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Boards Magazine Special Report:
Stock Footage The New Face of Stock

Footage zealots turn up the heat and arouse agency interest

March 1, 2004

By Alison Eastwood

For LA director Randall Dark, shooting stock footage is not just a business, it's an act of pure self-indulgence. When he spies a promising subject he'll photograph it, no matter what, and inject it into his ever-swelling HD stock footage collection - said to be one of the largest in North America.

"I'm interested in everything. It's like a birth defect," jokes the high-def pioneer who runs HD Vision Studios, an advanced production facility "tricked out" with editing equipment, a cinema-grade projector, and 27 strands of fiber poised to whisk images all over the world. Nothing escapes his lens. He just captured eight tapes-worth of extreme skiers in Jackson Hole, WY, just for the hell of it, and some rainy-day footage in LA, "because you don't see that very often." These seemingly vicarious shots get uploaded to Dark's all-digital collection to be licensed by film and television producers and, increasingly, ad agencies.

Dark's approach gives the lie to the theory that stock footage is pretty much comprised of out-of-date leftovers. Indeed, those most active in the industry are making a concerted effort to give stock's image an extreme makeover and convince us it's a bona fide art form.

Although agencies often perceive stock as second-tier, Seattle-based Getty Images' Jennifer Burak, VP, film product marketing, says her company often works with leading commercial prodcos and directors. Getty recently recruited Luis Palomo of Miami-based Pigeon Productions for a three-day shoot in Rio de Janeiro, and Burak waxes lyrical on the results. "Rio never looked more alive or sexy," Burak enthuses.

Corbis Motion, Getty's closest competitor, also based in Seattle, has literally hundreds of shooters on its books - some in the commercial arena and not all of them active - who go out every week on stock assignments all over the world. Notes VP Rick Wysocki: "It can be a lucrative way to leverage their talents with the work they own, and gets them out of the 'work-for-hire' syndrome."

For his part, Dark is more than happy to work for hire and will turn a project around in as little as a few hours for the right client. When his rep, Paula Lumbard, at LA's FootageBank, calls in with a job, "we can shoot within minutes," he claims. "I put it on the Web, she looks at it and says 'lighter, darker'..."

Lightning-fast turnaround - increasingly a prerequisite in this business - is even more critical in the HD-only footage field because it gives players their key competitive advantage - particularly in a live-action shoot situation. No processing or camera loading, as well as real-time viewing of the film, can make HD an attractive option to time-harried agencies.

"I've been phoned by clients who say, 'Can you do this today and get me a dub of it tomorrow?' We're 911 for everybody," Dark proclaims. Just last month, Lumbard asked him to shoot a dog sitting at a computer as part of a large requisition for a five-spot Clean Energy Alliance PSA. (He used his own Jack Russell terrier, Beans.)

Repping is a relatively new phenomenon to Dark, who worked alone for more than 15 years before pairing with Lumbard. They shared the same instincts about HD and started up concurrent companies two years ago. "It was a gamble and a guess on my part," admits Lumbard, a 20-year stock vet whose company now represents about 50 HD producers, directors and prodcos from around the world. "I said, 'Let's be the first out there and go after the business we think will be there'."

Dark praises her prescience. "What Paula was doing was so in line with the future. No matter what anyone says, the future's high-res, digital, wide-screen. She got it."

Their first clients were made-for-TV movie producers. Ad folks, initially resistant (they usually blamed their clients' reticence), started becoming more receptive. TBWA, LA, used FootageBank stock for all the wildlife 'herded' by cats in last year's Noam Murro-helmed Whiskas commercials "Buffalo", "Ostrich" and "Zebra".

Gigs of this caliber are often enabled by a rapport with experienced third-party research firms - which broker between client and stock company. "Paula doesn't really get calls from New York agencies," says Shari Chertok, owner of Re:Search - a NY stock research, rights and clearance house which licenses footage for ad agencies. "She depends on us." Then again, so do behemoths like National Geographic, which despite its reputation in docs isn't sought after on the agency side, and BBC America, which is making a big push this side of the Atlantic. "They [both] need people to steer advertising business their way."

With the likes of BBDO, Lowe, Saatchi and Merkley Newman Harty on her books, Chertok is well-positioned to steer business into any library's path. Her 12-year-old company recently licensed an AOL commercial through BBDO that required a Getty aerial shot of a stadium at night to be cleared. This meant working out the stadium's location and then contacting the legal and permission departments.

