Buying something outright with cash you already have at hand may seem more sensible than leasing it and paying extra or simply renting it when needed. Jake Bickerton talks to media finance specialists about when it's best to lease, buy or rent
If your company is in the rarefied position of having a reasonably healthy bank balance and you need to purchase something for your business, you should just go ahead and buy it. Right?
Well, not really. Leasing - either lease purchase or lease rental (more on this later) - is likely to be a more beneficial route despite costing you more. And even though, in the case of lease rental, you don’t even own the item at the end of the lease period, it could still be a better option than buying it using available cash.
The choice to lease rather than buy upfront may at first appear illogical - why should you opt to spend more when you've cash in the bank, or, worse still, opt out of owning the product altogether? - however it's an eminently sensible move from the point of view of cash flow and tax benefits. In short, spending your cash now could take your company into very choppy waters further down the line.
To buy or not to buy
"85% of all FTSE top 100 companies lease their vehicles and PC infrastructure even though they can well afford to buy it all outright for cash out of their back pocket," explains Medialease md Paul Robson. "This is because it's always better to have assets that are employed in revenue generation for the company being financed, with the asset paying for itself directly in income verses the cost of investment." Fellow media finance company md, Azule's Peter Savage, adds: "If you're opening a post house or expanding with new equipment, the advice we try to get over if you've £100-200k in the bank and are thinking about paying cash for something when credit is tight, is what happens when you need to get hold of more money?" he says. "A typical scenario is you aim to open your post house in July, but this slips to August, then you get a reasonable amount of work from September to November but after this it starts drying up and by January and February things are going awfully. Your cash flow is up and down all the time and you could find yourself in real trouble if you're not careful." Steve Bolton, director at Barclays Corporate agrees: "A hire purchase scheme spreads the cash flow burden of the purchase and conserves working capital - this is particularly valuable to businesses, like many in the media sector, that are affected by seasonal peaks and troughs in trading activity."
Soho Media Finance md John Edwards is another to recommend a leasing option rather than buying equipment upfront: "If you can pay for something upfront, it doesn't mean you should - you have to be sure you won't have better uses for your finance. It depends on the individual and if they want to sail close to the wind. You pay a bit more on interest with leasing but you may feel more comfortable working that way. It's a safe feeling knowing you have money in the bank. You pay staff monthly so why not do the same with your kit?" Gareth Wilding, sales and marketing director at Fineline, sums up by saying: "If you’ve got the cash to buy then use it as it's always cheaper to do this. But only use it if you have sufficient cash reserves; never use working capital."
If you decide to go down the leasing route, there are multiple options available from finance companies, depending on your circumstances. The first option is to lease purchase, which is paying for equipment in instalments over an agreed term after which the item is yours, following the payment of a nominal fee.
The next option is lease rental, which is likely to be more cost effective than daily hire charges from a hire company. After paying rentals over an agreed term, you have the option to either return the equipment, continue renting it at a further reduced cost or selling the equipment on behalf of the financier whereby you retain a pre-agreed percentage of the sale proceeds.
There are a number of additional leasing options too, including an operating lease, for which the finance company underwrites a future value in the equipment, so the rental cost is calculated on a reduced amount - you lease the equipment for as long as you need it then the ownership returns to the leasing company.
Furthermore, there's a contract lease option, which is similar to the operating lease but also includes maintenance cover for the product too.
Which of these options you choose depends on whether you want to own the product at the end of the lease agreement. It isn't always desirable to own the 'asset' from a tax and accounting point of view, particularly if the value of the equipment at the end of the lease period is relatively small. "Typically production companies and post houses will opt to fund a new piece of equipment using a hire purchase scheme. This gives complete flexibility at the end of any financing term and is particularly relevant as generally the life expectancy of media equipment will be longer than the financing period," explains Barclays Corporate's Bolton. "Having said that, there are a number of production companies who prefer to structure the financial product around the specific lifecycle requirements of each asset. Commonly referred to as operating leases, this funding arrangement is particularly valuable for production and post production houses whose assets are refreshed and disposed of more regularly."
