Undercover Stock

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July 1, 1999
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Ours was a fact-finding mission. The goal was to test the service provided by stock footage libraries, as experienced from the point of view of a producer who doesn’t have any contacts in the stock realm. Even established filmmakers contend that service varies widely from one company to the next. If this is the case, the search for stock has the potential to be one of the most frustrating aspects of filmmaking, particularly for the novice producer. But is it a genuine concern or simply the carping comments of disgruntled doc-makers? We set ourselves the task of finding out.

First, we enlisted the aid of four producers (Kip Spidell, Ellis Entertainment in Toronto; Ken Wiederhorn, Andrew Solt Productions in Los Angeles; Christian Bruyere, Omni Film Productions in Vancouver; and Mick Csaky, Antelope in London), who provided us with actual stock footage requests for projects they have in the works or recently completed.

Based on the information supplied by these producers, we asked stock companies for footage of: the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica, Yugoslavia; helicopters dropping police rescue teams during the July 1997 Soffiantini kidnap case in Italy; Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh; U.S. marshals from the 1960s Civil Rights era; street life and harbor traffic around Sydney, Australia, in 1898; clipper ships in heavy weather at the turn of the century; heavy weather around Cape Horn; jaguars chasing down prey; and bonobos (chimp-like primates) engaged in some form of sexual activity.

Each company received a request for only one topic. In most cases, we asked for a specific shot (i.e. Cape Horn in heavy weather), but also expressed interest in a general shot (the Cape Horn area) if the specific shot wasn’t available. For simplicity, we described our ‘production’ to all stock suppliers as a one-hour one-off intended for cable. We inquired about North American rights from North American companies, and U.K. rights from non-North American companies. In all cases, we asked about worldwide rights. If a stock house did not have the requested material, we asked for suggestions as to who might.

To select the companies, we turned to Footage: The Worldwide Moving Image Sourcebook (a Second Line Search publication). As much as possible, we tried to match the requests and the stock libraries (based on the description in Footage). In our estimation, the 54 companies we chose for our survey represent a cross-section of stock suppliers, both big and small. We included companies from the U.K., France, Germany, Italy, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, though the majority are based in the U.S.

Next, we had to settle on a definition of service. How to evaluate such traits as friendliness and politesse? Simple: we don’t. All of the subjective judgements we’ve left up to you, while we’ve focused on the nuts-and-bolts issues. With that in mind, our investigation centers on two of the key measurable elements: how long it takes to get a response and how much relevant information is provided up front. (Those who didn’t respond at all received one follow-up phone call six weeks after the initial requests went out.)

We sent out the initial stock queries by regular mail, but provided a phone number and e-mail address for follow-up. Although we understand that most consultations take place using the phone, fax or e-mail these days, we wanted the stock suppliers to receive the requests at roughly the same time, so as to more fairly evaluate response time. We mailed out letters to the u.k. and Europe two days ahead of those sent within North America. Letters to Australia and New Zealand were given three days grace.

To keep the playing field equal, though, we had to go undercover (and live out all of our espionage fantasies). We sent out the queries on the producers’ behalf, using an alias. (Actually, we used the name of RealScreen’s parent company, Brunico. A few savvy stock suppliers caught on – see Busted!, page 38.)

And so the RealScreen survey of stock footage libraries came to be. The chart on the following pages outlines the specific findings of the survey, followed by our analysis of the results. We’ve included the producers’ perspective on the search for stock, as well as their top tips and pet peeves. The final word goes to the stock footage suppliers themselves.

THE PRODUCTIONS: Where the stock footage requests originated


Producer Christian Bruyere of Vancouver-based Omni Film Productions supplied the requests for footage of jaguars and bonobos. The animals are the subjects of two separate episodes of Champions of the Wild, a 13 x 30-minute series about people around the world working for the preservation of wildlife. Now on the cusp of its third season, Champions will feature the jaguar episode in September 1999 and bonobos in September 2000. The series, which airs on Discovery`s Animal Planet in the U.S. and on Discovery Canada, is distributed by Water Street Releasing (Omni’s distribution arm) within North America and by Paris-based Europe Images International outside of North America. The budget per show is about US$110,000.


