While Panavision paid£3m to relieve the ailing company of its stock, rivals at The Visual Impact Group stepped in to form a new specialised video-based drama arm 24-7 Drama - employing five former VFG staff with a£1m leg-up to spend on new HD and SD stock.
Former VFG technical liaison Kevin Oaten, who now fills the same position at 24-7, says changes in the market are affecting all rental firms - regardless of their genre or specialism. "There's been a decreasing level of return on investment over the past seven to 10 years," he observes. "Broadcasters have to fill more channels than before but there are no more advertising funds. This ultimately means facilities companies are being driven harder and either have to make the gear work for a very long time or take a loss on their investment."
Difficult market conditions have pushed some companies out of the kit rental side of the market altogether. Digital Garage ditched its equipment over a year and a half ago and now focuses on providing crew hire and a diary style service to technicians. Its founders Adrian Bell and Chris Openshaw also retain their own freelance jobs as a sound recordist and cameraman respectively. Bell recalls of his kit hiring days: "The rates don't justify the continual reinvestment necessary - there's a bottom line that can be charged for equipment."
Yet, according to Broadcast's first sector survey on this market - which polled 174 UK hire outfits and received responses from 34 - the average turnover for a hire company is a respectable£3.5m. This overall average has been taken from companies that tended to fall into two turnover bands - the£10m+ group that make up the top 10% and the£6m and below group made up of everyone else.
Opting out of kit hire in the face of adverse market conditions appears to be the exception rather than the rule - with over 96% of respondents stating that they were planning to invest in new kit over the next year. Last year the average kit spend was£800,000, according to our survey, meaning the average company spent 37.3% of its turnover on kit.
If anything, the majority of hire outfits in the UK are looking to expand. Responding to what their business plans were over the next 12 months, 40% of hire outfits said they were planning to open a new office while 53% hoped to branch out into other specialised areas.
Hiring Post is a case in point. Launched by reseller Altered Images, the company has moved into the events market and recently supplied Avid workstations and a Unity LAN-share for the Confederations Cup football tournament.
"People approached us because of our experience with Unity," says Hiring Post managing director David Johnson, "so we began to launch ourselves into a very specialised form of hire."
On the other end of the scale are the big one-stop shops like Metro Broadcast, which has extensive post-production facilities alongside its hire operation. Associate director of broadcasting, Barry Noakes, argues that adding any extra services is a sensible move. As well as general post, Metro has the Snell & Wilcox Archangel image restoration system, CEDAR audio restoration and Scratchbox.
Six-year-old company Smith and Singh also has a picture fixing service based around Archangel. Mike Smith, who runs the company with partner Bal Singh Sanghera explains that producers find such additional services attractive as they are useful and do not cost as much as a separate booking at a full-blown facility.
In terms of programme genres, respondents to the survey placed factual clients as their most important, closely followed by entertainment, sport and drama.
However, this doesn't correlate with the amount of work these companies have actually done in these areas. It's sport that comes top here, supplying 96% of companies with work, followed by factual (90%) and then children's (80% - but rated last in terms of importance).
Drama only comes joint fourth in supplying work (tying with corporate and children's) with 73% but the kudos of working on high-profile drama like Doctor Whoor Shamelessis an undoubted pull for most hire companies.
In fact, 61% of respondents have admitted to taking on a high-profile job even if it paid worse than a low-profile job - but it appears to be a winning strategy as it's something the top third of respondents (in terms of turnover) have all done.
While news isn't rated as highly in terms of importance, it is as valuable in terms of work as drama. Prime Television's head of operations Chris Earls notes that since 9/11 there's been a steady increase in business from news-based genres as budget cuts have restricted travel for large news crews.
Kit-wise 24-7 Drama's Oaten identifies a definite shift away from 16mm film to digital camera formats. Barry Bassett, managing director of VMI Broadcast, adds that "many important programmes, particularly dramas", were destined to use Super 16 but due to cost converted to HD.
Picture Canning Company's joint managing director Leslie Zunz, meanwhile, reports an increasing demand for PD150 DVCams and a migration to the new HVR-Z1E HDVcam on drama productions.
Although HD formats are growing in significance it's still very much a format of the near future. While the hire market is well stocked - with 78% of respondents claiming to offer HD cameras, the most-asked-for camera format is still DigiBeta, followed by DV cameras.
Sony's HDCam was ranked third in our poll in terms of importance and its HDDVCam fourth, while Panasonic's Varicam came in eighth behind a much older format, Beta SP.