Azule's Savage believes "it's economically sensible to lease purchase as you own the asset at the end of the three years. If the product lasts more than three years, everything after the three years is free." However, he adds, "It depends how often you need to change kit - creative people often want frequent technology changes whereas the technical guys like to keep the kit for longevity - if you lease hire you can change equipment whenever required."br />
Meanwhile, Clockwork Capital's director Geraldine Scher points to the tax benefits of lease rentals: "It's a tax efficient way to get hold of equipment. If you buy something outright it has to be capitalised and depreciated within the accounts system. Rental is an operating cost therefore it’s a profit and loss item not a balance sheet item and a simpler accounting process."
Does renting make sense?
One alternative to buying or leasing is renting the equipment from a hire company. This makes sense in some scenarios, as Wilding explains: "A post house will mostly be renting high-end decks as they can be difficult to justify buying. An SRW-5500 machine costs £65-80k, while the rental costs are £300-350 a day. So even after 100 days of rental use you're not even close to the purchase cost." But, adds Azule's Savage, "The lease purchase rate of the SRW-5500 is around £1,990/month over three years, so if you're going to use it for more than six days a month and can expect to be doing so for the foreseeable future, you'll be spending £2-3k a month on rentals and be better off leasing it."
A more problematic decision has to be made when it comes to whether to purchase or rent cameras. "Cameras are slightly more difficult thanks to all the formats now. Unless you have contracted work on a single format it might still be best to hire different formats to suit the production, and not buy a single format and have to force it onto a production," says Savage. Wilding adds that, "If you have a good idea of your future bookings, you can do a simple equation working out how much you would pay on hire charges per month versus the lease purchase charge per month, but future demand is not always clear." Similarly, Clockwork Capital's Scher says: "If you're a production company with a nine month production schedule, rentals can be high. If you think there's a chance the series could be re-commissioned or if there are other series the camera could be used on, it's worth investing. It's up to individual companies whether they feel they want to reduce operational costs by bringing the equipment inhouse."
Where to go for money
Historically, banks have been the first port of call for companies seeking finance, but a combination of limited availability of credit from banks and the often non-mainstream leasing requirements of media companies mean a media specialist financier is likely to be a better first port of call for production companies and post houses. "You should start by going to a specialist media finance business that will understand your needs," says Clockwork Capital's Scher. "They understand why a production company, post house or freelancer needs equipment, and understand the kit and residual market and are better at thinking outside the box, whereas banks focus on the very tangible assets of bricks, mortar and so on. Banks are less imaginative in the way they approach what they do."
On top of this, Scher adds that "businesses shouldn't have all their eggs in one basket – separating out asset finance from banking is a good idea as it provides businesses with far more flexibility.” Medialease's Robson echoes these points: "A customer's bank will generally not understand the equipment we are funding - Medialease, like others such as Azule and Fineline, truly understand the market, the equipment and the future values of the equipment. Production companies or post houses need to come to a specialist outfit like us to get funding as currently banks are struggling to lend to the SME market unless the company is really strong in balance sheet terms and highly profitable." Azule's Savage adds: "You can be cold called by leasing companies left, right and centre, but they don't necessarily understand the industry. There are a number of well-known, long-established people who can give you the right advice," he says. "Also, using a third party outside your bank is very useful. Banks will cross capitalise their debt, so if you've bought your building through a loan, have a bit of an overdraft and are also leasing equipment through your bank, they are providing you with everything. If your bank increases the rates or decides to stop lending, you're in trouble. If you've a different lender and a third party source of funding you've a far better mix of debt."
Pro Motion Hire has spent £400k on new kit, including Sony PDW-F800 and PDW-700 cameras, to gear up for international demand for cameras and equipment for reporting on the Royal Wedding.
Azule Finance provided the funding for Pro Motion Hire’s investment, which comes on the back of a 50% surge in camera hires leading up to the Royal Wedding. Amongst its new international customers, the hire company is supplying news teams from Network 10 in Australia with Sony PDW-F800s.
