By Michael Stabile
When directors of the independent feature Gone wanted to send a copy of their documentary about a missing ex-pat to the Tribeca Film Festival a few days ago, they discovered that the high-end tape stock they needed to screen it there was gone too.
A Sony factory in Miyagi, Japan was the sole manufacturer of high-quality HDCAM-SR tapes used extensively in TV and film production. But it was badly damaged in the quake and tsunami, causing an industry that relies heavily on the tapes to panic. The pricey tapes that usually go for $280 now cost $1,000 or more -- and many shelves are empty.
While no one would confuse the relative severity of the two crises, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan reveals the fragile nature of the film industry's global supply chain.
Bill Macomber, owner of Fancy Film Post Production, a Los Angeles boutique post-production house in Silver Lake, says that in the immediate aftermath of the disaster larger production houses began buying out not only the HDCAM-SR stock, but also the lower-cost HDCAM tapes favored by independents for film exhibition.
Macomber, whose clients include both independent producers and television networks, says prices have skyrocketed.
"HDCAM-SR tapes are suddenly going for three or four times the cost that they were a few weeks ago -- a $280 tape is now easily a thousand dollars."
That is, if you can find them at all.
Supply house Comtel Promedia in Burbank is selling the few tapes it has left only to existing customers.
Online retailer TapesOnline.com offered us only a waiting list.
That left first-time filmmakers such as John and Gretchen Morning of Gone, which will premiere at Tribeca next month, calling in favors across the United States.
"We couldn't find any tapes in Los Angeles," says Dan Chalfen who is helping the Mornings produce the film, "except for a place in the [San Fernando] Valley that was asking far too much money."
"We went around to stores in New York, but consumer places were completely out of stock," says Chalfen. "Eventually, we were able to cobble together the tapes from various sources, including from a friend in Boulder where we were doing some post work."
Other filmmakers have taken to using so-called "one-pass" previously used tapes sold by companies like MSE Media Solutions in Commerce.
A few weeks ago, there wasn't much of a market. Today, these one-pass tapes too are in short supply and going for multiples of what a new tape once went for.
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The Mornings' situation isn't unique, says Macomber.
"We've got relationships with distributors, but a lot of independent filmmakers do not, and they're up against really big buyers who are snagging every piece of tape they can find. A lot of filmmakers have had to scramble to find tapes from friends who aren't currently in post-production."
The tape shortage won't be getting any better anytime soon.
In a statement released on its website Tuesday, Sony announced that operations at its flooded Tagajyo Plant - located in the devastated Miyagi prefecture -- would remain suspended indefinitely.