The Rental House Rules: How to Get the Most of Your Equipment Rental House

There is a game in the world of moviemaking that you are most certainly set up to lose.

It revolves around the never-ending battle to keep your gear current. As soon as you upgrade your camera, your sound equipment is out of date. As soon as your sound is up to the current specs, your best light blows a bulb. How does one even begin to stay ahead of the curve when a must-have product is released every week?

While moviemakers can never keep all of their gear current all of the time, there’s a hack that allows your film to boast the latest cameras, lenses, grip, lighting and sound gear. It’s called the rental house. Here’s a step-by-step guide to working with a rental house and getting the gear you need.

1. Determine What to Rent

The most difficult part of the rental process can be determining what you want for your shoot, vs. what you need. Does your story actually call for that $75,000 Carl Zeiss lens? Will it truly make a difference in what you are shooting?

There are several factors to consider when deciding what gear you should rent. First, of course you should determine what gear you already have access to at no cost. While you can always rent gear of a higher quality, free gear helps you determine an overall budget for your project.

Next, research how long it will take you to get up to speed on the gear that you are considering. Have you ever used the product before? Have you used a similar product? Often, when you see a product demonstrated online, it’s by someone who has had hours of experience with it. That crane you’re sure you need might take hours to construct and months to perfect your technique with.

An employee scans equipment at rental facility The Camera House. Courtesy of The Camera House

If you’ve never used the gear before, it might be worth bringing on someone who has. Ideally, you would pay to have a pro operate the gear in a way that optimizes its full potential. Sometimes a potential crew member might relish an opportunity to practice with that piece of equipment and walk away with footage that demonstrates they know how to use it well.

Finally, consider the end goal of your production. How will the viewer most likely experience your film? If you know that your film might only screen on a big screen once or twice, but that most viewers will watch it compressed on their phones or computers, that lens that would perfect your lighting in a dimly lit theater may not be necessary.

Once you’ve reasonably determined your end product and made a list of the gear that is truly essential to rent, take time to prioritize your list. Make sure the gear you absolutely must have is at the top of the list, in case it costs more. If you just can’t afford certain items, make sure it’s the gear at the bottom of the list.

You may deal with a local brick-and-mortar rental house, or an online option, especially if you want gear that your local house doesn’t carry. “I have many friends who have had lenses shipped to them with great success when they were shooting in places that didn’t have rental houses nearby,” says filmmaker Erin Brown.

However, David Pannkuk, a rental specialist at Birns & Sawyer in Los Angeles, prefers the in-person experience. “It’s usually good to rent from a house that is close to you, in case something goes wrong or there’s a problem with the gear.”

Some top rental companies for camera, lighting and sound with locations around the nation are AbelCine, Alternative Rentals, Keslow Camera, Panavision, ARRI Rental, Division Camera and Radiant Images.

A client preps a Red Epic camera with ARRI/Zeiss master zoom lens in an AbelCine L.A. rental bay. Courtesy of AbelCine

2. Rent Around Your Schedule

After your rental list has been solidified, there are several logistical items that you should prepare before contacting the rental house. Most rental houses have their rental requirements featured prominently on their websites. Being familiar with their policies can save you valuable time.

“Knowing your production dates, as well as a little bit about the rental house, is helpful. Every house is going to give you a different experience,” says Pannkuk. “Know what the base rental costs are before you come in, if possible.”

However, paying the house’s per diem rate might not be your only option. Brown saved budget dollars on her short film “Hotwire” by planning her shoot so that rental house policies worked in her favor.

“You want to think strategically about your shoot days,” she says. “Some rental houses count weekends as one day, and others have three-day weeks. You can save a lot of money through smart scheduling. Some rental houses gave us more time than others. For example, prop houses typically give you more time than equipment houses. And some places gave us a ‘build day’ to get our gear and props incorporated into our set.”