“In the days running up to the Royal Wedding, our entire stock of cameras and decks will be out in action across the capital,” says Pro Motion Hire md Duncan Martin. “Over the last six months we’ve been working closely with Azule Finance to expand and balance our kit portfolio. We needed to capitalise on this huge broadcast opportunity without over-extending our catalogue for what is essentially a week-long surge in activity.”
Animation director Matthias Hoegg's short film Thursday “revolves around an everyday love story set in the not so distant future and sees blackbirds battling with technology, malfunctioning palm readers and power cuts” and was made while Hoegg was at the Royal College of Art in June 2010.
Thursday was nominated for a BAFTA in the short animation category and has been shown at various film and animation festivals including Onedotzero and the Stuttgart Animation Festival.
For the last few months Thursday has only been available as a trailer online but as of yesterday the full 7m14s animation is now online (watch it in full below). It’s a visually striking, beautifully paced, remarkable piece of work.
As a footnote, Hoegg lost out on the BAFTA, which was picked up by a former Royal College of Art colleague of his, Michael Please for his greyscale animation The Eagleman Stag, which is also well worth checking out.
Credits for Thursday
Directed and animated by Matthias Hoegg
Sound Design and Music by Marian Mentrup Thursday’s Space Waltz written and performed by Marian Mentrup
Published by Kobrow Musikverlag
Additional Animation by Aaron Lampert
Additional Modeling by Mattias Bjurström
Foley Artist Günther Röhn
Mixed at Talking Animals Studio Berlin
Newcastle’s art space Unit 44, based at Hoults Yard, has been running a ‘white walls’ project over the last 12 months, inviting graffiti artists to create a piece of artwork on different spaces in Hoults Yard, which is surrounded by industrial warehouses and units.
Musician and graffiti artist Kid Acne kicked off the white walls series in June last year, with this massive ‘Dust In the Giant’s Eye’ mural.
“Serial doodler” Jon Burgerman was next up, painting a series of giant colourful characters back in December.
The first white wall project of 2011 was an impressive effort by Belgian street artist ROA, who created a detailed illustration called Three Horses.
The latest instalment in the series is by London graffer SheOne, who has created a striking image called Black Lightning on a gable end property. It took two days for him to complete, with production company J6 Films (also based at Hoults Yard) on hand to capture the process. It set up a time-lapse camera and filmed the artist at work.
One of the unavoidable truths is everything is going file-based. This is accepted as a reasonably good thing by many who’ve given file-based production a try, though, whatever the production, there are still plenty of niggles to sort out each time.
An often cited and potentially catastrophic issue when going file-based is ensuring rushes are kept safe and aren’t accidentally erased or put onto a single hard drive that gets corrupted resulting in the loss of irreplaceable footage.
There are a number of ways to create a safe environment for file-based rushes, principally based around the role of the DIT who, on location, takes care of offloading file-based rushes from memory cards to hard drives, backing up the information and preparing the cards for reuse.
The management of these rushes after the shoot can often be a bit messy though, with rushes sometimes being badly labelled up and no one quite sure who should take responsibility of the drives.
A newly launched “online video production” tool called Aframe, aims to make the transition from tape-based to file-based production much more straightforward by creating a Facebook-style environment providing a safe, instantly accessible online home for your rushes.
The way it works is that, on location, rushes are uploaded onto your Aframe space where anyone in the production team can access the production pages to review the content, leave comments and so on. The rushes are automatically logged in real-time by a team based in Sunderland to make all the content searchable.
When it comes to post production, you then drag and drop the rushes from your Aframe account into the editor, and transfer the edit back again after each session. Once cutting is finished, Aframe replaces the lower res proxy images of the offline edit with the full res originals.
The full res cut is then available via Aframe to those working on the vfx, grading, audio and all other finishing stages.
Once a production is finished, the rushes remain on your Aframe account and proxy versions are instantly accessible whenever required. Aframe also has a system to monetise clips from your archive by selling appropriate material as stock footage to other Aframe users.
Aframe was co-created by ex-Unit md David Peto. The company behind Aframe raised £2m for its launch, and already has customers including Middlechild Productions, RDA TV, Ten Alps, Press Association, Red Earth Studios, Zig Zag Productions, Carbon Media and The Crewing Company.
