Thieves Target Austin Film Studios and Rental Firms

Local companies beefing up security as high-end gear stolen

Police are looking for this couple wanted in connection with a burglary at ProFor in Buda, one of a string of robberies that have affected rental houses and studios around Austin (Image Courtesy of ProFor)

A crime spree is plaguing film and TV production companies and equipment rental houses, as thieves have been targeting these businesses to steal tens of thousands of dollars' worth of high-end lenses and cameras.

Robbers have hit a number of production houses and rental companies in the Austin area, including Virtigo Pictures, Caster Studios, ProFor, Bennet Creative Video Production, Speculo Aerials, and the Austin School of Film (which was hit twice), as well as attempted break-ins at GEAR Cameras + Lighting and Texas Media Systems. Kristina Smith, CEO of Virtigo (formerly Co-Production House) said that she came into the office on May 26 and told studio cofounder Justin Kirchoff that she'd noticed that the glass had been scratched, as if someone had been marking the building. It was not until later in the day that they realized that they had been burgled, and the thief had taken lenses and cameras.

“It could have been worse,” Smith said, but missing that equipment “kind of put us out of business for a month.”

Equipment theft is a major risk within the rental and studio industries and it comes with a massive price tag, as a single lens set can cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Over the last few years there have been industrywide initiatives from groups like the Production Equipment Rental Group (PERG) to help crack down on the losses. Part of the Entertainment Services and Technology Association (ESTA), PERG has established Rental Guard, a watch list of missing equipment that allows members to make sure that they're not unwittingly buying or leasing stolen equipment, and to report it if they do find any. So far, the program has been able to return millions of dollars in lost equipment to the original owners.

However, the thefts don't all come from break-ins. Equipment has been known to disappear from sets, and Kirchoff said he had been talking to another company in Fort Worth that had been hit by what seems to be a ring covering several states. Those criminals have been running a scam, where someone rents equipment using a stolen credit card and fake driver's license, then simply never returns the gear, and a third party sells it. However, because they've used online markets, the sellers have been detected “and they ended up being able to recover some of what was stolen.”

Another shot of the couple wanted in connection with a burglary at ProFor in Buda, one of a string of robberies that have affected rental houses and studios around Austin (Image Courtesy of ProFor)

One complicating factor in solving the Austin spree is that that not all of the break-ins happened in Austin. Caster Studios is in Dripping Springs and ProFor in Buda, meaning the investigations are split among multiple jurisdictions.

ProFor partner/producer Clint Howell said that on May 26 the suspects, a man and a woman, broke in with a crowbar, “helped themselves, and then they left.” As with most of the other robberies, the thieves mostly took lenses and cameras – equipment that comes in its own carry case and is easy to grab – as well as raiding the fridge and taking some personal items from employee desks. Like Virtigo, the losses didn't just mean missing gear, but also lost work and rentals. “We rely on this specialized equipment,” he said. “It’s our livelihood.”

Howell said that the male caught on his security cameras looked like the Caster suspect and that the same man attempted to get into GEAR Cameras + Lighting on Cesar Chavez on March 26. Speaking for GEAR, Kirk Miles explained that they got into the building, but “the alarm appears to have been sufficient to scare them off.”

So far there seems to have been no forward motion on the investigation, even with the videos and full inventories of stolen property, and very little contact from police. Some of the equipment taken should be easy to spot (for example, one of the cameras taken from Virtigo was a limited-edition white RED Komodo), and Howell said that he has been “trawling resale sights, Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace,” but there's been no sign of any of the missing equipment. “My gut is that there’s a bigger ring willing to take things off people’s hands.”

Kirchoff said that he'd given up on recovering anything and added that he suspects it may have been sold out of state or even shipped overseas.

For now, the general advice for all the studios and rental companies has been to beef up security (some companies are even getting their addresses delisted), and to not only check their own insurance policies but get their clients to check theirs too. Howell said, “As production companies we have pretty large insurance packages, but it doesn’t make it sting any less.”

If there's been one positive in this, it's that the Austin film community has rallied around to help the affected businesses and to share information of the losses (Smith credited Austin Film Commission Director Brian Gannon in particular for helping firms know that there was anything going on). There is still a general mood of optimism, brought about by the growth of small and large studios, the increase in funding for the Texas Moving Image Industry Incentive Program, and the arrival of new shows like Paramount's Yellowstone spin-off, 1923. However, Howell said, “Even with the excitement of everything that’s coming, it’s a bit of a dampener.”

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