Special Report on…Taking Stock: go big or go home – In the digital age, footage is goldÉ If you’ve got the cash to keep up. As the big companies get bigger and smaller archives go niche or get out, brand new players are making for…

In the new golden age of factual production, the value of what can be found in vaults, film cans and digital storage systems worldwide is reaching new heights. Not just illustrative filler anymore, stock is a hot commodity commanding top dollar....
October 1, 1997

In the new golden age of factual production, the value of what can be found in vaults, film cans and digital storage systems worldwide is reaching new heights. Not just illustrative filler anymore, stock is a hot commodity commanding top dollar.

Accordingly, the stock footage and archive market is in the middle of what economists would call a shake out. It’s volatile, with big players expanding and new players looking to join the game. The Image Bank, a wholly owned subsidiary of Eastman Kodak headquartered in Dallas, has recently acquired Archive Film of New York. Getty Communications of London has swallowed both Los Angeles-based Energy and Fabulous Footage (an international company headquartered in New York), becoming one of the largest libraries in the world. Compared to even a year ago, the market is almost unrecognizable.

International broadcasters are also waking up to the value of the material they’ve stockpiled. Some, like the bbc who started in 1936, have been in the archive business since the beginning of television.

‘What was perceived many years ago as a storage facility, a dumping ground, is now a valuable resource heading into the 21st Century,’ says Jeffrey Hopkinson, manager of visual resources at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. ‘Our only asset is our programming. We’re not a company that churns out bathmats and accessories.’

The large broadcast players are not alone in recognizing an opportunity. There is new competition from production companies. GRB Entertainment of Hollywood has over 40,000 tapes in its vaults. ‘As the prices go up, it makes more sense to be self-sufficient,’ explains Todd Barasch, grb’s marketing manager. ‘That means maybe taking a bite out of the apple ourselves, and bringing in some revenue as well.’

His sentiments are echoed by Ben Strout, vp of operations at Nineteenth Star in Indianapolis. ‘As producers, we have a lot of footage that could be sold. It takes a lot of time to catalogue, organize and market it, but it is a resource that we will have to exploit.’

Beyond the professionals, there’s also a new player making significant inroads: the amateur cameraman. The world is armed with video cameras, capturing the footage that producers such as grb buy to build reality-based shows like Storm Warning. Even professional cameramen are no longer satisfied to be stringers for a broadcaster. They cover the globe, capturing the risky and obscure shots the market craves.

For producers, it’s coming down to a choice between a handful of big companies and a number of niche suppliers. Several components are at least partially accountable for the market’s trend. More specialty channels devoted to non-fiction programming has meant an increased demand for stock. A new player, the Internet, is promising to become a distribution channel which may rival tv, and will require huge amounts of creative. On top of that, there’s also the high cost of maintaining a successful archive. As Andy Roeder of the Image Bank in Toronto points out, ‘Middle and small-size companies can’t invest the money, so they get bought out or they die.’

The Cost of Preserving the Past

In the Digital Age

Maintaining a library isn’t a half-hearted undertaking, and it promises to get more expensive. ‘The biggest issue facing us is how we move forward into the digital world,’ claims Patrick Montgomery, president of Archive Film. Tentative steps have been taken into the digital age, but prohibitive costs accompany most electronic forays. Some libraries have started the journey by switching to digital catalogues on searchable cd-roms. London-based aptv updates theirs as often as three times a year.

Inexpensive computer muscle has made cataloguing millions of feet of archive a reality. Specific frames are searchable and shots are referenced by thumbnails, saving researchers hours of expensive search time. Creating such a database is time consuming, though. The London Film Archive has been transferring their cards to computer for the last 18 months, upgrading 3,500 of their 30,000 titles.

There is an unexpected upside to the process for some archives; as a by-product of the cataloguing, a wealth of forgotten material is being discovered. ‘We’re going through our older collections and finding things that are so rare we didn’t even know they existed,’ claims cbc’s Jeffrey Hopkinson. ‘In the 60s, Adrienne Clarkson did a documentary called British Bands that had the very first performance of The Who.’

