The standard axiom in the broadcast industry and post in particular has always been that it's not about the kit, it's about the people. But while that held true at the rarefied heights and there have undoubtedly been stars in the editing, compositing and grading fields, on an everyday level it's been much more about the kit than anybody cares to acknowledge. As far as facilities in particular were concerned, kit was reliable. You could walk past an editing suite and know exactly where it was on the books - how much it cost you, how much it was earning - at all times. It was, in short, a known quantity in a world of constant change.
However, business models are changing. Office rental space in London's West End is the costliest in the world - 30% higher than the inner city area of Tokyo - and is currently rising at 10% per annum. Couple that with static rates at best and an increasing ubiquity and homogeneity of kit as desktop performance and functionality progresses inexorably onwards, and the kit suddenly looks like one of the weakest links in the chain. Buying it might be cheaper, but maintaining it still costs, and it's difficult to wow producers when their 12-year-old daughter is playing with the same editing package at home.
'Facilities aren't making any money,' says David Brady, managing director at Soho Editors. 'They've got a huge overhead, they're all trying to do the same thing, they've got loads of staff- it's just not working.'
It's no wonder then that many are currently investigating tapping into different revenue streams, and where better to start than with the watery bag of flesh and bone that's been sitting in front of their nice shiny kit all these years.
Agencies and editing agencies in particular are Soho's equivalent of the new black. Along with training, which is also garnering increased interest, it represents a switch to people-centric investment and an acknowledgement that talent at all levels is what drives the industry.
It is hardly going to be a licence to print money, however, with companies already established in the field casting a rather jaundiced eye on the newcomers.
'If you're facility A, why would someone from facility B phone you and get an editor off you?' asks Brady. 'You'd be feeding your competition and no one wants to do that.'
Irene Hanley, managing director at TOVS, the longest established freelance agency in the country, agrees and raises the issue of client confidentiality. 'People like their secrecy,' she says. 'Production companies sometimes don't like giving us too much information about their programmes in case we tell someone else who then pitches for it.
So I'm not sure how it can work with a facility company doing it.'
However, one of the first of the new agencies to break cover, Clear Cut Pictures' full talent set-up Clear Cut Talent, reports that 'everybody has been really receptive'. Nicky Smith heads the operation. 'We were always being asked if we knew any editors so we knew there was a need,'
she says. 'So we decided to make it more formalised and professional and put the procedures and systems in place to do that. It's a real benefit to this business. We can hire a production manager to clients to work on location, then hire them an editor and that can bring thepost-production business back as well.'
Clients so far have mainly been production companies, though Smith says that at least one other facility has approached them for a Final Cut Pro editor. 'That may not always be the case,' she admits, 'but if people want good quality editors then I think they would use an agency whoever they are.'
The Farm's agency, The Family, meanwhile has been going for just over three months and has around 30 editors on its books. 'Clients are less likely to be other facilities,' says the company's Nicky Sargent. 'Our ideal client I suppose is a production company that we have a relationship with anyway that for reasons of the production isn't going to edit in our facility or is busy and we can't fit them in. Our Avid facility fills up very quickly and for the past three years we've been managing projects in other facilities. This was another way of ensuring that we can keep an eye on that process before we try and fit them in for the online, grade and sound dub.'
Others remain a bit more sceptical of the whole process. 'It's poacher turned gamekeeper,' says Frontline managing director Bill Cullen. 'It could all work out fine, but it could be a case of: would you really want to hire a freelancer from one of your rivals? If you can keep it completely separate as a business, then fine, but I'm not convinced myself.'
From a standing start in February, Clear Cut Talent now has over 60 editors on its books, which indicates a definite demand among the editing fraternity for agency representation. It also means that it's got over the first paradoxical hurdle in setting up an agency business.