3. Navigate Insurance

It’s also important to know the house’s policy on insurance. Most rental houses require an industry-standard $1 million liability certificate. Insurance for your production can be secured through a number of providers (a quick Google search should find them). Policies can be expensive; some might not fit into an indie budget.

Though many insist on it, other houses might forgo insurance but charge you a bit more for your rental. Ten percent is a common upcharge in the industry for renters without insurance. There are also houses that allow you to place a credit card deposit on the equipment in lieu of insurance. (It can be common for a house to insist on a deposit in addition to the proper insurance.) These deposits are refunded when the gear is turned in unharmed.

4. Go Over the Game Plan with Staff

Talking to a rental agent before it’s actually time to rent can be helpful on a number of levels. Perhaps you are renting a light that will require you to rent a generator as well for an exterior shoot. Or a dolly that requires a specific mount for the camera you are using. Or additional batteries for the full length of your shoot. Having a detailed conversation with your rental agent can nip these challenges in the bud.

Some renters are afraid of looking clueless, and fail to ask these questions. Pannkuk is reassuring: “Be honest about what you know and what you don’t. It gives the agent an idea of how to work with you. Being new at this is nothing to be ashamed of.”

A tip: Mention to the agent what sort of vehicle you will be picking up the gear in. Certain pieces of gear come in cases that might be too large for a standard car. They may require a truck or multiple cars. “Having a car that allows you to pick up equipment makes a huge difference, so you don’t have to borrow a friend’s car,” says Brown.

Birns & Sawyer, a rental house in North Hollywood, is over 60 years old. Courtesy of Birns & Sawyer

5. Don’t Break It!

It goes without saying that protecting rented equipment is of the utmost importance (but we’ll say it anyway). Careers have been ended when a filmmaker became responsible for replacing a $50,000 piece of gear, thanks to a crew member’s carelessness. If your name is on the contract for the rental, make sure the gear is within your scope of vision at all times. Use caution and care until you are familiar with a piece of gear.

This applies to other crew members who will handle rented gear, as well. If you are directing, it can be helpful to ask a producer to personally supervise the care of the rented gear. Asking that producer to have their name on the contract, perhaps in addition to your own, can assure their interest in the gear’s protection. No one who hasn’t been trained on the gear should handle it at any time. Returning gear to its case whenever it’s not in use should be protocol on your set.

“Make sure that there’s someone designated to be responsible that all the gear is together before leaving a location,” Pannkuk warns. “Sometimes things break and it really is no one’s fault. Accidents happen. It won’t be the first time your rental house has dealt with it. We are on your side, but we do need you to take care of the issue. Good crews tell us about when gear breaks. They don’t try to hide it.”

6. Make Happy Returns

Checking with the house upon the time of rental about what their expectations are for returns can save a great deal of stress and money. When returning the gear, complete any required paperwork and get a receipt.

Pay attention to how the equipment is to be repackaged. Wise moviemakers will take a picture of how gear is packed in a case before removing it, so that they can pack it exactly in the same fashion before returning it.

Never use any sort of product or substance to clean gear without having cleared it with the rental house. “Most rental houses will clean the gear themselves when it is turned in—as long as it’s not damaged, you should be fine,” says Pannkuk.

“There is a quick return and then the actual return, however. The person receiving the gear does a once-over, but this isn’t the final check in—that happens later. Getting an email about missing gear is not the end of the world. Most houses will allow you to find the gear and return it within a reasonable time without penalty.”

Toyland: CEO Robert Keslow (in blue) in a prep room at Keslow Camera. Courtesy of Keslow Camera

With some attentive care, and obedience to your rental house’s policies and procedures, you’ll keep in the good graces of those who hold the keys to the kingdom of moviemaking toys. MM

John Bucher is a writer, director and narrative designer who teaches at the L.A. Film Studies Center. He’s currently writing a book on storytelling in Virtual Reality.

This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Complete Guide to Making Movies 2017. Top image: Panavision’s busy Woodland Hills, California location is one of its many rental offices across the globe. Courtesy of Panavision.

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