CBC News’ cataloguing process is so advanced that it’s only 18 hours behind broadcast. Everything is recorded shot by shot, and is uploaded into the mainframe at midnight each evening.

While electronic catalogues are a reality, the same can’t be said for film storage and manipulation. Storing film on a server in realtime means gigabytes of expensive memory, and there’s still no agreed-upon compression format. The most common are Apple’s QuickTime and mpeg, but they can’t be edited, meaning their main value is an ability to replace sample tapes. Digital Video Disk (see dvd sidebar) is heralded as the possible storage format of the future, but different versions are being touted for different markets to prevent bootlegging, so there will likely be no standardization soon.

The most exciting digital possibility for both producer and archive is the Internet. Still in its infancy, the Net has bandwidth problems, realistically preventing the transfer of anything more than small film clips or catalogue information. One second of footage roughly equals 24,000 pages of text, and systems are yet to be put in place to handle that transfer load in real time. Systems like Sprint’s drums, a high-bandwidth network for industry creative, promise a partial solution, but for now producers will still need hard copy to assemble projects. The technology will appear in the next few years, but affordability is still an issue.

Archives have also expressed concern about security on the Net. They’re justifiably careful about copyright, and have to safeguard investments. Partridge Films of London have looked into watermarking photos, but no solution has presented itself for film.

Archives are waiting for technology to solve the problems the digital advances have created. Solutions shouldn’t be far off, however; Corbis, a Washington-based company founded by Microsoft magnate Bill Gates in 1989, acquired The Bettman Archive’s 16 million images last year with the intention of selling them on-line. It doesn’t take an economics genius to guess that Gates isn’t far from a solution to protect his investment.

The one thing the digital revolution hasn’t changed is film. Digital video still doesn’t match its definition. DigiBeta is the video standard of choice for most producers and broadcasters, but tape is a risky investment for archives. Formats change constantly, and that means having to keep anachronistic machines in good repair for playback.

‘To be honest, the only genuinely tested archive format is film,’ claims Peter Fydler, director of London’s Film Images, ‘We certainly don’t have the money to transfer every ten years onto whatever is the video standard. Film has lasted a hundred years, so we’re pretty sure it’ll last another hundred. Whereas a lot of things like 1970′s video are completely ruined now. There’s no guarantee that Beta SP won’t be knackered in 20 years time.’

Because broadcasters live in a digital world, and archives on film, transfer costs are a huge budget consideration. An hour in a transfer studio can run between us$200 and $1,000, and is still only enough time to convert ten to 20 minutes of film. Archives have to be selective about what they convert. Sometimes only the most commercial material earns back the cost of conversion. ‘We’re not a museum and we’re not a non-profit archive,’ points out Patrick Montgomery. ‘Any individual image has limited value to us.’

All that said, even with the extreme costs of setting up a digital infrastructure, the electronic and archival worlds are a perfect match. Video composition and blue-screen technology give producers the freedom to create any time, in any place, limited only by their imagination. Innovators like aptv have broken ground with a digital satellite link connecting London and Washington to instantly transfer broadcast-quality images for their clients. The costly gadgets that are now breaking the backs of stock companies will soon become commonplace, pushing the market further away from the scratched and grainy filler that producers once thought stock entailed.

Producers Choice – High vs. Low End

Of course, new technology comes with a price – and that’s the rub for producers. The average rate for a second of stock is us$30 to $50, but prices can rise into the hundreds. Many corporations like the cbc mark up the cost of rare footage as much as 50% over normal rates. At the beginning of April, the bbc introduced an internal levy, sometimes making it cheaper for bbc producers to look to outside sources for footage.

While shooting new footage is still comparatively expensive, producers who rely on archival footage are finding it more costly now that stock is in greater demand. ‘You have to be creative in your production design,’ says Tom Cochrun, president and ceo of Nineteenth Star. ‘You have to be deliberate. I think the increasing costs cause one to be more diligent in their planning.’