'It's a bit of a Catch 22,' says the Independent Post Company's Simon Frodsham. 'You aren't going to find a decent number of editors unless you can demonstrate you've got work for them, and you aren't going to attract work unless you've got decent editors. It took us six months to get 10 editors on the books and that was when there was virtually no competition.'
In some ways, Frodsham was ahead of his time, setting up IPC 14 years ago with top comedy editor Mykola Pawluk (Little Britain, Coupling, Blackadder). As desktop editing kit first began to descend on the post scene in the early 1990s the duo set about creating a virtual facility concentrating on talent rather than the technologies which the operators drive.
Frodsham warns that anyone new to the agency business is going to find it as tough as IPC first did, but adds that IPC grew the number of editors on its books by over 50% last year, bringing the total to over 120, and that he was still turning away work. He also maintains that the company was turning away editors too, as he estimates that only around one in five of the editors who apply to get on IPC's books is taken on.
That hints at a lot of activity behind the scenes, and certainly there seems to be an increasing number of agencies being set up in all fields across the broadcast and film industries; not just editing and not just by facilities.
Meanwhile, training specialist Escape Studios has set up a recruitment arm to formalise the process of finding its graduates work and Soho Editors is expanding massively on the international stage, setting up six new offices in the Middle East, west coast USA, South Africa and Ireland. 'If it's quiet in Soho, there may be some work in Germany or in Paris. Whereas with other companies, if they're quiet they're quiet,' reasons Brady.
The question is though, what's driving this growth? It seems there are both macro and micro economic factors at work. On the macro scale, Alison Wren at Pinewood's Edit Base says that while the broadcast side is fairly steady, features are in a fairly dreadful state. 'You can always tell when it is quiet because the phone starts ringing with people you may not usually expect to hear from looking to sign up because they haven't been able to find work for themselves,' she says.
'There's been a fair bit of that going on recently.'
On the micro-economic scale, meanwhile, agencies certainly have their advantages, as one of their most useful functions they perform is negotiation. Freelancer Francis Robertson has a list of top credits including Strictly Come Dancing and Hurricane Katrina. 'Most directors and producers don't have agents,' he says, 'and when I'm working with them in the edit they'll turn round and say something along the linesof: 'You don't mind working overtime, do you?'. No I don't, because my agent's negotiated me time and a half for any overtime that I do. They tend to get a bit jealous then. The benefits are quite huge really.'
Robertson is on the books at IPC where Frodsham reckons that, on average, he can get them between 5% to 20% more. Over the course of a year - and he also says that his editors work an average 40 to 45 weeks a year - that can build up to a serious amount of cash.
Of course, it all depends on what you're paying for and different agencies do offer different levels of service to both clients and operators. Some, especially some of the newer breed of web-based agencies, are little more than searchable databases. Others, recognising that the relationship between director and editor is one of the most crucial in making a production work, are more akin to dating agencies in the care they take to match the participants.
'You can only be as good as the people you represent, but you can complement that with a service that's accurate and makes the right matches: that's what our work is about,' comments Irantzu Lau-Hing-Fan, booking manager at Blueberry. 'Matching a documentary editor to a client, say, is about the nature of the subject, the flexibility of the individual, their character, how they work in a team, how they feel about long hours and so on.'
There's even a distinct element of management that can creep in. Soho Editors' Brady talks of actively promoting editors to clients to help them get the kind of work they want, while Frodsham says IPC tries to help develop editors' career paths and even nurture them in some cases.
'We try and tailor make our operation for each editor,' he says.
Of course, not everyone is happy to use an agency in the first place, whether facility owned or otherwise. Envy managing director Dave Cadle is one who has issues with client confidentiality. 'We use a pool of six recognised editors that we pull in if someone's sick or the client wants something a bit different,' he says.
Others, such as dry hire facility Unit, depend on them. 'We can ring one point of contact and from there can offer clients a huge range of editors for any kind of job they want,' says managing director David Peto. 'Plus, if there was ever a problem with an editor, we then have another layer whose responsibility it is to sort that out.'