This ranking is likely to change next year as UK broadcasters such as Sky, departments within the BBC and Discovery start to demand that shows are delivered in this format.
HD kit still appears to be a big international pull though - of the 90% of respondents that claim to have done work with international customers, every single one is HD equipped.
On Sight has seen most of its HD activity in post, with facilities renting HD VTs in high numbers. "HD is confusing for people," observes Simon Craddock. "There are different frame rates and it has generally brought complications back into TV."
Editing systems are also providing good business for specialist hire companies and the trend for directors and editors to cut either on location or at home has increased demand. When asked what their most offered or asked for editing systems are, the hire outfits' first choice was the good old Avid online which garnered 42% of the vote. This was followed by two other Avid products - the manufacturer's offline editor (39%) and its Symphony system (27%). Apple's desktop editor was only ranked fourth in our poll, with 27% of companies stocking or having clients who have requested this system while Final Cut Pro HD came fifth with 24%. Only DS Nitris HD came below Apple in this poll with 21% while 15% simply listed "other".
Although there's been a growing trend for big factual production outfits such as Pioneer, Darlow Smithson and Parthenon to buy their own non-linear editing systems, most still use hire companies for cameras and backup support.
Darlow Smithson - which has its own in-house Final Cut Pro-equipped offline facility - dipped its toe in the HD water by hiring a couple of Panasonic Varicams from VMI for the making of C4 factual drama E=MC2. Pioneer has gone one step further, buying two Varicams to cope with its growing co-production slate for US broadcasters such as National Geographic. Head of production Kirstie McLure explains that Pioneer rents the equipment back to itself at what McLure describes as "decent rental rates", which will help pay off the cost of the cameras.
However, the production company still has a service deal with hire company Top-Teks which stores and maintains the Varicams until they are needed. Pioneer also continues to hire in DigiBeta equipment, although McLure says most camera ops come with their own gear. "We will rent in specific equipment, such as dollies and additional lights but with the amount we are producing in HD it made sense to buy our own cameras."
Aside from diversifying or adding specialist services, there's general agreement among clients that hire companies able to maintain and support their equipment at any time will always be the real clincher - especially given the technical spec that international broadcasters now require for HD delivery.
Our survey reflects this with 97% of respondents currently offering technical support and 84% offering a repairs service. Some hire companies are now pushing this expertise to the fore. On Sight has capitalised its engineering experience by opening up its Upstairs facility to copy tapes and digitise video on to computer drives. On Sight's Craddock explains: "We have engineering experience, particularly in HD, and hire companies that are just box shifters will struggle unless they have the technical back-up."
Hire comes in different varieties: dry, damp and wet. The distinction is between just bringing in equipment for staff to use, having a specialist piece of kit that needs an experienced operator to run or supervise it and renting gear with a full crew from a single supplier.
While not all hire companies offer crewing those that do see it as an advantage.
"Most people want crew as well as the equipment," says Chris Earls, head of operations at Prime Television. "They want to feel confident that the camera operator knows the kit. From our point of view we like to have someone we know going out with the kit because they're going to look after it."
But the Picture Canning Company's Zunz says while most production companies are prepared to pay for proper crewing, the demand for crews is falling. "More and more programmes are being shot by the production staff using DVcam," he says.
Digital Garage co-founder Adrian Bell observes a new trend in the increased demand for local crew in the regions, particularly Manchester and the south-west. "Some programme budgets do not cover travel and accommodation so producers are looking for technicians in the area of the shoot," he says.
Metro Broadcast offers a similar service through its affiliation with Euro Crew Worldwide, which works with 300 facilities in 45 countries. Recently Metro has arranged crew for Celebrity Love Islandthrough the network.
London freelancers pay Digital Garage a fee to be on the books and expect what Bell calls "a reasonable amount of work" to cover that. Hire companies offering crewing have a list of preferred technicians, build the going rate into the price charged to the client and then pay the individual crew the appropriate amount.
In terms of manpower our sector survey found that those who have full-time crew on their books have an of average 10 staff, while freelancers on average numbered 160 on each crew hire outfit's books.
Chris Earls says Prime is "picky" about who it puts on its books. It usually starts a hopeful out on an easy production to ensure they can do the job and that they get on with the director. "The level of work is pretty high but the production companies are squeezed with the budgets," he comments. Zunz at Picture Canning observes that, on the whole, hire companies do not make money from crewing.
Bectu and Pact have agreed minimum rates for freelance crew, including camera assistants, make-up artists and riggers. This ranges from£61 for an eight-hour day for a runner through to£117 for a camera assistant. DoPs and sound recordists are in the position to negotiate rates, which, at the top-end, can be£350 to£400 a day for the former and£250 to£270 for the latter.
