Below are some important questions that you may want to consider answering before renting a Pre-Lit Green-Screen stage in Los Angeles. Think carefully as you answer…
* Are you given budgets that don’t allow for ridiculous hidden fees and outrageous overtime charges from studios or any other location?
* Ever wonder why film studios charge you for their employee sit there and “run” the stage when just about any other business that I know of includes their employees salary in on the cost of goods or services. Isn’t that like paying a parking lot attendant his hourly wage plus the fee for the parking space?
* Does it seem a bit convenient that the studio owner tells you due to insurance reasons you must rent all the gear from them? Who the hell made up this BS rule? Btw, it’s a lie.
* Do you not understand why any service-oriented business would charge you for Internet access that they already have? When did they become an ISP and don’t you need a license for that?
* Have you ever asked a studio owner “How much does Xerox copies cost” as if they were a Kinkos?
* Ever wonder if the studio owner had to max out his or her credit card just to make the production happen?
* Why would there be a last second emergency or rush fee to filmmakers? As if we could afford the time loss. They really want to charge us more in an emergency???
* Are you just plain tired of hearing what you cant do for the same price and how much more everything cost if you want your show to be better?
* Have you ever felt as if the stage owner was doing you a favor renting you his or her place even though you were paying full price?
* Does it seem like studios owners don’t give a crap about repeat business?
If you answered, “YES” to any of these questions, I have some relieving news for you…
Because of how well distributors on my shows pay, (that’s a whole other story) I had to light and shoot for other people just to make ends meet. Being that I am the luckiest guy on earth to have the best two parents ever, that taught me good manners (thanks mom) the value of customer service (thanks dad) I had no problems finding work. I already had a lot of lights and cool gear for my own shows. I had so much gear I had to sleep on the floor on my one bedroom condo in Hollywood Hills because there was literally no room for a bed at all.
Luckily I had vaulted ceilings because there were 16 foot shelves from the front to the back with pathways to the front door and bathroom. The kitchen was so packed with Kino-flo cases that I used them to eat breakfast off of. My Phantom hydraulic Dolly was also my computer chair. I remember a producer friend of mine Michael B. asking me if the condo floor was made of wood or cement, truly worried that the floor would cave in if it were wood due to all of the weight of the equipment.
On top of all that I had 2 other filmmakers renting floor space to sleep on. All in less than 1000 square feet. Needless to say I was ready for a bigger space. Back to the point (Sorry) Understanding customer service, having a 1-ton, 3-ton, 5-ton truck, a condo packed full of gear, and being a Jimmy Jib, Stedicam and hydraulic dolly owner/operator finding work in the film business was not so hard. I ended up shooting all over the world and of course more times than I could count here in LA. While working in LA I ended up shooting quite a bit in a very odd 8,000 square foot 2nd floor studio with about 15 standing sets and a very cool white cyc in Korea Town and based on all the “big” couches that were in there, I could only imagine what was usually shot there.
The owner was not much there much because he was also a set photographer that stayed extremely busy. I even ended up working with him on several shows. He told me he had the studio to shoot his own gigs in and store his photography gear but the studio was losing money every month. Turns out, the utilities in a commercial facility alone were crazy expensive. He went on to tell me that he had an option for another 2 years coming up in 6 months and he was considering letting it go after that 6 months because of the loss but thought it was ashamed because he was at the end of a 20-year lease and the rent itself would be dirt cheap for the next 2 and a half years.
Always quick to make a win-win deal I asked if he would mind letting me take over the 2 year option giving him the right to shoot anytime that the studio was down (not rented) at no charge. This also gave me 6 months to move all my gear in and revamp all the sets at the same time. To cut a very long story, short he ended up not being able to move after the 6 months, so I kind of inherited a partner and as much as I hate partners, I have no complaints about him at all in fact I learned how to run a studio much faster because of him and I still consider him one of very few “real” friends out here in Los Angeles.
With good manners, gratefulness and customer service truly being the top priorities I took on what was to be a full time job within itself. Before going forward in the story, lets clearly define true customer service because all of the studios that I had dealt with bragged about how good their customer service was too.