The request for archive material of Srebrenica, Yugoslavia, was provided by producer Mick Csaky of London-based production company Antelope. The Srebrenica Massacre (w/t), a two-hour special, is focused on the 1995 incident. Funded by BBC2, PBS, Germany’s WDR, Holland’s NPS and YLE in Finland, the program will likely air on BBC2 before the end of the year and on PBS early in 2000. Krishan Arora is the executive producer and Leslie Woodhead is the director of the US$500,000 special.

Csaky also suggested the 1997 Soffiantini kidnap case in Italy for the purposes of our stock survey. This project is not yet in the production stage (thus, no w/t), though Csaky says he expects to receive the go-ahead (from Channel 4 in the U.K. and perhaps an as-yet-unnamed U.S. broadcaster) any day now. If all goes well, the 3 x 60-minute series will begin production by the end of the year.

The footage queries for shots of Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh and U.S. marshals were both supplied by producer Ken Wiederhorn of New York-based Andrew Solt Productions. The 3 x 60-minute series, titled U.S. Marshals: The Real Story, was commissioned by The Learning Channel (Discovery U.S.) and aired on June 20. The budget was around US$350,000 per hour.


Kip Spidell, a producer with Toronto-based Ellis Entertainment, suggested all of the historic footage requests: street life around Sydney, Australia, in 1898; clipper ships from the turn of the century; and heavy weather around Cape Horn. For now, the project (a biography about Canadian-born sailor Joshua Sloakum) is on the back burner, as Spidell recently discovered that another production company already has a very similar project in the works.


Mick Csaky, producer


London, U.K.

Mick Csaky’s biggest beef with stock suppliers is fees. ‘I think their prices have jumped unrealistically high in recent years, and their obvious desire to capitalize on the multiplicity of rights that are currently exploitable – cable, satellite, video, free, pay-per-view, etc. – can make it prohibitively difficult to get programs made at all.’

Cost has led Csaky to get creative. His experience last year as executive producer on 444 Days (a two-hour special about the 1979-1981 U.S. hostage crisis in Iran) is a case in point.

‘Of course we went to archive houses all around the world, and they came back with some pretty high prices for footage that had quite clearly come from Iran in the first place. And it was not shot by British or American cameramen, it was quite clearly Iranian cameramen. So, I went back to Iran thinking, `Hmm. let’s get to the source of this and put the word out that we were after this footage.”

His efforts didn’t go unrewarded. ‘Some absolutely marvelous footage came to light, some of which had never been seen before and some of which, funnily enough, had [and] was being held by agencies around the world, claiming it was exclusively theirs when clearly it wasn’t…. I was able to do some very good deals.’

Ultimately, Csaky benefitted both financially and creatively from his willingness to dig. ‘It’s nice to find new sources of footage. It’s rather like finding antiques in an antique shop. They just could be original and they could be unique, so there’s something wonderful about that. And we always look for that to give our programs an edge if we get the opportunity.’

Kip Spidell, producer

Ellis Entertainment

Toronto, Canada

In Kip Spidell’s opinion, one sure sign of good customer service from a stock footage house is how quickly the company provides clearance searches. ‘When we deal with the bbc, for instance, they’re very quick to tell us there may be stills incorporated into the shows that they’re sending us for screening that they don’t have rights for…. The image itself is sometimes just the tip of the iceberg as far as who-owns-what in the material you’re looking at. You’ve got to be able to trust the company to tell you right away as far as any sort of complication that might arise.’ (for more info see ‘Stock Footage: Rights and Wrongs’ in RealScreen, March ’98.)

In general, Spidell says his experience with archive houses has been positive. Even after working for ten years as a producer, though, he remembers that the initial forays can be tough. ‘It’s as if agencies get lots of exploratory phone calls and tend to brush those off.’ Persistence does pay off, though. ‘I’ve always found that once I’ve gotten into a relationship, they’ve bent over backwards.’

