Stalking Stock: Soon, the biggest demand placed on stock footage libraries might be for footage which doesn’t yet exist. Brendan Christie explores the possible evolution of film archives from storehouses of visual record into hire…

For the stock and archive footage industry, it's getting more and more difficult to make money from history. As the price of storage and retrieval technology rises, making the past financially viable is getting to be a much more complicated exercise....
July 1, 1998

For the stock and archive footage industry, it’s getting more and more difficult to make money from history. As the price of storage and retrieval technology rises, making the past financially viable is getting to be a much more complicated exercise. Return on investment is key, and it’s forcing many stock houses to change direction. Preserving history might not always be profitable, but creating your own can be.

With a year gone since the last major flurry of mergers and acquisitions, the stock market has stabilized. Two paramount reasons for this change stand out: archive availability and finances.

‘We buy [libraries] outright whenever we can,’ explains Joe Lauro, president of New York’s Historic Films. ‘But, by the nature of our business, it’s not like I can buy a big collection and say I can make all these films out of this. We have to wait for the phone to ring. We can’t create the need for the footage. Therefore, you can’t buy a collection and pay a tremendous amount of money because you never know when someone’s going to need a shot from it.’

Andy Roeder, owner of the Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver franchises of the Image Bank, explains the other half of the problem. ‘It’s becoming more and more difficult to find collections that haven’t been managed properly, because they take too much work to find what little is useful within them, unless there’s a really strategic library role for it,’ explains Roeder.

‘If you’re going to find one ten second shot out of every ten hours you look through, that’s not a collection that’s worth paying to look through. The biggest push for us right now is getting new material shot, not finding old material.’

Shooting stock by the barrel

Although the notion of shooting original stock may be offensive to purists who feel that archives should chronicle the past, new footage might become the backbone of the business for the major players. Both London’s Getty Communications (controller of L.A.’s Energy, New York’s Fabulous Footage and London’s Tony Stone Images) and Kodak (which controls the Dallas-headquartered Image Bank and New York’s Archive Photos/Archive Films) have made the commitment to expand their archives, not exclusively through library acquisitions but rather through original material shot specifically for them.

The new footage comes from many sources. Some originate from producers who are working on commercial projects on spec, or have extra footage from work-for-hire jobs. Other footage comes from cameramen who take advantage of time they’re spending in the studio on other projects to film extra footage. The vast majority of the original work, however, comes from cameramen and producers who have a direct relationship with the stock houses, and work specifically to fill holes in the collections.

Energy, for example, has had the good fortune of being able to turn several Tony Stone photographers into cinematographers, shooting moving images with the same sensibilities they have brought to their still work. ‘The great thing about that,’ explains Energy co-founder and ceo, Jan Ross, ‘is that the good ones really understand the need to be extraordinarily creative. Those are the images that, when you have them in your catalogue, really stand out from the crowd and generate the revenue. They have a good background in terms of what works and what doesn’t work in the stock photo imagery, which is a much bigger industry than the stock footage industry. It is [however] a good way to understand where stock footage is going to be five or seven years from now. It’s going to be on a real upwards swing. We’re going to see the revenue from stock film maybe even eclipse that of stock photos.’

Original stock is attracting some big name contributors, and that’s good for producers. ‘We believe that in our case,’ points out Andy Roeder, ‘[people who use the new footage in the library are] getting stuff from us that comes from directors and cinematographers that they can’t even book within the next six months, let alone undertake the budget implications of hiring someone that good.’

Rounding up the images…& paying the price

The approach that Image Bank takes to original footage is representative of the way most companies are conducting their search for new stock. The Image Bank works with a group of cinematographers who film assigned projects, pitch ideas and offer footage they’ve already shot. Every month the stock house sends out a newsletter and a want-list, encouraging their filmmakers to fill the holes they’ve identified.