There's no shortage of hire companies dealing in broadcast equipment but the crucial thing for producers and production managers is finding the right bit of kit to do the job, with all the necessary technical support, at the right price. The nature of the show dictates what equipment is required, with budget increasingly having an influence.
Paul Hanrahan, head of production at Reef Television, approaches two to three companies for quotes, after which negotiations can begin. "You always have a company in mind," he says, "and the relationship between the production manager and the facilities manager is pivotal. If there is loyalty and trust there, it is easier to ask for extra kit, deal with problems or come to an agreement on price." Reef specialises in arts and lifestyle programming; its current productions include the daytime shows Sun, Sea and Bargain Spotting, Uncharted Territoryand Foreign Exchange. These rely on DV, with a professional crew for the main shoots and production staff shooting second unit. When travelling abroad with equipment the team has to know it will work on arrival. Hanrahan says that in this case the relationship with the hire company can be more important than price as one has to know that the gear has been checked and that if something goes wrong a replacement can be supplied quickly.
Ros Borland, producer at Gabriel Films in Scotland, agrees on the need for proper checking before going on location. For its upcoming werewolf feature, Wild Country, shot on HD, the Sony HDW-750 HDcam hired from Hammerhead TV in Glasgow was found to be faulty during a camera test. The hire company replaced it at short notice and the shoot went ahead.
Even in studio work there is a need to hire in equipment, particularly when there is a specific requirement. BBC Studios works on productions for independent producers and external broadcasters as well as for the BBC. According to Mark Lewis, a resource manager for BBC Studios, there are a number of considerations in hiring equipment other than the gear itself. "There's the safety aspect, with a full risk assessment on the equipment being brought in," he says.
Reliability is another factor, both in terms of the equipment and the company supplying it. "If the schedule changes and there is a need to requote, we expect the hire company to respond," says Lewis.
BBC Studios has a list of pre-vetted companies from which it will hire, which, says Lewis, saves time as there is the expectation that the gear has already been tested. If the kit is specialised it is assumed a trained operator will be sent along as well.
The UK's hire companies: what they've made and what they offer
Company Credits Services Formats Crew composition
Aerial Camera Systems Athens 2004, Sky Sports Football, C4 Racing Crew, dry hire DigiBeta, DVC Pro, SP, SX, DV Cam, Mini DV, HDCam, HDDVCam, studio/OB C
Aimimage Camera Co Strictly Come Dancing, The DVD Collection, BBC documentaries Crew, dry hire, post, studio DigiBeta, DVC Pro, DV Cam, Mini DV, HDCam, HDDVCam D C E S A G
Alias Smith and Singh (Broadcast Hire) City Hospital, Long Way Round Dry hire, post DigiBeta, DV Cam, Mini DV, HDDVCam
Aquila TV Star Portraits, Date My Daughter, Brummiewood Dry hire, post DV Cam, Mini DV E
Awfully Nice Video Company World's Strongest Man (BBC), Vegas Virgins (Lion Television), Crufts (BBC) Crew, dry hire, audio DigiBeta, DVC Pro, SP, SX, DV Cam, Mini DV, HDCam, HDDVCam, studio/OB D C S
Broadcast Services Not disclosed Dry hire, post, audio DigiBeta, DVC Pro, SP, DV Cam, Mini DV, HDCam, studio/OB
Central Waking the Dead, Red Cap, Silent Witness Crew, dry hire DigiBeta, DVC Pro, SP, SX, DV Cam, Mini DV, HDCam, HDDVCam, studio/OB C E S