Spidell advises that one way to get around intimidating stock prices is to purchase a significant amount of footage from one supplier. ‘On a couple of projects we were involved with, we were able to get larger output deals with a stock footage house, and bring pretty much prohibitively expensive stock footage rates down to reasonable ones, by committing to large purchases. That was a real key to not being intimidated by the prices when they first started showing their rate card.’ Spidell adds one qualifier: make sure to peruse the library’s holdings very carefully to make sure that kind of deal will work for your project.

Ken Wiederhorn, producer

Andrew Solt Productions

Los Angeles, U.S.

What’s the best way to cut costs and save time in the hunt for archive footage? Hire a professional stock researcher, says Ken Wiederhorn.

‘For a daily fee, an experienced researcher who really knows what’s in a library can probably find what you want a lot faster than you could yourself, especially if that means you’re going to have to travel, and pay for hotel expenses, while you’re doing your research,’ Wiederhorn says. ‘No matter how low a budget, one should always do a cost comparison: doing the research yourself [versus] hiring someone to do it who’s on location and who’s very familiar with the library.’

To find researchers, Wiederhorn suggests contacting some of the big stock libraries. ‘A good example would be the Library of Congress (in Washington, D.C.), which has a list of about a dozen film researchers in the d.c. area.’

Before he became an independent producer ten years ago, Wiederhorn had worked for CBS News in New York, so he had a headstart in establishing relationships with stock suppliers. Nevertheless, he says he still often has to go back three or four times to find the stock he wants, ‘because the service levels are very erratic. Very often a buyer will have a greater knowledge of what’s in the library than the person they’re speaking to on the phone.’

In his opinion, service at the network libraries doesn’t tend to compare well with other stock suppliers. ‘You take a company like Historic Films. Their people are very knowledgeable about what’s in the library. You just have a conversation with one of them, and pretty much get a sense of whether they have it or not… [Though Historic did not respond to our request.]You go to a place like a network news library where there are many, many more people working, and you’ll often encounter somebody who does not have a really good working knowledge of what’s in the library.’

Christian Bruyere, producer

Omni Film Productions

Vancouver, Canada

For natural history producer Christian Bruyere, finding the right stock shots can be a tricky business. ‘It’s not only looking for a specific species, but it’s looking for that specific type of species. One we had a lot of trouble with was crocodiles, the Cuban crocodiles. We had a lot of footage on American crocodiles, but the specific Cuban crocodile, that was tough. And that happens a lot.’

Experience has taught Bruyere the value of providing stock suppliers with specific details of what he wants. ‘The more precise you are, the less it’s going to cost you for them dubbing and sending you all sorts of footage, and then charging you per dub. If you know what you want and you know how to articulate what you want, it’s much easier to get the exact shot.’

One tip Bruyere offers is to always ask the stock supplier if the footage was filmed in the format you expect (16mm, Betacam), otherwise you could be in for a surprise. ‘Some of them won’t tell you if it’s film or video, although usually you can tell. Some are trying to sell you almost home video, not even Betacam video, for the price of film. They’ll say, `Well, the screener is just not the quality of your final master,’ and then you find out that was your final master.’

He’s also learned to ask a stock supplier to suggest another source if they don’t have the stock he needs. ‘Usually, it’s the six degrees of separation. Somebody’s going to know. If you ask six different people, you’re going to find it if it’s there.’


The stock suppliers who didn’t reply to our requests speak up

Stock libraries are in the business of supplying stock. It’s what they do. Any request that reaches their doors receives a reply, usually within a day or two and certainly within a week (according to the majority of footage houses contacted), even if it’s simply to say they don’t have what you’re looking for.

That being the case, it was somewhat of a surprise that 40% of the suppliers to whom we posted requests didn’t reply. We spoke to a number of those stock companies and got their take on what might have happened, as well as suggestions as to how best to connect.

The majority of stock houses we didn’t hear back from fingered unreliable postal service as the culprit. ‘Generally, everything we do is based on e-mail or fax,’ says Mark Heidemann, research and sales director of New York-based Historic Films. ‘When it’s by mail, it has a tendency to take a long time to get, and for whatever reason we’ve had difficulty receiving mail properly…. It also gives an implication that there’s not a rush on the material.’

