The location guy

Location Equipment Supply operates in a cool niche.
Patrick Flannery
April 19, 2012
By
Everyone wants a niche. If you can find a segment of the market where you are recognized as the go-to supplier, life and business get a lot easier. But getting to that position is the tricky part. In Paul Potvin’s case, it took an eclectic journey down a number of unusual paths.

posters  
The Location Equipment Supply office is festooned with posters from the movie sets it has supplied. The Canadian Rental Association Ontario got a look at them at its April 18 meeting.
 
In his last years in high school, Potvin landed a job working at Max Ward’s (the former owner of WardAir) cottage in the Northwest Territories. It was a private, fly-in fishing lodge about 60 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Like many young men his age, Potvin thought going on the road in the entertainment business as a roadie would be a great job. The difference in his case was, he met a woman at Ward’s lodge who could actually help him get into that business. She had a friend who was a film location manager in Toronto, Potvin’s home town. When he returned from the North, he gave her a call and landed a job on the set of a show called Top Cops.

Potvin worked as a production assistant for two years, loving every minute of it. “Then I decided to go to school,” he remembers. “You went from making good money and working and having a lot of fun to going to school and being completely broke.” He quickly decided that his program (photography) was a dead end and that switching to film would not get him any closer to working in the film industry than he already was. So he had the difficult conversation with his father, quit school and went back to helping film crews with special effects, props and production for another two years. During this time, as he ran from place to place all over the city collecting the gear the set needed, he could clearly see the need for a one-stop rental business offering everything film crews need to shoot on location.

Potvin’s parents owned a manufacturing business, so Potvin was comfortable with the idea of starting his own company. He was fortunate to have their guidance in the early days. “One of the guys I went to Ryerson with said, ‘Hey, let’s be business partners,’ and I still remember my mom saying, ‘If you can avoid it, do not take on a partner.’” She even offered to loan Potvin some money if it would help him avoid entering a partnership.

The first goal was to get established with a film set. Potvin targeted the Keanu Reeves feature Johnny Mnemonic, which was shooting in Toronto in 1994.  He was living in an 800-square-foot loft in downtown Toronto, and basically turned his apartment into a warehouse for the business. He would essentially hang around the movie set and ask people if they needed anything. Then he would run and buy it, then bring it back to his apartment after they were done with it.

“I remember I was going to pick up some floor mats and they were covered with mud,” Potvin says. “So I went to the local Value Mart and rented one of those little Mr. Clean steam cleaner things and steam cleaned them in my apartment. It was a loft so I had all the exposed pipes so I hung them over the pipes to dry.” Potvin did not have a vehicle of his own at the time, so his girlfriend’s Toyota was sometimes pressed into service. “I was delivering some barricades and I accidently put the crossbar through the front window,” Potvin remembers.

Potvin was trying to hold down his regular job with the original production company at the time, but it soon became evident that it was not going to work out. Potvin would arrive at work and get a call from a client needing something delivered urgently. He would take lunch right then, having only just arrived, to make the delivery, then sneak back onto the set when he got back. The final straw broke over a spoon.

“I was what they call a props buyer so I had to go out and buy all the props,” he explains. “In one of the scenes of this show called Due South there was a scene where this girl was eating ice cream and she was all sad. So I talked to the actress and asked her what kind of ice cream she likes and she said, ‘Haagen-Dasz’ but at that time you could not show the labels so we had to have the containers ‘Greeked.’ So Shelly is the prop master and she said, ‘Paul, bring the ice cream out,’ and here we go with the scene. Then she said, ‘Paul, bring the spoon, where is the spoon?’ and I didn’t have a spoon. So I went and grabbed a plastic spoon and now the actress was trying to eat Haagen-Dazs ice cream with a plastic spoon.”

Apparently, eating hard, frozen ice cream with a bending plastic spoon did not set quite the mood of disconsolate comfort eating the director wanted, and a furious Shelly gave Potvin the option of quitting or getting fired.

Thus launched on his own, Potvin bounced around to the cheapest locations he could find, including a coach house connected to a frat house and a garage where you blew the fuses in the store next door if you plugged in too many things at once. In 1996 he moved into his first real store, a 1,700-square-foot location near King and Dufferin. It only took him two years to grow out of that and move to a 6,300-square-foot location on Judson where he stayed for the next 12 years.

cage  
Potvin has renovated his warehouse to work better for his operation, including this security cage that allows customers to enter the building after hours with a code and drop off items.
 
