Jamie writes in:
I just got a job as a PA (really an unpaid intern) on an independent movie. They put with the production designer as part of the ‘art department’. (really just the two of us). She told me we would be using Amazon Rentals for most of the set decorations. I can’t seem to find them online but I don’t want to ask too many questions and look like a newb.
Normally, this sort of email doesn’t merit a whole post. Some companies can be harder to find than others, and I’m happy to help out a “newb.”
But this is something different. There is no prop house called “Amazon Rentals,” so far as I know. What she’s actually talking about is a bit of a scam that a lot of low-budget productions utilize.
You might also hear the terms “Target rental” or even “Ikea rental.” These places, along with Amazon, have very generous return policies. You can often return items two months later. Which, coincidentally, is about how long it takes to shoot an indie movie.
Art departments who are strapped for cash will buy the set dec and props from one or all of these places. Then, after the shoot, anything that’s not completely destroyed gets returned. That money can then be used to, I dunno, pay the crew or something.
So why is this not quite ethical? A few reasons, really.
First, there’s almost a 0% chance you didn’t damage the item in some way. Production is rough on furniture. This is why the art department puts up “hot set” signs everywhere.
Second, you are costing them money. Besides the obvious shipping costs, they have to hire employees to pack and ship the item, then unpack and shelve it when you return it.
Third, imagine having done a job. You get paid, you deposit the money; you use that money to pay your rent, buy food, maybe get some new clothes. Then, two months later, your employer says, “Nah, nevermind. I didn’t like it. Gimme my money back.” That’s what you’re doing to these companies.
Of course, they voluntarily offer these return policies, while you probably don’t. That being said, they allow returns as a form of customer service. If you buy something knowing you’ll return it two months from now, you are decidedly not a customer.
Not Just the Art Department
Other people on set do this, too. I’ve actually seen entire films shot on cameras and lenses that the producers had no intention of keeping. I really don’t know why, but this somehow seems worse1 than buying a couple of Ikea paintings to hang in the background, and then returning them later.
Costume designers sometimes do something similar with their wardrobes. They’ll make an arrangement with a clothing designer or boutique clothing shop where they get a bunch of outfits for no money up front. Then, once the correct costume is chosen, they’ll pay only for the clothes that wind up on screen, and return the rest unused.
The clothing shops allow this because they know the actors have to try on the items before they’ll get approved by the production. There’s no way the actors, costume designer, director, and producers will drive all over town trying on outfits from different stores. So, lending the clothes is really no different than letting you try on an outfit in the store; it’s just not happening in the store.
Plus, fashion designers know there’s great marketing potential if the film turns out to be a hit. That’s less likely to happen for a couch or a lamp purchased from Target.
What is a Lowly PA to do?
So, are Amazon rentals a sign you’re on a terrible, unprofessional production? Not really. It definitely means you’re on a low-budget show (see also: the “unpaid PA“.) But you gotta start somewhere.
Just don’t return anything you actually damaged. That’s just shitty.
- If you can think of a moral justification for why this is worse, let me know in the comments.↩