Submissions are accepted only on high-quality 16mm or 35mm film, unless the footage is extraordinary. If accepted, the footage is sent to Kodak for a scene-by-scene color correction and mastering to d1 or pal. (As pal has a much denser image and a broader aspect ratio than ntsc, all dubs are done from the pal original.) Cinematographers must submit a negative of the film and a 3/4 inch reference reel. All location and talent releases have to be secured before the library will consider it, freeing the stock for use on anything which can’t be considered derogatory or defamatory. In the few instances where releases haven’t been secured, the Image Bank burns that information onto the reference reels along with the timecode.

Once the film has been mastered and catalogued, drop frames and reference material are sent to offices around the world for potential licensing to clients. The filmmakers always retain their ownership of the footage.

As they are with historical material, the library is cautious about new material they secure. ‘There’s the tendency to want to put everything into the library,’ says Roeder, ‘and because it’s such a cost-intensive process to digitize the material, there has to be some pretty strict editing criteria to the process. That’s part of why we don’t consider any video submissions. It can’t go to any commercials or any features because it doesn’t edit into anything that’s been shot with film.’

Although the Image Bank wouldn’t reveal the exact terms of their agreement with filmmakers shooting footage for them, other sources indicated that it basically falls to a three-way split between the stock company (which represents the images), Kodak (which masters them) and the cinematographer. The deals are for exclusive representation, and generally last between five and seven years.

Money matters

Even though shooting original footage can be an expensive proposition, the genre is doing well because there are financial benefits for all concerned. For filmmakers like Derek Case, who shoot footage for an international agency (see page 42), their investment might be returned slowly over half a decade, but that income is coming from multiple sales to international clients.

More importantly, perhaps, the cost of the footage to documentary producers is a fraction of what it would cost to shoot it for themselves. Most shots (a sequence up to about ten seconds), range in price between us$300 and us$3000 for one international non-commercial use. If a producer wanted an establishing shot of something like the New York skyline, for example, they would have to rent the helicopter, find the equipment and secure the permits before they could even begin filming. Not cheap. Case points to an example of a high-speed sequence he did for a corporate client of a tennis ball hitting a racquet at 500 frames per second. The corporate rate would have seen him charging about us$40,000. A stock house might lease the same footage for about us$3000.

The other advantage of a stock shot library is selection. Why send out a film crew every night to capture the perfect sunset when a library can offer a selection to choose from on 35mm film?

Making the most of the medium

The majority of originally-shot material is obviously aimed at corporate clients. With licenses topping the million dollar mark for commercial applications, it’s not hard to understand why they’re the target of choice for stock libraries. Producers of docs, however, can be the unwitting beneficiaries of this change in library strategy.

With their main client in mind, most of the original footage is designed for multimedia or corporate accounts. The advantage of this is that there is a huge array of topics and footage available for producers. ‘People don’t tend to phone up and say `I would like a beautiful soccer shot, or a wonderful goal or a wonderful save’,’ explains Derek Case. ‘They’re much more `I want an inspirational shot’ or `I want something indicative of despair or achievement or mild failure.” For producers who know what they want, that selection can translate into fast, inexpensive footage to fill holes, or alternatively be used as an affordable source for otherwise expensive effects that would fall outside budgetary constraints.

The growing awareness of original stock footage is good news for producers, and it’s destined to get even better. ‘The photography division is really a mature market,’ explains Roeder. ‘People know what’s available, they’ve been using it for a while, and the material has gotten great. For photos, it’s about market share. With film, it’s more about expanding the market. It’s about educating clients.

‘A lot of clients don’t realize that they can come in and sit down and brainstorm while looking at all our footage. We can get involved a lot earlier in the process. It’s not like they have to make up the creative around the footage – they come in knowing what the creative is, they just have to work on the execution. What’s interesting is that they’re finding more than they expected.’

Wrapping things up

Original stock footage is about to play a much larger role in the industry. As more libraries catch on to the increased income possibilities, more players will get involved.

