one day shoot, the renter will pay for one day’s worth of gear, but will get a free day to test and build it in a space provided by the rental house to ensure it’s all working properly, and until late morning the day after the shoot to double check everything is packed away and in working order. This is especially helpful too, as you get a free day to get any technical help needed from experienced and qualified people, and you might even find alternative gear to rent to make your package more usable if you find any issues that may arise during your build.
How to rent
In my personal experience, working with rental houses seemed confusing when I was starting out. I didn’t have much of a guide when it came to telling me how to interact with what seemed like an established system with norms and guidelines I wasn’t familiar with. Going there for the first time, though, I realized it was much less intimidating than I thought it would be (I’m obviously speaking from my own experience with the rental houses I use on a consistent basis, so mileage can vary depending on your local rental house). Setting up a rental is as easy as calling or emailing a sales representative, giving them a list of what you’re looking for, pickup and return dates, and that’s about it. You will most likely need to set up a profile with your name, address, insurance, etc., with them on your first rental, but it is generally a very straightforward process.
The one thing that I believe deters young filmmakers from rental houses is insurance. Most rentals require you to have some form of insurance to provide, but lower cost rentals often allow an insurance waiver where you will pay a deductible for any gear that is damaged/lost up to a certain designated amount, at which point production insurance will be required. Obtaining insurance will be covered in another post soon, but it is not as difficult to obtain as you may expect, and is a good idea as a freelancer to have it. A while back, I shot a project where I rented a set of Lomo Anamorphics that required insurance, and at the time I was not covered. I had two options – one was to speak with an insurance agency and set up a yearly coverage plan for myself to cover any and all rentals, or go through an online insurance agency that specializes in one time production costs for the duration of the filming period. Ultimately, we decided on the latter, and having no prior experience in dealing with insurance, had a Certificate of Insurance (COI) in hand the next day for a reasonable cost. Insurance seems daunting, but with the right guidance and understanding, is a fairly simple process that will save you in the event of an accident and make it easier to rent gear with less anxiety.
Once you become familiar with the sales reps at your rental house over time, they should come to know your preferences and habits of renting fairly quickly, so making friends with them is a great way to expedite the process of taking gear out. You can add to your rental request up to the day you pick up (make sure to double check if your rental house has any restrictions on last minute rentals first), but note that the longer you wait to request a piece of gear, the less likely it will be there when you need it. Gear cancellations can be tricky and something to watch out for – some rental houses require you to pay in full within 24 hours of pickup and half if it’s within 48 hours if an order is cancelled, and others will only charge if they lose a rental to another client, so be sure to check with them if your production schedule seems to be shifty. Most places are understanding, and will give you a heads up if there’s a conflict or somebody else looking for the gear. Soft holds are also an important tool to utilize, as it lets the rental house know that you’re looking for gear, but are unsure if the production will be for that particular set of days, or at all. They can put a note in their system and will keep you updated if the gear is being asked for, which is helpful for all parties involved.
If you are a camera assistant or DP who is looking to rent a camera package, it is always a great idea to build the package as far as you can with the gear that you’ve rented to ensure every single piece works properly and nothing is missing. Same goes for if you’re renting lighting equipment – even if there is great quality control at your rental house, it’s a good habit to get into to test (or at least check) your gear before you take it out to ensure there’s no discrepancies between you and the rental house. People make mistakes and miss things, so it’s better you find out there than when you’re far away on set and can’t do anything about the problem.
Make sure to remember where everything goes in each case that you take gear out of. This both helps save time at wrap so that you’re not fumbling around trying to figure out which piece goes where and saves the quality control staff a lot of headache when the gear comes back neat and organized. If you want to make your rental house friends happy, always return gear the way it was given to you. Coil cables properly, put gear into the foam where they belong, don’t mix and match cables and other small items in different cases than the ones they came from. Speaking from experience, every person that has to rearrange cables and take time away from more important work during a busy day will dislike you a little bit more for every extra second it takes for them to clean up your mess.
One last tip is to make a habit of checking your inventory list before you leave checkout and before you return the gear. You’ll be less likely to miss anything on both ends and it will save a lot of trouble. Double checking everything is never a bad habit to get into and it will make you less prone to making several trips back to the rental house to grab/return things on your personal time, or anyone else’s.
There are countless routes you can take as a freelance filmmaker or production house with acquiring and renting gear, and the choice is entirely dependent on your situation. Many people enjoy being owner/operators of their own gear. Being able to build a usable kit on the kind of sets you work on and charge a rental for it is great – especially when the gear is paid off after long enough, which will result in a net profit any time you rent/kit it out after that. A great option for being an owner op of something expensive that doesn’t always leave the gear closet for rentals is consignment. Rental houses surely need to own some gear to ensure stability in inventory, but support from outside filmmakers helps to expand that inventory to offer an even wider range of products at a lesser risk to them. For example, let’s say a rental house owns an Alexa Mini that goes out often and is in high demand, but either wants to allocate funds to build or maintain another section of their inventory instead of purchasing a second, very expensive Mini package. A local DP buys an Alexa Mini that they know is going to be working for them, but wants to make their money back as fast as possible. Being able to benefit from one another, the DP’s Mini can sit on the rental house’s shelf to go out after the house owned Mini, and when it does, the DP will receive a certain specified percentage for each day of rental. This drives more people in to the rental house knowing that the gear that they want will be there when they need it, and helps the filmmaker that wants to own a piece of gear but needs help fronting the costs of it. Not all rental houses consign gear, but many do.
There are tall tales floating around Boston of a DP who purchased a Dana Dolly when it was first released and consigned it at a rental house to be the first one in line for rentals. His $1,200 purchase then amounted to a ~$20,000 investment because it was used so frequently. This is a strategy for many other filmmakers as well – invest in gear that the rental house needs and let it rent out. The money will eventually be made back, and as long as it remains in style, it will continue to make you money. Silly things that you might not often consider like batteries are often a need of the rental house and easy to make money back on. Main point – if you’re interested in consigning gear, having a good working relationship with your rental house can get you more on your consignment, you can start a conversation about which products are in demand that they have a need for, and it also helps to build a partnership by having some of your personal gear live in their building.
Whatever your situation may be, introducing yourself to your local rental house(s) is never a bad idea, even if you don’t plan on renting from them at that moment. They will often have special events that bring the community together like lens, camera, and lighting demos, workshops, panels, etc., which is a great place to learn and network by meeting other filmmakers that share your passion. They will generally be a great hub and resource to utilize as a growing cinematographer, camera assistant, etc. There is a high chance you will utilize the resources of a rental house at some point in your career, so understanding the ins and outs early on will help to make that time seamless for your production when it arises.
Photo Credit: Sam Lucca