Chertok says she has a "love-hate" relationship with the footage suppliers who prefer to go direct to the client because they don't have to pay her a fee. But if a job is big, complex and requires multiple sources, it makes sense to call in a third party to handle all the legal issues including property, talent and SAG residuals. "Who has time to call 30 sources?" asks Chertok, currently scouting more than 200 images for the Clean Energy project that Dark's Jack Russell may grace.

Some of the clearances sound unnecessarily anal but you'd be surprised, Chernok warns. "There are times when we go on air with archival footage thinking it's very safe, and there's someone on the screen outside a store in Brooklyn in the '20s and all of a sudden the great grandson is on a bike in the gym [watching the clip]... You talk to them and make a deal."

Of course, the main reason for turning to stock is that it's orders of magnitude cheaper than shooting your own stuff. This fact doesn't always sit well with the suppliers themselves. "I've never been a fan of talking about stock footage as a way to save money," says Corbis' Wysocki, who at one time was head of broadcast at Bates Worldwide. "But in comparison to actually shooting it's as if we were giving it away. You can license a shot for a year's national use for $2,500 US."

That's certainly appreciated at prolific BBDO, NY, which recently licensed some black-and-white Corbis footage for its "The Feeling of Gillette" Super Bowl spot. The classic-looking spot featured exhilarating moments like freefalling down a cliff, floating in space and scaling Mount Everest, shots that would have been prohibitively expensive to capture. "Our boards are pretty ambitious," says ECD Al Merrin, "and it's a great way to cut costs and save time." If, however, you're an agency working on a not-for-profit PSA, you can benefit from a Corbis program - now in its second year - that waives $1 million US worth of licensing fees for charitable organizations, largely agencies doing pro bono work. Ogilvy & Mather, TBWA and others received more than 30 free clips and stills for phase two of The Ad Council's Campaign for Freedom, which features US immigrants in mini-doc-style interviews.

For-profit clients that aren't charities but can't afford Mad Ave-scale fees can turn to Thought Equity, a stock footage firm with a twist. The 18-month-old Denver company recycles unused agency footage as production-ready commercials to cash-strapped advertisers. "Good creative takes time and talent and costs a lot of money, and 80% of the footage that's shot ends up on the cutting room floor," says Kevin Schaff, founder and CEO. He got his start at a niche design agency, Wind River, in 1993 doing early-stage product releases for the likes of Motorola and Macy's. But he found himself frustrated at the amount of creative that got cast aside. "The client never takes the best piece," he observes.

When he saw that budget constraints were preventing smaller regional clients from producing any kind of half-decent TV commercial, Schaff decided that footage from unused spec commercials could be reused for a fraction of the price. He started amassing a database comprised of footage which could then be repurposed. The supers and VOs are changed and voila! - instant commercial. Sounds suspect, but it seems to work for regional markets and besides, Schaff claims most of the world's top agencies now donate or sell their surplus creative to Thought Equity. What's the incentive? Simple. "A lot of these guys just like to see their stuff used." They also receive a royalty fee if it airs.

Rights aren't an issue; Schaff uses mostly spec footage owned by the agency; if it's not, the agency clears it before supplying it. "They give it to us, we add the value around it, digitize the film, turn it into a digital master, and then provide it into a central system." He also receives leftover film from shoots and, in addition to more traditional stock fodder, has collated an arsenal of clips including 50,000 hours of college sports footage through a partnership with Collegiate Images.

Though Schaff claims Thought Equity's move to making its digital image bank fully searchable and deliverable via the Web will trounce his rivals, the truth is, if you're not searchable online you'll soon be struck off agencies' bid lists. Corbis has had its WebReel and no-charge research for several months; Getty gives customers the ability to download non-watermarked images from gettyimages.com; and FootageBank was about to unleash its online footage at press time. Digital is the next challenge: Getty recently finished converting 70,000 clips across seven different collections, but the big houses still have a long way to go toward making their vast resources fully accessible online.

The good news for agencies is: whatever obscure stock image you're craving, you can probably get it. "I've always felt," muses FootageBank's Lumbard, "that stock footage is as limitless as the imagination."

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