‘The truth is, in many respects, we look forward to and welcome competitors in this industry,’ points out Andy Roeder, ‘because it helps create awareness and standardization, and it can actually help in developing the market. It creates more [of an awareness] of the industry’s existence to our potential clients. As more competitors come in, there will be more promotion, more discussion, and more footage available that will make it a more common part of their process. It’s a love-hate thing. Do you want it or do you not want it? It’s great as long as they don’t want to make short-term gains at the cost of the industry.’

The debate between archive purists and non-purists might rage on, but business considerations are likely to win out in the end. Frank Golomb of the German stock footage house Central Order, puts the argument into perspective succinctly: ‘All collections are historic.’

What’s hot in new stock footage…or is it?

The biggest trends in original stock footage only marginally mirror those in archival material. The most obvious need is for images that can be used to represent the turn of the millennium. There is also a large demand for industrial and agricultural imagery. Somewhat surprisingly, however, considering its traditionally short life span, one of the greatest areas of demand is for lifestyle footage.

Lifestyle imagery is one area where the Image Bank is especially hoping to flesh out their inventory. ‘It has just managed to move out of the risk area,’ offers Roeder. ‘We’re seeing a lot of our growth in this beautifully shot, but seemingly short life span, stuff. Traditionally it’s been hard to get a return on because there are shooting styles that change, and when you’re shooting people there are haircuts, and clothes, and a whole bunch of things that can date the material. Whereas if you shoot hockey or swimming, it’s not going to date over five years. But the lifestyle stuff has become so incredibly good, and the returns there [have grown]. The industry is mature enough now that it can support a return on historically short life span content. This is not filler stuff anymore. It’s cutting edge cinematography by people who are top caliber artists.’

Regardless of its popularity, it is hard to debate lifestyle’s short endurance. Even Roeder admits that there is little reason to digitally master lifestyle sequences that are over five years old. That opinion is shared by Frank Golomb, managing director of Germany’s Central Order stock footage library. ‘Think about lifestyle shots. It’s totally impossible to use last year’s fashions or street scenes. No one is using a New York shot, even if Park Avenue still looks like it did in 1992. A big portion of contemporary material is not – how I call it – qualified for storage. It has to make its money in only a few months. It’s useful again when it becomes archival, but to be really archival, it has to be decades old. Every investment into a contemporary film includes the risk of acquiring stock that is unusable for several years very soon after an acquisition.

‘No one is interested in the news from the day before yesterday. These old news clips might meet their audience again, but only when they’re 20 years old.’

The fall of Western civilization

What will be the most popular themes in stock footage in the next few years? RealScreen asked a few stock houses what producers have been asking for, with a few disturbing results.

Historic Films >> Fetish (breasts, penises, bondage…) Fringe >> (L.A. Confidential, sleaze…)

Film Bank >> Murders (the Film Bank represents the L.A. County Sheriffs Department)

Archive Films >> Stars (For celebrity death-watches)

Watch Out for Flying Cowboys

Martin Lisius, cinematographer and president of Texas-based StormStock, spends a lot of time waiting for the worst to happen. StormStock is a stock-house that specializes in originally-shot, high-quality images of severe weather. Like any producer dependent on the whims of nature, shooting the worst Mother Nature has to offer requires patience.

The storm season Lisius shoots lasts between late March and early July. His main haunt is Tornado Alley – a long stretch of middle-America which includes Texas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas and South Dakota. Lisius and his crew might manage ten tornado chases a month in the spring, but of those, only half will yield footage and most of that will be of storm clouds or lightning. On average, he manages to capture one tornado every 30 trips, which represents most of the season, with about 20,000 miles worth of driving.

Being in the right area at the right time involves a lot of weather divination. Lisius does what he terms long-term, short-term and now-casting. Long-term forecasting is done a few days before the expected event, simply to find out what severe weather patterns are forming and where they might appear. Short-term forecasting is done the day before, and the morning of the event, and generally narrows the target zone down to a radius of about 100 miles. Now-casting is typically done in the mid-afternoon of the day, and shrinks the zone to the location most likely to produce a tornado or super-cell. Information comes from basic sources such as wind direction or barometric pressure, as well as more modern sources, such as radar and satellite imaging.

