Amazon Rentals

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.

Ethically Dubious

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.

Coincidence? I think not!
I really hope the sequel lives up to the original.

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.

Ikea art.
Although, to be fair, I might actually keep this one…

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.

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)

  1. If you can think of a moral justification for why this is worse, let me know in the comments.
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10 Responses

  1. I am not a fan of the buy-it, Use-it, Return-it, way of doing things. It’s immoral and dishonest. Big Box Retailers or even Amazon are NOT prop and set dressing rental houses. Other people make a legitimate business by renting props. Use them.

    I’m a prop master with 2 decades of experience. In our business, we over buy and return. That’s a given. If I buy 5 or 6 options to show a director, and he chooses one, then I have no problem returning the rest, but if it goes in front of camera, or gets dressed into a set, then it was used. Fair and Square. Pay for it.

  2. Amazon’s has now started putting return-by dates onto items listed in your purchase history. If you purchase something from Amazon, it’s a good idea to check that date before you assume you’ve still got 2 months to return it. You may find that return window is shorter than expected… which means the item might not be returnable at the end of the production.

    More importantly, the scamifications of buying and returning a ton of items from Amazon can leave your account on bad terms with Amazon. Most retailers aren’t very tolerant of excessive amounts of purchases and returns in a short period, particularly if items are returned obviously used or broken. This includes Target and Walmart. In fact, they can refuse to take your credit card under some circumstances. Anyone contemplating playing this ‘rental game’ for an employer should be wary. In fact, you shouldn’t do such purchases and returns under your own personal account. You should create an account specifically for that production and fund it using a prepaid Visa card or, better, a card number given to you by the production. If the production requests you use own personal card, them claiming later to reimburse you, you should consider this a highly dubious request.

    As it should go without saying, you shouldn’t ever use your own personal credit card to fund an employer’s business activities. You aren’t a bank. If they can’t afford to operate their business, then there’s a bigger problem afoot. If you fund items for them, you could find yourself stuck with a huge bill that the employer won’t (or can’t) pay. I’ve seen too many instances where employers have left employees hanging with more than $10k in travel expenses unwilling to pay them back. Don’t let your employer sponge off of your personal credit. Have them provide you with their credit card numbers to charge purchases onto their cards. If they can’t pay those cards back, it’s not your problem.

    My personal credit limit for an employer is $200. You will need to determine what yours is on your own. Personally, I won’t purchase any company asset on my own personal credit card in excess of $200. Even $200 is too much. However, if they refuse to pay me back, then I’m not out too much money. If I need to buy something that costs more than $200, they either need to provide me with a company card number or someone else will need to purchase the item. I’m very strict on this point with employers. I am NOT the First Bank of My Employer, so I don’t enjoy giving out free loans.

    1. I want to reiterate what you said about not using your personal card. Anyone reading this, you should NOT use your personal card. Ever. If you do, just assume that you are donating to the production and only be pleasantly surprised that you were reimbursed (if you were).

    2. A key thing I always emphasized was timeliness of reimbursement. It is a real convenience to have employees use their card, so I always shot for a prompt reimbursement, and encouraged folks to submit frequently (and required a monthly submission to avoid last minute surprises). This is a win win all around. Instead of chasing receipts employees bring them in to get reimbursed (win), the employee doesn’t pay the credit card bill to end of month but has cash in hand immediately (win) and get’s the points / cash back (win).

      I also always set very clear expectations on what to buy / limits and ate it if it was my screw-up or another persons (yes, this meant fighting with the powers that be to reimburse on stupid mistakes by folks). The reality is in many cases even if I could have done something cheaper / better, it’s not worth my time to figure it out – so it’s OK if an employee blows a bit extra because they don’t know… Plus employees like a touch of freedom.

      It’s not all bad out there.

  3. Not sure this tradition is limited to low budget production companies. As a PA I have done over $10,000 worth of returns for the wardrobe department. (think Bloomingdales. Lord and Taylor, etc.) And these were for national ad campaigns.

    You have never seen daggers coming so hard out the eyes as the commissioned salesperson losing money with each item returned.

    Definitely a painful hit for some poor retail person trying to get by.

  4. It’s ethical to rip off Amazon. From warehouse employees working themselves to literal near-death to them making big cities compete over who can give them the biggest tax beak (Chicago said Amazon could KEEP their payroll tax if they built HQ #2 in Chicago), there’s nothing wrong with hurting Jeff Bezo’s pocket by 0.0000000000000000000000000000000001%

    1. Wrong. Everything you say about Amazon may well be true, but ripping off is just that –ripping off. Your brand of “morality” is of the malleable sort, easily shaped to justify any form of bad behavior. By returning all those used items after a shoot, you’re just making all those abused warehouse employees work all the harder — in essence, making their lives worse in order to make your life as a low-budger producer/director/whatever a little better — which you justify by assuming that all you did was put a dent in Jeff Bezo’s wallet. If you really think that’s “ethical,” then your moral compass is badly broken…

      1. If you ever wonder how the GOP gets morons to vote against their own interests… take a look at this guy defending a company whose warehouse workers are scared to take bathroom breaks because they installed scanners that detect “inactivity”. I’ve talked to a worker who said he’d rather not drink water all day than get fired.

        1. Defending Amazon? If that’s what you gleaned from my comment, then you really need to brush up on your reading and comprehension skills. While you’re at it, you might want to rethink the situational ethics you’ve embraced in a two-wrongs-make-a-right philosophy. You can play that game for a while, but it’ll catch up with you sooner or later. Good luck in Hollywood, friend — you’re gonna need it…

    2. Def in the wrong. First, amazon often passes return costs back to original merchant. I work with some, this is a HUGE pain and they often KNOW they are getting scammed but amazon often requires they accept the returns.

      The cheaters (yes, you) who justify things all sorts of ways generally ruin it for everyone else. Costco got rid of their long electronics returns, thousands of hours are wasted by workers and small business owners trying to make up for the losses you cause.

      You are a drain on folks working together. You’re the person in the group no one trusts, because you backstab them before you can get out the door. Dealing with the morally malleable is tiring. And yes, I’ve heard ALL the excuses, but that’s what they usually are (it’s OK to steal from this store because…, it’s ok to cheat on this because…). Seriously, look around yourself and check to see if you are happy with your situation.

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