According to my dad, customer service is the assurance of a client’s good experience even at the business owner’s own expense. See, what my dad inherently understands, is what’s known as the “lifetime value” of a client. Lifetime value does not always correspond with the profit of just one interaction or transaction between him and a client. It was what he ultimately profited from his very dear clients over the course of his business. Sometimes that means no upfront profit at all and maybe just a referral to another client if lucky.
My dad never tried to win them all. Sometimes it appeared that he lost some of the profit but he never lost the client. Now don’t get me wrong he has fired clients on more than several occasions being that there are always bad apples in any bucket. While I’m on the subject of bad apples it turns out that one of the biggest lessons I learned was, why these studio owners acted the way that they did and it was not 100% their fault or our fault as filmmakers. It was those few bad apples that would break things and not tell the owner and often steal equipment right out of the studio that would oftentimes leave the studio owner feeling as if his or her clients were the enemy .
As cool as I am to film producers, you would not believe how often productions broke things without saying a word and/or stole gear from me during those first two and a half years. Fortunately, I quickly realized was it was rarely the producers that were breaking or stealing anything, it was usually the very underpaid crewmembers that entered the stage already feeling as if they were owed more than their agreed upon days pay. Even worse, crewmembers with this mentality usually have absolutely nothing at all to lose.
What I discovered (in very hands on way) was the actual deep-rooted problem with most of the Los Angeles studio owners. Most of them do not start out with such an unappreciative attitude however little by little, they slowly begin to resent and even want to punish innocent filmmakers for their past losses and what they consider dishonesty of past “bad apple” productions/crewmembers. They have convinced themselves by acting rude and obnoxious they would minimize the future loss and by hitting us with surprise fees, make up for pass losses. Revenge strategies do feel good and appear to work in the short term but ends up killing the lifetime value of a studio client.
The scary realization that I came to, was that if I did not do any thing to change what was going on, I too would end up just like those crabby studio owners that I so wanted to get a way from. I had to come up with a strategy that would reduce the possibility of damage and minimize the ease of theft. Of course dreaming that we producers will stop hiring low end help is a waste of time. Hell, I even use to hire the $50 -$100 a day bottom of the barrel labor on my own shoots especially in other countries where that’s all I could find on short notice.
Keep in mind I am not at all talking about key crew positions at all but like many of you, I understand there is almost no room left in today’s budget for a ton of profit, let alone $500 – $750 a day grips and electrics. With that said there are exceptions where budgets do allow for more efficient crews i.e. where time is of the essence based on actor schedules, extremely dangerous stunts or capturing once in a lifetime events. In these cases it only makes sense to hire the very best at a healthy day rate.
So the only thing I could do is rearrange what I had control of and that’s where timing came in. The studio had been very successful with unbelievably heavy bookings but even with all those bookings a standing set studio required the help of several builders, full time cleaning crew, and a lot of my personal attention making sure everything came together for the clients but when one of the builders could not make it, I had to be the builder along with all the other positions like cleaning, repainting and the laundry list of other responsibilities.
To sum it up it was a hell of a lot of work for very little return on the time investment. At the same time I was being hired out as a DP, Gaffer, Camera operator, Jib Operator, and Steadicam operator 16- 20 hours a day. My lease had only 2 months left before it was time to renew it for another 5 years. The problem was because I was finishing out a 20 year lease the owner of the building thought the space was all of a sudden worth three times more than what I was currently paying.
As crazy chain of events would have it, the recession hit full swing right about the same time my lease was up and building owners started losing tenants left and right the cost per square foot of warehouses plummeted to in some cases less than half. This was my chance to compete with the big boys. I was finding 10,000 – 20,000 square foot buildings everywhere for $.40 – $.50 per square foot with big time parking. After having 2 offers rejected and looking at more places than I can remember, me an my realtor almost by accident stumbled on the ultimate film making studio with its own mini back lot and double fenced parking.
For the rest of this story checkout the video at www.atomicstudios.com or read it in the about us section of our site.