“Aframe replaces hard drives, bikes and FTP with instant, agile filmmaking,” says Peto. “There are loads of people archiving irreplaceable data onto £100 external hard drives. This isn’t surprisingly – why should a creative company be an IT company? We make the process affordable and easy to do, meaning they can focus on making programmes.”
“Aframe is a web-based tool that takes you through the process from the front-end. You can plan the entire production within the system, upload proxy files from the shoot, share them, etc. All of it has metadata attached and is searchable. We bring down five hours worth of editable quality clips in 30 minutes. You do the edit, then press a button and it grabs the high-res versions.”
The system is subscription-based so if you stop using it you have to take your content back again. And while it appears to offer a convenient one-stop shop for rushes management on file-based productions, it’s doing very little that you couldn’t already do before, albeit with separate packages.
“You could do all the bits of Aframe before,” admits Peto, “But they were all separate and you didn’t have the chance to integrate each of the parts, so it was all quite difficult to use. We’ve taken all the bits and built Aframe from the ground up, and built it so it’s very easy to use. It’s as easy to use as Facebook.”
The cost for an individual user of Aframe starts from £14.99 a month, while £399 a month buys you a plan for five projects and 10 users, 2.5TB of storage and access to the whole system. It’s pay as you go and you can ramp up and increase storage when required and then drop it back down to the original plan.
“We keep the finished programme and an archive of all the rushes. All proxy copies of long-term archive storage are kept online and are still usable,” adds Peto. “We also organise clip sales of redundant clips, with the buyers being other Aframe users.”
As recently as 18 months ago you could have counted the number of network commissions coming out of Northern Ireland on one hand and still had a few fingers left over. Now it’s an entirely different landscape, with the majority of indies looking outside the local market and landing network shows, primarily for the BBC but also increasingly commissions for the US, and the occasional C4 project too.
The BBC’s push in Northern Ireland
This sea change in outlook for Northern Ireland’s indies is largely down to the BBC making a concerted effort to engage with the sector. It is steadily building up network spend in Belfast as it comes good on its commitment to boost levels of network commissions in Northern Ireland to 3% by 2016. Current estimates are it’s already at around 2%, which is a significant increase on the figure of less than 1% only three years ago.
The latest BBC network show from Northern Ireland is Wild Rover’s prime-time National Lottery game show Secret Fortune, which has also been picked up for the US market, with the US version being co-produced by American Idol producer Nigel Lythgoe.
Other examples of BBC network commissions from Belfast over the last year or so include Green Inc’s BBC1 series Ask Rhod Gilbert and its BBC2 series The Many Faces Of…, an assortment of one-off BBC4 docs by Double Band including Britain Goes Camping and High Flyers: How Britain Took To The Air, The Beauty Of… BBC4 docs made by Tern TV’s Belfast office and animation series by Sixteen South and Waddell Media-owned Flickerpix for CBeebies and CBBC.
“The 3% aim for network commissions is a 71% increase on what we had and a very welcome stretch,” says BBC Northern Ireland’s head of programmes Ailsa Orr. “We had further to climb than others but it’s probably around 2% now. The strategy was lots of different targets in lots of different genre to see where success would come and we’ve seen great successes with factual and entertainment.”
The strategy for BBC Northern Ireland is to closely align local commissions with network ambitions, and it has recently appointed Susan Lovell to look after local commissions and work alongside Ailsa Orr to put this joined-up strategy into practice. “We work over both local and network, and don’t think we can distinguish between the two, they have to be aligned,” says Orr. “We work very strategically with key indie suppliers so our local commissions support the network.”
As an example of this, Orr says: “We’re very strategic about getting comedy on the map, with [local commission] Sketchy, by Green Inc, and finding new comedy stand up talent. We also raise the profile of people locally, including mind-mapper David Meade [with Wild Rover’s local commission, The David Meade Project], who we’re raising up for the network.”