However, e-mails and faxes can go astray, too. The one way to ensure that your request reaches its destination is to phone and speak to a real, live person. ‘I can’t emphasize enough that any time you send a fax, it’s not enough to assume that everyone’s going to call you back, because we may not get it,’ Heidemann adds.

The Internet has becoming an increasingly popular way to find out information about stock suppliers, and also to place orders. Eric Davies of New York-based stock house Image Nation says he does almost all of his business over the Net, particularly through, an on-line network of stock suppliers. ‘That seems to be the way things are going. Most people are using it that way.’

But, buyer beware, the Internet has its limitations as well. While in conversation with Geoffrey Hopkinson, manager of Toronto-based CBC Visual Resources, he discovered that requests submitted via the CBC’s website hadn’t been getting through. ‘The questionnaire that’s on our website for people to submit their requests apparently goes back `message error.’ I didn’t know that, so I’m going to check out why.’

John McQuaid, vp of sales for Archive Films/Archive Photos, says first-time clients shouldn’t be intimidated about phoning. ‘If you don’t know anybody, just call up and say `I don’t know anybody and this is what I’m trying to do,’ and we should be able to get you to the right person immediately, and answer any questions.’

And even though stock is a competitive business, most suppliers say that would willingly suggest other sources if they couldn’t meet the client’s demands. ‘We won’t go out and get it for people because we find that it’s not cost effective for our client for us to get a piece of that,’ McQuaid says. ‘But we know all the players in the business and we always direct them to where they can get it, or we try to anyway.’

Heidemann says he would even go so far as recommending another company, if he thought it could meet a client’s needs better than his own archive. ‘I would much rather have a client go away happy not using our service than them paying a $125 research fee, and being very displeased with what we had. I think we’ll have a better chance of someone coming back to us later saying, `Oh, these guys sent me someplace else before but they did a good job, so I’ll give them the job next time.”



Sharp-eyed staffers at the BBC and The Image Bank sussed out the true meaning behind the stock footage requests sent by Toronto-based company Brunico – the RealScreen stock survey! Of the 54 archive houses contacted, they were the only two to see through our cover.

In both cases, we had sent the requests to their head offices (New York for The Image Bank and London for BBC Library Sales). Each company immediately forwarded the letters to their respective Toronto offices, where local staff recognized the name of RealScreen’s parent company, and the gig was up.

Kudos to all branches of the BBC and The Image Bank for their thoroughness.

Fast facts:

13 archive houses said they had the footage we requested

26 companies did not have the requested stock

8 stock suppliers responded to our request but could not confirm that they had the material we asked for

The top five respondents were all from Europe: BBC Library Sales (London, U.K.), BBC Natural History Unit (Bristol, U.K.), Contemporary Films (London, U.K.), Pathé France (Saint-Ouen, France) and Survival Anglia (Norwich U.K.).

Of the 22 stock suppliers who did not respond to our initial request letter, 15 replied to our follow-up call. Including the 32 responses we received on the first attempt, we heard back from 47 of 54 companies, in the end.

Shortest time for a stock company to respond to the initial stock footage request letter: 2 days.

Longest time for a stock company to respond to the initial stock footage request letter: 32 days. (Hey, better late than never.)

Discovery Channel Images responded that they do not do deals except for programs intended for a Discovery network. However, producer Christian Bruyere, who has worked with the Discovery Channel in the past, says otherwise. ‘You can get footage from Discovery U.S. for anything if you want to pay the price. It’s a loose rule.’

54 stock footage libraries were mailed a request for archive footage

32 (or 59%) responded

22 (or 41%) did not respond

7 of the 26 stock suppliers who did not have the requested footage recommended another archive house

17 (or 31%) of the stock suppliers we selected are based outside of North America:

8 – u.k. 1 – Germany

4 – Australia 1 – Italy

2 – France 1 – New Zealand

37 (or 69%) of the stock suppliers we selected are based in North America:

34 – u.s. 3 – Canada

7 companies offered no response to either the initial query or the follow-up call (six weeks later)


The Real Screen Stock Survey Charts

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.