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The Clip’s in the Can

The Clip’s in the Can

Articles - Directing

Your movie opens with a panoramic view of Paris, France. A large crowd has gathered on a cobblestone street to protest the closing of a local zoo. An elephant and a kangaroo are brought to the demonstration. You introduce your main characters. Soon they’ll fall in love. Suddenly, an out-of-control news van races down the street. Pedestrians leap for their lives. The van flies off the road, bounces down a hill and explodes in a huge fireball. Opening credits end. Unfortunately, so does your moviemaking dream—as you’ve just spent 99 percent of your $500,000 budget (and will need the other one percent for the airline ticket home). The solution? Buy stock footage, of course.

Whether you’re shooting a feature film, TV show, commercial, music video or documentary, the hundreds of stock footage houses in business can provide nearly any shot imaginable at a fraction of what it would cost for you to shoot it yourself. These include aerial and underwater clips, animals, exotic locations, sporting events, crowds, explosions—even historic archival footage. And with many companies now offering samples of their collections online, it’s easier than ever for a moviemaker to find that perfect complementary clip.

Scott Dittrich, owner of Action Sports in Malibu, California, started his footage company as an offshoot of his production arm nearly 20 years ago. “I’d previously been selling stock footage as a sideline,” the sports documentary moviemaker says. “But when I saw I could charge a lot of money, I started [the footage business] in earnest.” Dittrich’s specialty is extreme and professional sports, from snowboarding to hang-gliding. Though he currently sells to movies and TV shows, his primary customers are ad agencies. “The early ’90s saw a huge transition in advertising,” he says. For instance, now when a company wants to shoot a commercial on a beach, instead of waiting days for the weather to be perfect, “they just buy a shot of a guy surfing.”

While Dittrich owns a lot of his footage, he, like many other stock footage companies, also represents other moviemakers, licensing their collections to his clients for a percentage. “I represent 50 to 75 other people. One guy does motion-control time lapse. Another did all the high-quality 16mm [location shots] for Princess Cruises and got to keep all the outtakes. Another shoots animals.” And if Dittrich doesn’t have what you want, he can shoot it for you. “We just shot a helicopter landing on top of a hospital for [the TV show] ‘Scrubs,’” he says.

How easy is it to buy stock footage? Most companies have Websites that allow you to check their library online. But as Stephen Parr of Oddball Film and Video in San Francisco notes, “When you’re making a movie or documentary, you don’t always have time to look on the Web.” Often, it’s easier to simply phone a particular footage company and tell them what you want. This explains why specialty houses have become so popular, as opposed to places that are more generic. “Independent companies hold the industry together,” continues Parr, who has worked with moviemakers such as Spike Lee and Ridley Scott. “There’s one that does just aerial footage. If that’s what you need, you know he’s the guy.”

Sometimes a production doesn’t know exactly what they’re looking for. When that happens, Parr says, “We operate as a think tank and send them stuff. We provide a service for people.” Oddball, as its name indicates, specializes in unusual, offbeat shots and has over 50,000 clips in its archive. They too not only own a collection, but represent over a dozen shooters. Parr says they’re always looking for “films that fell through the cracks. A different light on things.” Included in the Oddball collection is a clip of Gary Cooper introducing a swim meet, old industrial films and some old home movies.

If the footage company you’ve contacted thinks it may have the clip you need, they will quickly send it to you for review, sometimes even over the computer. “Someone calls in and needs the screener now. The messenger is on the way while still on the phone,” Dittrich jests. If you choose to use any shots, a simple agreement is drawn up specifying dollar amounts and the allowable uses of the footage.

The main buyers of stock footage are movie and TV show producers and ad agencies. License fees for stock footage vary depending not only on the length and format of the footage, but on what it’s being used for. “A one-time sales meeting for Dodge is going to cost much less than a worldwide commercial for Dodge trucks,” says Dittrich.

Mari Richardson Ray, owner of Wish You Were Here, a footage house in Burbank, California, that represents shooters, concurs. “It’s not what the product is valued at, it’s how it’s used.” Ray is, however, willing to work with a client. “If they only have $300 for a corporate presentation, we’ll go to a collection where that rate is acceptable.”

Fees at most companies are quite competitive. Stock footage is usually sold with a 10-second minimum. License fees for features start at about $60 per second plus another $20 per second for each additional medium (DVD, CD Rom, Internet, etc.). Often, however, all rights can be bought in perpetuity for around $100 per second. Broadcast television on the national level goes for around $50 per second, slightly less for cable. A local TV commercial is also about $50 per second, but can rise upwards of $130 per second for a national spot. An in-house corporate video is about $30 per second, music videos slightly more. There are also lab charges to transfer the film to tape, usually sold in 15-minute minimum increments (about two to three clips). A VHS tape costs around $100, Beta SP or Mini-DVD $160, Digital Beta $250.

Some companies also sell royalty-free footage. This allows the buyer to use the clips for whatever medium they desire as often as they want. Usually it’s something generic like skydivers, kids at play or establishing city shots. Costs can be anywhere from $300 to $600 for a tape of 15 to 20 clips.

Ray’s company, Wish You Were Here, specializes in representing international collections. “We started out by organizing a group of travel filmmakers from a wide variety of locations and it snowballed out from there,” she says. Her collection, she adds, is quite diverse. “We have entire countries, cultures, people, festivals.”

There are many other types of specialty houses as well. FootageBank of Venice, California, concentrates on High Definition shots, representing production companies and cinematographers who shoot in HD. “We’d been in the footage business since 1985 and felt this was a window of opportunity,” says Paula Lumbard, company president, whose customers include broadcast entities, television shows, documentaries and music videos. Her library includes HD aerial shots, nature, location, establishing shots and a standard library of footage as well. Fees for HD clips are the same as for standard film and tape as the cost is driven by use, not format. “We just finished our second year [in the HD business],” says Lumbard, “and the consciousness of high definition as a medium continues to grow.”

All shooters of stock footage must have the rights to the material they are licensing. In most cases this is not a problem with generic clips. But don’t try selling a shot of a professional football game without first obtaining rights from the NFL. The same is true with certain establishing shots. A generic shot of downtown LA is fine. But a close-up of a particular building, especially if a logo is shown, would require clearances. Some items can be surprisingly expensive. For instance, the Hollywood sign is owned by the city of Hollywood and they charge a stiff fee for public airings.

There are many other specialty companies. OceanFootage of Pacific Grove, California specializes in water shots—sharks, seals, waves, coral reefs and divers. Prairie Pictures of Arlington, Texas collects storm footage—hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and lightning. Jazz on Film in New York City has a large musical archive featuring clips of performers such as Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Miles Davis and Ella Fitzgerald. For news clips there’s CNN Image Source in Atlanta. Sports footage can be found at ESPN Footage Licensing and HBO Sports Archive. A list and description of many stock footage houses can be found online at www.stockfootageonline.com.

No matter what your need, the clip is there. Just check out a Website or make a phone call and save yourself, oh, a few hundred thousand bucks. Unless you’re looking for an excuse to visit Paris, that is. MM

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