Alan Tyler’s role
Another major step forward for Northern Ireland’s indies came when Alan Tyler started as executive editor, entertainment commissioning at the BBC in the middle of 2009. He’s responsible for entertainment programming from outside of London across all BBC channels, with his remit including all lottery output as well as a selection of primetime shows.
“Alan Tyler has started a huge sea change in entertainment, he’s a real advocate for the indies here and I’ve lots of plaudits for Alan,” says Wild Rover’s md Phil Morrow. “Everyone was sceptical as to whether regional commissioners would work as a strategy, but it does because he’s not successful if we’re not.”
“Secret Fortune is our first one off the block with Alan and has huge international potential. It’s been optioned all over Europe and is a massive game changer for us. We’re now getting pretty good shots at major spaces in the broadcasting landscape.”
Similarly, Green Inc’s md Stephen Stewart says: “Alan Tyler’s entertainment department has been great for getting BBC network stuff. We’ve done Ask Rhod Gilbert for BBC1 and The Many Faces of… series for BBC2 and we’re hoping to do more of these very soon. We also did a BBC4 one-off called Men About the House."
Channel 4’s efforts
C4 is now also showing signs of wanting to do more with Belfast’s indies, through its Creative Diversity department, headed up by Stuart Cosgrove, which is making a concerted effort to reach out to the Northern Ireland production community.
Long-standing indie Waddell Media now makes C4’s well-respected 4thought.tv strand that follows the C4 news every weeknight, and many of Belfast’s production outfits are broadly optimistic about their chances of soon also securing C4 commissions.
“Landing a network commission for C4 has been our main focus and we’re getting very close,” says Brendan Hughes, who heads up Tern TV’s Belfast office. “I’ve been surprised by how C4 engages with Belfast and think they are doing a terrific job. They are beginning to put a lot of effort in but none of us deserve to get a commission, you need a very good idea.”
“C4 is just a little bit behind the wave, compared to the BBC,” believes Richard Williams, CEO, Northern Ireland Screen. “Stuart Cosgrove’s department can get a fair distance with energy and commitment, and I know Waddells is optimistic for more from C4.”
Double Band’s md Dermot Lavery is also cautiously optimistic about something happening with C4 soon: “Eight years ago, we would have been successful at securing C4 work, but that changed. Now C4 is going through another change and there’s a sense of another push there, with Stuart Cosgrove’s diversity department. I get the sense it’s fighting fit again and I’m hoping there will more business for companies here.”
Waddell Media’s creative director Janine Waddell says its success with 4thought.tv came about after a concentrated effort by the indie to secure a commission: “It took a lot of effort and was about employing the right execs – it was a high risk but it paid off. We’re now developing more things including a potential series for C4.”
Green Inc is another Northern Ireland indie actively engaged in conversations with C4. “I’ve had chats with Stuart Cosgrove and it seems to be gearing up well, though they clearly have some way to go as yet,” says md Stephen Stewart.
With his focus very much on the BBC over recent years, Wild Rover’s Morrow hasn’t been pursuing potential opportunities with C4. “We’ve not had much from them but we’ve also not done much pitching. Our development effort has gone into the BBC. With C4 it would be a cold pitch, which is always tougher and your chances of success are lower.”
The burgeoning US market
The other big market for Belfast’s indies is America, with Waddell Media leading the way with series for Discovery and other key broadcasters, and the likes of Wild Rover and Below The Radar amongst the other production outfits finding success in the States.
“We met the Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney [who directed Taxi To the Dark Side and Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room] in Galway and set up a partnership programme with him,” says Below The Radar md Trevor Birney. “Gibney makes four or five docs a year and it’s a huge learning process for us to discover how he funds them. We’re launching an online news and current affairs platform called The Detail and are discussing doing a documentary about Northern Ireland with Gibney as exec producer. The doc would talk about Northern Ireland here and now, in a similar way to how Gibney approached his doc about Enron.”
The Belfast trailblazers in the US, Waddell Media, set up a New York office three years ago, headed up by Jon-Barrie Waddell. “We’ve really expanded into the US market and have now completed productions for Nat Geo, Discovery, A&E, The History Channel and G4,” he explains. “It’s a good market and around 40% of our work is now for the US.”
