Equipment Renting vs. Buying: A Media Conundrum

In the new and sometimes dizzying world of co-working office spaces, software as a service (SaaS), service subscriptions and peer-to-peer rentals, the film and television industry is changing dramatically in how it acquires technology and serves its customers. Producers who see the future and make the right choices are being rewarded with significant growth and a healthier bottom line.

Aaron Kaminar, owner of creative services company Image Flux, is one who, after much reflection, decided to shift from purchasing to renting equipment to deal economically and efficiently in the fast-changing environment. “In post-production, it can be difficult to predict how much work will be coming down the pipe,” said Kaminar who rents workstations, render nodes, and other hardware from our firm. “Renting helps us quickly ramp up.”

In a temporary setting such as Kaminar’s, workstations can be custom-tailored using rented equipment and software for everything from editing and CG to motion graphics and online/finishing. “When a project is over, we're not left paying for an investment in hardware that would depreciate quickly,” Kaminar said. “Equipment can be expensive, especially when it is only needed for a short period.

For Kaminar and others, renting allows access to a wide range of customizable products at a fraction of the cost, from PC workstations to Macs and shared storage. Many companies and individuals already have invested in a software license for example. They might just need the higher end hardware to make a deadline.

In addition certain rental companies, including ours, offer technical support services that range from a quick phone call fix, to remote access support, up to complex troubleshooting with several techs well versed in IT, A/V broadcast, and post production systems on site. If equipment fails in the final hour, there are firms offering after-hours help, same-day delivery and will call pickup.

Although many production companies are self-contained, occasionally they need to acquire hardware upgrades for special projects. Hammerhead Productions, which has digital studios around the globe, experiences this with their visual effects and animation projects which utilize GPU rendering.

CG supervisor Ken Pellegrino of Pit Viper, a new company that is a successor to Hammerhead, says such work often calls for non-traditional render farm configuration. “I’m more in need of multiple high-powered graphics cards in my render nodes and workstations, sometimes four in a single tower,” Pellegrino said.

An Alternative to Renting

Rental is not for everyone, including editor and VFX designer Tanner Christensen. Even though technical support is not always available and he lacks the autonomy to troubleshoot, Christensen nevertheless prefers to purchase all of his own systems for his company Tanman Post.

“When you own, you get to know the nuances of your own system,” Christensen said. “Whenever I go somewhere else to work, and they don’t have this plug-in, or I have to use a workaround for something, I don’t like it.”

Others see a drawback to renting setups with the latest and greatest of equipment and software, and then trying to use them in a collection of workstations in a shared office. Such a situation presents a multitude of distractions, hindering productive work on equipment that is tied to a clock.

Christensen admits that keeping up with the latest and greatest of everything can get expensive and annoying. “Personally I hold off upgrading as long as I can,” he said. “But it depends on the project. If I need to be on the latest system to get it done, I won’t hesitate to get it.”

The Leasing Alternative

Leasing may be the best alternative when business needs fall between technology for a day versus a decade. Leasing involves a commitment of usually a year or more and is a good option if you foresee more invested situations for some time to come. Of course you must read the contract’s fine print to assure that you receive sufficient technical support throughout the lease.

The upfront costs for setup may be significant for owners vs. renters, and the company that owns its equipment will likely be locked into financing over time. Conversely, an owner will not have rental expenses or fees and will own everything outright. Owners also have little to no problem receiving basic technical support, which is usually wrapped into the purchase.

For an industry once trapped by big-budget style technology expenses, the film, TV and gaming industry now has options for everyone, from the indie operations financed by crowdfunding, to the mega studios whose products replenish finances weekly. While some in the field continue to favor the flexibility of renting equipment, others in the know are now finding it valuable to lease or purchase equipment to meet their needs. The key is to understand your position and needs as best as possible to make the right decision. Above all, the cardinal rule in this new era: Be flexible.

Sarote Tabcum, Jr., is the CEO of VFX Technologies, Inc., an eight-year-old company based in Culver City, Calif.