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Otto Nemenz interview

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Otto Nemenz Remembers and Predicts

This year Otto Nemenz, founder and CEO of the Otto Nemenz International, can celebrate not only the 25th anniversary of his company, but also the 40th anniversary of his association with the entertainment industry: he has been involved with the business since 1964. His education includes a degree in engineering from the Vienna Technical Institute in Austria, and he is a director of photography and a member of IATSE Local 600. He is known for his many excellent contacts with industry professionals, both on the management and the creative level. Here he recalls how he started and grew his company, and reflects on the state of the industry today.

Below the Line: You were a cinematographer before starting your business.
Otto Nemenz: Yes, I was a cinematographer 25 years ago, doing a lot of commercials and television work like after-school specials and Saturday morning shows for kids. All were shot on 16 mm.
BTL: Why did you start a rental business?
Nemenz: One of the main reasons is that when I started shooting 16 in the early ’70s, 16 mm equipment in this town was in very bad shape. You could not really get a decent 16 mm camera. So I started buying 16 mm cameras. The first one I bought I used for shooting TV for almost a year. Then I bought another one. They were Eclair cameras. I collected the best cameras and before I knew it I had about six of them sitting in my garage.
BTL: So you started renting them?
Nemenz: What happened was that a lot of my colleagues in those days also worked with 16 mm, and they had the same problem. They couldn’t find decent equipment. So they were asking me, “Whenever you’re not shooting, can I use your camera?” I said, “Sure.” Before I knew it I was in business, renting those cameras out of my garage. I was very knowledgeable because I was also a camera technician, so I fine-tuned the equipment myself.
BTL: Where did you live?
Nemenz: In Pacific Palisades. Then I moved to Brentwood. Some of the neighbors got a little upset with the trucks picking up cameras from my garage, breaking off tree branches. Every time a truck broke off a branch I had to come up with another excuse. I ran out of excuses so 25 years ago I started Otto Nemenz International in Hollywood. I rented a storefront on Sunset Blvd.
BTL: Did you have employees?
Nemenz: I started with three people. I was my own best customer. But we didn’t have a lot of cameras, so every time I went to shoot, half the cameras were gone.
BTL: How long did you continue to shoot?
Nemenz: For another 10 years. I did commercials, documentaries, industrials, and a lot of kids shows. Everything was shot on film. My first employee was Alex Wengert, who is my general manager now. He has been with me for 25 years. He is an incredible guy, and I’m very thankful to him. He knows the business inside-out. We kind of grew up together.
BTL: Why did you stop shooting?
Nemenz: As business grew, I got more involved in running it and less involved in cinematography. After we grew to 15 employees, I had to make a decision: do I spend more time running my business and building it, or do leave the business aside and spend more time being a director of photography. Also, I got to the point in my work where I couldn’t take any long-term jobs any more, like TV series; I was only taking short jobs like commercials. So I gave up shooting and decided to run my business.
BTL: Can you describe your company’s growth?
Nemenz: We reached a high of 50 employees in the ’90s, which was an extremely strong period. It was strong up to about three years ago. Then suddenly the business leveled off in the last two years. Looking back over 25 years, I had 22 very good years and the last two years were not that great. That’s true of the business overall, not just my company.
BTL: Why do you think the industry has stopped growing?
Nemenz: It’s a combination of a lot of things. The biggest problem has been runaway production. Because of currency rates, people started looking for other places to shoot. Canada was a first choice. Vancouver picked up a lot of business. Then it went to places like Australia and New Zealand. Then Prague, Romania and Bulgaria came in. Production is going everywhere. Now with the dollar having gotten weaker over the past year we hope that some of that business will stay in town. We’ll all benefit from that.
BTL: What about technical changes?
Nemenz: That’s the other thing. High definition is much stronger now than it was, say, five years ago, with a lot of television shows going to high def. But at the same time I would say something very positive: we also see 16 mm coming back again, especially Super 16. Also, Eastman Kodak has introduced Vision 2 film stock, which gives you incredibly good quality. And overall, I’m told by many producers that it’s still cheaper to shoot Super 16 than to shoot high definition. So we see a slow comeback in 16 and in Super 16. I hope this will continue.
BTL: What’s in store for 35 mm?
Nemenz: In 35 we’re seeing more and more use of 3-perf for TV series. That’s for economic reasons, because you save 25% on stock, 25% on developing, you don’t have to reload as many times. Three-perf is the future of 35. Especially in television. We’re going to see it come more slowly into the feature business. And who knows what will happen with commercials, which are still being shot 4 perf. I wouldn’t be surprised to see 90% of our business going 3 perf a few years from now.
BTL: What’s the trade-off with 3-perf?
Nemenz: There’s no loss in quality. Basically, you’re just not wasting any negative. You’re just using it more efficiently. The only drawback is that if you have errors in the gate it gets critical because the frame lines are very thin in 3 perf. Whereas if you’re shooting 4 perf full aperture you have a lot more room to play with.
BTL: How much of your camera inventory is Arri?
Nemenz: The majority. We also have Moviecam customers, but our inventory is mainly Arri.
BTL: And lenses?
Nemenz: We have a great variety and the best of everything, including Cooke, Zeiss, Cooke zooms and Angenieux zooms. Some customers prefer Cooke, some prefer Zeiss. In my opinion they’re both excellent lenses. It’s like cars. Some people prefer BMW, some prefer Mercedes. They’re both excellent cars.
BTL: We hear about dropping prices in rentals putting pressure on profit margins.
Nemenz: That is true. Because of an oversupply of equipment right now, prices have been destabilized by all of us. We’ve had to adjust to market conditions. In the short term the producer gets the benefit, but in the long term the producer ends up paying for it. When you compete with lower pricing, you cut personnel, and that can hurt the quality of service.
BTL: Your company has always been known for its service.
Nemenz: We’ve always had a big service staff. Today we have about 25 technicians—experts in camera electronics, optics, lenses—servicing, repairing, doing nothing else. Whenever equipment comes back it goes to different departments, everybody checks it out, gets it tuned up and makes it ready to go out again.
BTL: Is everything done on your premises?
Nemenz: Yes, we do everything in-house. The only things we ever send out are those that are under warranty. By not having to rely on people outside our company, we are able to maintain a strict high quality with everything we have. We also have a very nice machine shop, with several machinists and designers who do nothing else but build special accessories. When customers want to make modifications and changes, we make those changes. We design them, and then we manufacture them. That’s a privilege our customers have. There are other places where they can get a camera and a lens, but custom accessories they can’t get at most other places.
BTL: What do you think the future has in store?
Nemenz: We listen to our customers. Whatever they want, whatever technology they want us to have, that’s what we’ll give them. We’ve survived the last 25 years and have done very well. So we’re looking forward to another 25 years.

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