Charter Broadcast Athens 2004, Britain Goes Wild, European Football Championships (ITV) Crew, dry hire, post, audio DigiBeta, DVC Pro, SP, SX, DV Cam, HDCam, HDDVCam, studio/OB S
Fine Point Broadcast Live 8, Wimbledon Tennis, Premier League Football Dry hire DigiBeta, DVC Pro, studio/OB
Gearhouse Broadcast Celebrity Love Island, X Factor, British Lions Tour (Sky Sports) Dry hire, audio DigiBeta, DVC Pro, SP, DV Cam, Mini DV, HDCam, studio/OB C
Gensis Television Big Brother, House Doctor, Blue Peter Crew, dry hire DigiBeta, DVC Pro, SP, SX, DV Cam, Mini DV, HDCam, HDDVCam D C E S A G
Green Door Films Life in the Undergrowth, Fifth Gear, Ancient Discoveries Crew C
Hammerhead TV Facilities Outlaws, Uncle Dad, Wife Swap Crew, dry hire DigiBeta, DVC Pro, SP, SX, DV Cam, Mini DV, HDCam, HDDVCam, studio/OB D C S G
Kitroom Monkey Scrapheap Challenge (C4), Big Kids (C4), Strictly Come Dancing (BBC) Crew, dry hire, audio DigiBeta, DVC Pro, SP, SX, DV Cam, Mini DV, HDCam, HDDVCam D C E S
London Editing Machines Marple (LWT), Malice Aforethought (Granada), Passer By (BBC) Dry hire
Metro Broadcast Hampton Court Flower Show (HD for NHK), Nodojiman (HD for NHK), ITV promos Crew, dry hire, post, audio DigiBeta, DVC Pro, SP, SX, DV Cam, Mini DV, HDCam, HDDVCam, studio/OB D C E S A
MGB Facilities Not disclosed Crew, dry hire, post DigiBeta, SP, DV Cam, Mini DV, HDCam D C E S
New Day Pictures Lutyens' Building with Wit, Nuggets Crew, dry hire, post HDDVCam C E S
On Sight Not disclosed Dry hire, post, audio DigiBeta, DVC Pro, SP, SX, DV Cam, Mini DV, HDCam, HDDVCam, studio/OB
Picture Canning Company Cosmetic Surgery Live, Scrapheap Challenge, BBC Holiday Crew, dry hire, audio, studio DigiBeta, SX, DV Cam, HDCam, HDDVCam, studio/OB D C E S A G
Presteigne Broadcast Hire Wimbledon 2004 Championships, Athens 2004 Olympics Dry hire DigiBeta, DVC Pro, SP, SX, DV Cam, Mini DV, HDCam, HDDVCam, studio/OB C
Prime Television Bands Reunited (MTV), Ancient Weapons, Trafalgar (BBC) Crew, dry hire, post, audio DigiBeta, SP, SX, DV Cam, Mini DV, HDCam, HDDVCam D C E S G
Pro Motion Hire Not disclosed Dry hire DigiBeta, DVC Pro, SP, SX, DV Cam, Mini DV, HDCam, HDDVCam, studio/OB
Procam Television Tonight with Trevor McDonald, Peep Show 2, Trouble in Paradise Crew, dry hire, audio DigiBeta, SP, SX, DV Cam, Mini DV, HDCam, HDDVCam D C E S G
Shift 4 Supernanny, Masterchef, BBC Culture Show Crew, dry hire, post, audio DigiBeta, DVC Pro, SP, SX, DV Cam, Mini DV, HDCam, HDDVCam, studio/OB D C E S G
Shooting Partners Facilities Make Me a Supermodel, Sex Inspectors, Brainteaser Crew, dry hire, audio DigiBeta, DVC Pro, SP, SX, DV Cam, Mini DV, HDCam, HDDVCam, studio/OB D C E S A G
The Cruet Company Not disclosed Crew, dry hire DigiBeta, SX, DV Cam, Mini DV, HDCam, HDDVCam D C S G
The Hire Company Spring Watch (BBC), Legions (Diverse for Channel 5), Big Cat Week (BBC) Crew, dry hire, post DigiBeta, DVC Pro, SP, SX, DV Cam, Mini DV, HDCam, HDDVCam, studio/OB C E S G
The Hiring Post The Confederation Cup, Top Buzzer (Worlds End TV), The Jacket (Serious TV) Dry hire E
Transmission (TX) Doctors (BBC), Little Britain (BBC), Supervolcano (BBC) Crew, dry hire DigiBeta, DVC Pro, SP, SX, DV Cam, Mini DV, HDCam, HDDVCam, studio/OB D C S G
Video Europe England vs West Indies Cricket, Athens 2004, South Asian Federation Games Crew, dry hire DigiBeta, DVC Pro, SP, SX, DV Cam, Mini DV, HDCam, HDDVCam, studio/OB D C S A
Visual Impact Group Judge John Deed, Hotel Babylon, Giblet Boys Dry hire, studio DigiBeta, DVC Pro, SP, SX, DV Cam, Mini DV, HDCam, HDDVCam, studio/OB
VMI Amazon Abyss (BBC), Guns, Germs and Steel (Lion TV) Crew, dry hire, post, audio DigiBeta, DVC Pro, DV Cam, Mini DV, HDCam, HDDVCam D C E S A G
D=DoP, C=Cameraman, E=Editor, S=Sound recordist, A=Audio editor, G=Grip