October 2011 marked a big move for Location Equipment Supply from the downtown core to a massive, 40,000-square-foot office and warehouse facility that used to be a shoe manufacturer in Etobicoke. Potvin explains that the Toronto film industry has been creeping west for some time into the abandoned manufacturing space in the west Toronto periphery. “We have William F. White [a supplier of cameras and lighting] literally right across the road,” Potvin ticks off his fingers. “Absolute, which was downtown, their building got taken over for the Pan Am Games and they have moved in down the road. Two years ago a company called Cinespace Studios bought an old glass factory, the old Owens Corning factory, on Kipling. They totally converted that into a film studio. Kipling Avenue Studios. Production Services is apparently moving out here. There is Deluxe, which is a film processor and distributor for movies.” Potvin has positioned LES in the centre of a new cluster of film services companies.

The building is actually quite a bit bigger than Potvin needs right now, but it is nice to have extra space rather than too little. “The thing about Etobicoke that I discovered over the years in looking is it is either 4,000 square feet, 40,000 square feet or 400,000 square feet,” Potvin observes. “We will grow into it. It is a perfect fit for us. It has everything we need. We have three loading docks; in the old shop we only had one. We have a big parking lot with lots of space. There are 13 separate offices and there are only two of us in the office.”

Leveraging knowledge
In addition to finding the perfect location, Potvin has used his hard-won understanding of the challenges film crews face to obtain the perfect rental items for them. His inventory includes such things as bell systems that ring if someone breaks an infrared beam; wobble lights that won’t tip over and smash if bumped into; custom badges and signs to identify personnel and filming locations and huge, eight-foot-diameter fans. He sticks strictly to supplies for location shooting: no cameras or lighting. He also stays away from booms and lift equipment because another company in town has carved out a niche of its own providing boom lifts with lighting attached to film crews. His business sticks closely to the kinds of things he used to have to find as a production assistant and he knows enough to stay out of specialized fields that operate almost as separate trades within the film industry. For instance, he does not touch anything to do with “grip,” which is the industry name for anything that holds or moves a camera or microphone. He also doesn’t carry props, which are items that the actors actually interact with in a scene (“Set dressing” refers to items that are in the scene, but the actors don’t touch, but Potvin’s equipment is not usually in the film scene at all). He understands the rather subtle distinctions among all these areas of film shooting because he dealt with them daily for many years.

Potvin got involved in the Toronto film industry at the right time. In the ’90s, Toronto became a tremendously popular place for Hollywood crews to shoot for a number of reasons. The low Canadian dollar of the time meant costs were lower. And Toronto looks enough like a typical American city that non-locals usually cannot tell they are not looking at Chicago or Buffalo. Also, the government of Ontario aggressively markets Toronto as a location to Hollywood producers. “It is called the Ontario Media Development Corporation,” Potvin explains. “They promote filming in Ontario. They have a full-time office in L.A. and they are out there calling up big producers, saying, ‘Come on up here,’ or ‘I hear you are thinking about making a movie.’ Or maybe the producer calls up Toronto OMDC and says, ‘I’m thinking about making a movie. This is what I want. What have you got?’ So they will put together what is called a package. They will send someone like a tour guide out, and a location manager, and say, ‘Here are a couple of options for dumpy crack houses, and here is one for a big mansion and an office and whatever.’” With government agencies falling all over themselves to make Toronto an attractive filming destination, Potvin has seen business continue to grow even as the dollar has strengthened. He does not even bother with advertising. The film industry is a small community and Potvin is well-enough known now that just about anyone filming in Toronto calls him first.

According to Potvin, the key to serving the film market is adaptability. There is no such thing as nine-to-five in the film world, so he and his employees have to be ready to ask, “How high?” when directors say, “Jump.” If the director decides he wants flying monkeys coming out of the chimney, everyone has to pull together to make that happen. “There is not a whole lot of notice in the film industry,” Potvin says. 

Potvin has customized his services to the extent that he is often meeting needs film crews may not even know they have. His staff can load up a cube van with everything a crew will need for a shoot, complete with custom shelving for holding everything safely – a service Potvin says he usually throws in. He has guys in the back who can do woodwork to make custom boxes, stages, containers and frames. He has huge rolls of plastic that crews use to essentially shrink wrap the houses they shoot in so the foot traffic and equipment does not soil the carpets and walls. Someone who was not in the industry would never think to offer most of the items in Potvin’s inventory. His biggest and most common item? Orange traffic cones.

Despite his unusual and demanding market niche, Potvin is active in the Canadian Rental Association Ontario. He is second vice-president of the local now, and says he likes the discounts and just the chance to talk with others in the business. He also says the trade shows are good because he can often find construction equipment that can serve double-duty on a film set.

It looks like success is written in the stars for Location Equipment Supply.

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