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Rentals plan for charge of light brigade

LED becomes industry standard beating tungsten

The famous call may be “lights, camera, action!” but for Hollywood equipment rental houses, things are a bit reversed these days. It’s lights that are providing the action, and those who paid attention to rentals during the recent rapid changeover from film to digital cameras stand to benefit the most.

LED lighting, which uses light-emitting diodes to illuminate scenes in a more energy-efficient manner and with less heat than traditional tungsten lights, promises to become the on-set industry standard.

But new technology can wreak havoc on gear shops’ balance sheets, and digital equipment poses a special dilemma. Since it’s updated much more frequently than mechanical equipment, there’s increased pressure to make money back at a faster rate. And because digital gear has a shorter lifespan, it’s tough for rental shops to amortize their costs over that brief time.

“People got burned with camera equipment (in 2002), because just after ‘Star Wars: Episode II ( — Attack of the Clones)’ was shot using the Sony F900, there was very little lag time until the next round of digital cameras came out,” says Johnathon Amayo, veep of production and post-production for Moviola. “So, basically, if you carried the F900, once the (lower-cost) Red came out, you had a camera that was worth one-tenth of what you paid for it; no one wanted to rent it anymore.”

With feature and TV production firmly committed to digital technology, today’s digital cameras are a safer bet than earlier models, and rental houses feel secure stocking popular brands like Red and Arri, certain of their ability to rent them out into profitability.

But lighting is a harder call.

“Every cinematographer is going to have their own taste for how something should look, and right now, there are still questions about how different brands of LED lights will interact on a set,” says Chris Rogers, national account manager for Cinelease. “So we’re waiting to see what our customers decide they like.”

Moviola has taken a support-oriented approach to renting equipment. In addition to handing gear to a client, the company offers courses on how to use it, along with 24-hour assistance to customers who run into problems.

Rogers acknowledges that rental houses will have to keep re-evaluating their business model, because the new wave of digital technology will force more frequent equipment updates, and possibly higher rental rates on newer gear. For instance, Rogers says Cinelease is seeing heightened interest in the Arri L7 LED lights and the Litepanels lights — which are less bulky and less power-hungry — but notes that leases on such equipment will be more expensive. “With something like an LED light, you’d have to keep your rental rate higher so you’re sure to see a return on your investment,” he says. “But you’ve also got more room to negotiate on old equipment, so people do have options.”

But higher pricing can be tricky. Post-production specialists like Joe DeOliveira, whose work includes series TV, have to find ways to make the math work. “Largely, my bottom line doesn’t change just because the technology has changed,” DeOliveira says. “So, if you’re using an LED light that is really expensive but also very small, maybe you save a truck or a driver, and then the cost is justified.”

Notes John Gresch, veep of lighting products for Arri: “The dilemma for a rental house (is) they have to see a profit, and I think we’re looking at a longer arc for the transition to LED lighting than we saw with digital cameras.”

And while Litepanel marketing veep Chris Marchitelli says emerging high-performance LED technologies will speed up the transition, he understands that there will have to be significant demand before rental houses order more product.

Rogers says the real change will come when LED lights are on everyone’s equipment list. “That’s how we know it’s time to buy,” he says, “because we know we can rent them out.”

What: LED lights are becoming the biz standard over tungsten.

The takeaway: Tech advances can be frequent, and equipment rental houses must accurately assess demand to avoid overstock.

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