Price has caused many producers to look to niche suppliers. grb searches the Web for footage, finding it in the hands of amateurs hoping to make a bit of money or get a shot at fame. In many cases, the footage has been recorded on digital cameras at broadcast quality, cutting out budget-devouring transfer costs

While video is widely available, the shake-out in the industry has meant that producers looking for quality film stock have fewer options. Some producers hold a dim view of the new mega-suppliers, according to the head of a large u.k. production company. ‘It has meant slower service. They don’t need us as much anymore. Prices are rising because there is less competition. The archives are making their money by volume in a number of areas, so they don’t have to cater to producers. They’re also under the corporate thumb more, and in many cases won’t indemnify us because they’re afraid of getting sued if the rights to the footage aren’t clear. Sometimes you have to check shot by shot to make sure you’re covered.’

Some of these concerns are echoed by archivists themselves. While producers usually prefer more immediate contact with the companies who supply them, the dawning of the mega-archive threatens to make that proximity a thing of the past.

Smaller and niche archives see this as an opportunity. ‘I think companies that give personal attention and expediency in their sales will survive,’ says Jeff Goodman, president of the Producer’s Library Service in Hollywood. ‘There is a downside to the larger companies becoming so big.’

His claims are echoed by Mark Trost, president of New York’s F.I.L.M. Archive. Trost points to the fact that his company can turn orders around in a matter of hours, where some archives, especially those of the broadcasters, need days, and the producer has to know exactly what they’re looking for.

The large players are well aware of this concern. ‘The challenge is to be strong in all categories and still provide access in immediate form,’ says Image Bank’s Andy Roeder. To initiate the type of technology which can make that level of service a reality in the digital age requires the backing of a company like Kodak, especially considering the fact that a good generalist is constantly looking to flush out their archive.

The key to success for the bigger suppliers is constant growth, filling holes with the best material, whether that means purchasing archives or licensing them from niche players. The reach of international players like Getty and Image Bank offers small suppliers advantages. ‘We get approached by a lot of the small production companies to sell their product on their behalf because they know the expertise that we bring to the table,’ says Michael Carpentier of Fabulous Footage.

That longevity and experience is important, especially when it comes to rights and research issues. One of the advantages larger players enjoy is their ability to research on behalf of producers, sometimes even being able to tell them who has used the footage in the past. They also tend to know more about obscure copyrights. Roeder points to examples like the famous Hollywood sign, which actually sits on private property and therefore requires licensing, or the fact that during certain historical periods, the lighting on the Eiffel Tower in Paris has held the copyright of an artist. This kind of knowledge at a producer’s fingertips helps avoid nuisances like lawsuits. While doc producers largely sit under the umbrella of the fair-use doctrine, an increasingly competitive market could mean more and more exceptions to that rule.

Size and experience have helped anticipate deficiencies in the market. ‘People like the Image Bank are going out and financing the production of really high-quality stock footage with model releases [waivers],’ says Patrick Montgomery of Archive Film. ‘In a lot of cases the footage is better than you could shoot yourself. You could never afford to shoot that kind of quality.’

The film, he maintains, is just the beginning. ‘There’s an awful lot of organization, marketing and infrastructure that goes into running a library. A lot of people naively think: ‘I’ve got this footage. I’ll run a few ads and become a stock footage library.’ It doesn’t work that way. Just because you’ve got a bunch of lumber doesn’t mean you can suddenly build a house.’

That’s a Wrap

There doesn’t appear to be any love lost between players in the footage market. Many small archives have accused Carpentier of lowering his prices to drive them out of business. It’s a charge he vehemently denies. ‘There is no benefit to any of the larger players to start a price war. It’s not going to help them or the clients. We’re in a highly creative industry where the quality of the product is very important, and if the market starts accepting lower prices, they are going to get lower quality.’

Quality and price are both issues which will continue to affect producers who use archives. Too many factors are presently at work in the market to even guess at what its future might look like. One thing is certain – as the end of the millennium approaches, broadcasters are going to require retrospectives of where we have come from, and there is only one place to get that history. As hectic as it seems now, the market is going to get even busier.

Also in this report:

-Stock Trivia

-The deal on DVD

-Oddities: A roll call of the strangest requests

-TVNZ packs them in

-I Shot the Sheriff: The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department goes Hollywood

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.