Alternative Gear Sources: Look Beyond the Rental House For Budget-Conscious Gear Shopping

The question “how can I afford this gear?” has led many a moviemaker to countless hours of research and rummaging.

You can certainly find decent deals from tried-and-true local rental houses—I’ve begged my way into discounts over the years—but more than ever, there are great alternative resources providing affordable equipment across America.

Community Film Centers

Local nonprofits—there’s Chicago Filmmakers and Los Angeles’s Echo Park Film Center, to name just two—can do wonders, though they have their limitations (a waitlist often being one). Stephanie Hough, equipment and facilities manager at Portland, Oregon’s Northwest Film Center, explains that the inventory in their Equipment Access program has been acquired primarily through donations and grants. “The budget for replacing and maintaining the inventory is limited,” she says, “but the prepping and testing is very thorough.” Other upsides? “We offer several rental specials on equipment packages throughout the year, we don’t require production insurance, and the deposits are set fairly low, closer to [parent company] Portland Art Museum’s insurance premium, rather than for the full value of the equipment.” The NWFC also sells Kodak film stock and offers several analog film camera rental options.

To the north, Seattle’s NW Film Forum offers similar resources that include rental options of all manner of analog and digital equipment, film and video edit labs, and fiscal sponsorships. Again, there is a dedication to film as well as digital: NW Film Forum offers a professional Aaton Super 16mm camera package, for example, as well as a host of Bolexes and other non-sync options.

Brooklyn-based cinema arts nonprofit MONO NO AWARE has a similar model, though the fullest range of equipment offerings—from a line of professional Super 8 cameras to full Super 16mm kits with Cooke lenses—are only available to students of their various filmmaking classes, says founder and director Steve Cossman. MONO recently acquired $3 million worth of high-end film lab equipment, making them the first full-service nonprofit film lab in the U.S.

“We are also now official distributors of Kodak motion picture film stock,” says Cossman, “and we offer developer chemistry and kits from Photographers’ Formulary.” Moviemakers looking to produce work on film can now go entirely through MONO from start to finish, even if they want to finish in the digital realm—as its new film lab will also feature a Spirit 2K film scanner.

Expect artist rental rates at nonprofit resource centers to be around $50-100 a day for simple HD cameras and DSLRs, and $25-$75 a day for simple Arri or Lowell-style lighting kits as well as basic boom or mixer sound production packages. Sometimes for higher-end equipment, rates are too good to advertise. NWFC, for instance, does not list the artist rate for their donated Arri Alexa; neither does MONO for their high-end Super-16mm cameras. Reach out directly to learn the full range of equipment and services available.

Another tip: Don’t ignore media-access or community television stations. Modern community media centers like Portland’s Open Signal and New York’s Downtown Community Television Center have rebranded as respectable arts organizations in their own rights, producing award-winning content. The funding for community media centers often allows for some exceptional inventory at ridiculously low rental and/or membership rates.

Equipment-Sharing Apps

Peer-to-peer lending sites like ShareGrid and KitSplit are building momentum as well, as platforms where any equipment owners, individual or organizational, can list equipment, name their own rental prices, and make money off gear when it’s not in use. The sites vet users and uses a rating system, similar to Airbnb’s, to keep folks responsible and honest. (Conflict resolution systems are in place, too.) Both require insurance from renters, but short-term policies can be purchased from the sites, or a deposit for the value of the equipment can be withheld for the rental duration.

New York-based KitSplit acquired competitor Cameralends earlier this year, and is in the midst of an expansion to L.A. KitSplit co-founder Kristina Budelis describes the platform’s continued evolution: “The original idea was to make it strictly a peer-to-peer sharing network, but the response from rental houses has been overwhelmingly positive, with many reaching out to find out how they can get involved.”

Convenient Online Marketplaces

A big surge in online resources has made all manner of gear more readily available than ever. Sites like LensRentals.com, BorrowLenses.com, and LensProToGo.com have ship gear directly to your door with return postage, similar to Netflix’s old DVD rental system. These sites all have their own ways of dealing with the insurance question, offering plans if you don’t have your own. There are even options to purchase gear: LensRentals, for example, has a program that reimburses the cost of the initial rental if you decide to buy the gear that you rented. This keeps their inventory fresh.

This isn’t the end of traditional rental houses, of course. As Michael Koerner of Portland, Oregon’s Koerner Camera Systems says, “Without lens projectors and depth gauges and 24-hour support systems in place, who are you going to call at 2 a.m.?” A large establishment’s customer support and attention to detail might be hard to come by elsewhere. Whatever you decide, then, make sure to do thorough research, and weigh the risks vs. the savings. MM

This article appears in MovieMaker‘s 2018 Complete Guide to Making Movies, on newsstands now. Featured image: The rental counter at Portland, Oregon’s Northwest Film Center. Photograph by Jason Quigley.

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