This year was especially successful for StormStock, as they managed the rare coup of capturing a monster tornado on 35mm. The mile-wide tornado was found in Spencer, South Dakota. ‘To our knowledge,’ asserts Lisius, ‘nothing like that has ever been shot in the world. There’s only one other tornado that I know of that was shot on 35, and it was a little bitty, low-contrast, way off in the distance, that content-wise didn’t really have the impact. This is the first good tornado on 35mm.’

All of his experience with extreme weather manifestations has also helped Lisius do more than just build a repertoire of tornado footage. ‘Several times, we’ve quite possibly saved lives. We’ve had people pull up that were planning to drive into a tornado. It happened at Spencer. Some guy was heading westward towards it. He stopped where we were. It may be hard to believe, but he wasn’t even certain it was a tornado. It’s a mile wide, right down the road. You couldn’t miss it.

‘The bigger tornadoes don’t have the classic shape. They look more like wedges. They’re wide and fat, and they look like a big cloud on the ground, which is essentially what they are – but that cloud is rotating at 300 miles per hour.’

The Hired Guns…Andy Sacks

Andy Sacks has been a professional photographer since 1970. He has worked as a freelancer for a number of publications, including Time, Newsweek, Fortune and Forbes. For over a decade, he has worked with Tony Stone Images, and recently made the transition to moving images. His experience has helped him develop an eye for what will sell in the stock market. ‘I’ve developed a sense of how to investigate subjects,’ he explains.

For Sacks, deciding on what is going to sell isn’t the difficulty – it’s balancing finances. ‘You can’t go out and shoot something in May and expect the checks to roll in in September. There’s a long lead time on this stuff. I’m figuring two years. The cost of production is at least 20 times what I was looking at for doing stuff in still pictures. The market has yet to demonstrate to me that the pay back is going to be 20-fold,’ says Sacks. ‘But, my talents are specialized, and I don’t feel like I’m risking too much testing these waters. In some ways it’s going to be a little like Field of Dreams – if you build it, they will come. If this footage is available, people will buy it. But, if I’m not out there doing it, there’s not going to be a [market].

‘You really have to develop a thick skin and a cast-iron stomach as far as finances go. You can be waiting around for quite a while to see your returns paid back. I see that as a thinning out process where its going to separate the wanna-bes from the people who are doing it. The price of getting into the game is so high, there’s less competition.’

The Hired Guns…Derek Case

Derek Case and his partner Bob Perks founded Toronto-based Magic Images when they discovered they were both independently shooting for the Image Bank. Case’s specialty is food, time-lapse and special effects images. He has been shooting for the Image Bank for over five years, and estimates his annual investment in original stock footage, not including equipment (which he already owns), at over US$100,000.

Most recently, Magic Images shot footage of football clubs in the u.k. The shoot was a convoluted mess of rights issues, with clearance having to be granted by players, teams and leagues. The headaches were worth it, however. Sports images are one of the strongest performers in the field and, as they have international appeal, can be used in a multitude of applications, and are often used as metaphors in productions.

‘You have to understand how stock works,’ explains Case. ‘It’s quite a different market. It isn’t what you think it would be. It has to be general. It has to be good. You want to try to make it as non-anywhere as possible to get worldwide sales. You have to be really careful to get releases and everything. It gets quite complicated.’

‘There’s no point doing something that doesn’t get you many sales, so you really have to understand what will sell a lot. There’s no point shooting something randomly.’

Celluliod Closet: a Case Study

Telling Pictures on how to work the U.S. studio shock system

Michael Lumpkin is likely the envy of many doc filmmakers. He coproduced a commercially successful and critically-acclaimed feature-length documentary consisting primarily of film clips, yet didn’t pay a cent for the rights.