Waddell’s success is being mirrored by Wild Rover, which is making major inroads with its recently developed LE game show formats. Both Secret Fortune and another Wild Rover show, Take The Money and Run, are being remade for the US market, the latter having been picked up by ABC with Jerry Bruckheimer exec producing. “We’ve very, very big international ambitions for doing very big primetime projects,” says Morrow.
The newly buoyant Belfast scene isn’t entirely obsessed with network and international shows – the bread and butter work for local broadcasters that kept the indie scene vibrant through darker times is still an important market. Local commissions for BBC Northern Ireland and RTE are in relatively plentiful supply, while Irish language broadcaster TG4 and, to a lesser extent UTV, also provide work for Belfast’s indies.
“Northern Ireland is better placed than some – we compete for Nations quotas, can get work from the Republic of Ireland, have a BBC local broadcaster and are now targeting the US market,” summarises Double Band’s Laverty. Green Inc’s Stewart says: “30% of our work is now for the network, and the rest is local commissions. We’ve two big RTE shows – The Daily Show and Four Live – which are a substantial part of our business. For BBC Northern Ireland we’ve a cookery format called Stuffed and a comedy sketch show called Sketchy, and we’ve a gardening series called Glorious Gardens for UTV.”
The Game of Thrones effect
The other big talking point in Northern Ireland is HBO’s Game of Thrones, which recently completed shooting and posting there. Northern Ireland Screen was heavily involved in bringing the production to Belfast, and part funded the production, which is apparently the largest TV production to shoot in the UK.
“Sector wide, Game of Thrones has been a huge deal – it brought in a lot of money and puts to rest any issues as to whether Northern Ireland can deliver big drama,” says Wild Rover’s Morrow.
“It’s a most amazing thing Richard Williams has done, and has proven to London there’s no reason Northern Ireland can’t do a big production,” agrees Below The Radar’s Birney. But, he adds, “It’s all about what footprint will be left in Northern Ireland – where’s the legacy? Are the writing team, DoP and directorial skills dripping into the DNA of the production sector?”
The series was edited at Belfast’s Yellow Moon, which spent £200k gearing up for it. “We supplied the cutting rooms and did the dailies and offline,” says md Greg Darby. “If it comes back for another five years, which is possible, we can hire sound people and colourists and really bolster up our facilities.”
The indie sector in Belfast
Belfast’s independent production companies aren’t particularly clustered in any single location and are instead scattered around the city centre. This is a pretty compact area so it’s easy enough to get from one indie to another quickly enough.
There is also an established and growing production community on the outskirts of Belfast city centre, in the suburb of Holywood, which is home to Waddell Media, Green Inc, animation company Flickerpix and post house Yellow Moon. Most indies say there’s a community feel about the sector in Belfast, with a number of those running the key indies getting together informally now and again for a “coffee and a moan”. The regularly updated Northern Ireland Screen website (www.northernirelandscreen.co.uk) is most people’s first port of call for news and information about the local production community.
Australian vfx plug-in maker CoreMelt – apparently the designers of “filthy fast effects for editors with better things to do” – is giving away 33 of its vfx plug-ins in a newly-launched package called CoreMeltFREE.
The 33 free vfx plug-ins are lifted from its full package of more than 200 GPU-accelerated plug-ins, CoreMelt Complete V2 and includes soft organic glows and blurs, advanced colour correction tools, instant photo montages and audio reactive animations.
The free plug-ins are designed for motion graphics artists and editors working in FCP, Final Cup Express, Motion and After Effects, and are completely unrestricted.
Those downloading CoreMeltFREE before the end of this month also receive a 30% discount off the cost of CoreMelt Complete V2, which is usually £263 plus VAT.
“We’ve cherry picked some of the most useful plug-ins from the V2 product line so that prospective and current customers can freely explore the depth and breadth of our product offerings, and experience the creative latitude, intuitive control and reliability editing professionals around the world have come to rely on," says Roger Bolton, CoreMelt founder and director.
Click here to view tutorial videos for CoreMeltFREE