‘It was a slow process of getting a couple of companies on board and then going to the next one saying `so and so is doing it, will you do it?’,’ he explains. ‘There was a very long process of convincing people to do that.’

Lumpkin spent more than four years, in fact, finding and securing rights to footage for the 1995 doc Celluloid Closet, a look at Hollywood’s portrayal of homosexuality in films, produced by Telling Pictures and the non-profit group Reflective Image, both of San Francisco. He secured worldwide all-media rights in perpetuity.

Determining which clips he needed was relatively easy since the feature was based on a book of the same name by Vito Russo. Lumpkin, coproducers and directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman used video clips to edit together a rough cut of their film before approaching studios and stock houses for material.

‘Once we knew that we wanted to use a particular clip from a film, it was a matter of locating who held the rights to it – the original production studio, the trail of who’s bought who over the years, and where things are,’ he recalls.

There were few roadblocks until Lumpkin wanted to use footage from films made in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when more films were independently made. While most studios maintained their films or knew where to find them, locating the owners of independent productions was a challenge.

Securing rights to footage was made easier by the fact that the producers already had a pretty good sense of what was available and what wasn’t before they started to ask for permission. Most studios had their own labs with staff to assist Lumpkin in finding what he needed, but ‘with others you had to deal with the lab yourself. They have different models with their own bureaucracy as far as how you get footage out of them.’

Lumpkin says the only shock came when the lab bills came in. ‘It was a lot more costly than we anticipated,’ he recalls. ‘The lab costs were astronomical because we did it on 35 mm.’

Lumpkin says the film would not have been made if he and his coproducers had to pay licensing fees in addition to the lab costs.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing, though. Use of footage from films made after 1960 was conditional on securing rights from the directors, writers and actors guilds. Lumpkin says getting all the guilds to sign off was time consuming.

And at least one studio was less than cooperative. The Samuel Goldwyn Company refused to grant permission to use clips from Hans Christian Anderson, starring Danny Kaye.

‘We had a wonderful sequence cut around bio pics from the 50s where famous homosexuals in history were made straight in the bio pics that came out of Hollywood,’ Lumpkin explains. ‘It was all framed from Hans Christian Anderson and there was a big uproar at Goldwyn about us using Danny Kaye in that context, and his estate got upset.’

Also not thrilled with the use of his image from The Agony and the Ecstacy was actor Charlton Heston. ‘We did not have to get his permission to use it but we got letters from him saying that Michelango wasn’t gay,’ says Lumpkin.

The producers also discovered that some of the studio’s own footage was altered. Several lines of Elizabeth Taylor’s dialogue were mysteriously missing from the studio’s film negative of Suddenly Last Summer. ‘We brought it to their attention and they said they had no idea. We discovered they had censored their own material and they weren’t even aware of it.’

Lumpkin says the fact that the film was about homosexuality was not an issue when it came to collecting footage from the various sources. He says some of the major studios included clauses in the licensing agreements that they would not be portrayed negatively in the film.

‘They didn’t want to be bashed by the movie, which we didn’t do and wasn’t our intention,’ he says. ‘Some [studios], we had to have a conversation with to make them understand what it was about. There were several cases where people just assumed we were going to `out’ people.’

Celluloid Closet is Lumpkin’s one and only film. Prior to working on the project he was managing San Francisco’s Lesbian and Gay Film Festival for 12 years, a role to which he has since returned.

About The Author
Andrew Tracy joined Realscreen as associate editor in 2021, following 17 years as managing editor of the award-winning international film magazine Cinema Scope. From 2010 to 2020 he also held the position of senior editor at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he oversaw the flagship publication for the organization’s year-round Cinematheque programming and edited its first original monograph in a decade, Steve Gravestock’s A History of Icelandic Film. He was a scriptwriter and consultant on the first season of the Vice TV series The Vice Guide to Film, and his writing and reporting have been featured in such outlets as Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Comment, MUBI Notebook, POV, and Montage.