Panavision Shoots for New Stars : High-Tech 'Platinum' Camera System Aimed at a Wider Market

Times Staff Writer

It was billed as a premiere, Hollywood-style. Towering over the chilled prawns, crudites and smoked salmon at the Century Plaza Hotel fete earlier this month were two ice sculptures of Panavision motion-picture cameras.

This wasn't the introduction of a big-budget feature film, but of a camera system.

Cinematographers, decked in denim and leather, cheered for the new so-called platinum system. The cameras, with digital readouts and other high-tech features, mark the first revamping of the Panavision line since its "gold" system was unveiled in 1972.

The gold system brought Tarzana-based Panavision, which makes the world's most highly regarded motion picture cameras, four Academy Awards. Company officials are hoping the platinum successor will earn similar accolades.

But the loudest applause at the Oct. 1 premiere came when John Farrand, 42, the flamboyant Englishman who heads Panavision, told his audience that the company was going to cut the rental fee for its equipment by an average of 25%.

Behind the Price Cut

The reason for the drop, Farrand said, is that Panavision, which fancies itself a fixture in show business as much as any movie studio, also has gained a reputation for being too expensive.

"Panavision is like a Rolls Royce or a Lamborghini in that we make very finely tuned products," said Farrand, who drives a fire-engine-red Ferrari. "Our problem with that image is we can't get lower-budgeted producers to pick up the phone and call us."

In fact, nearly all 35mm motion-picture cameras, generally the industry standard for feature films, are highly crafted, handmade instruments that no one has been able to mass-produce.

Panavision has just one serious competitor, Arriflex of West Germany. An Arriflex spokesman said the biggest share of the company's business is serving cinematographers who film television commercials and music videos, which tend to have lower budgets than feature films.

At the same time, Arriflex cameras recently were used in the film "Out of Africa," which won seven Oscars at this year's Academy Awards, including one for the film's cinematographer, David Watkins.

Panavision cameras are used in 80% of all feature film productions made by North American studios, officials say, but the company wants to increase its presence in lower-budget productions such as documentaries. And abroad, Panavision's market share is only 30%.

Not even the richest studios buy Panavision cameras; they are not for sale. The company leases rather than sells its equipment.

Through dealers or on its own, Panavision rents out equipment for between $3,500 and $25,000 a week. A middle-of-the-road system that costs about $7,000 a week is worth more than $1 million, Farrand said.

Arriflex operates differently, selling its equipment to rental houses or, in some cases, to commercial studios. Farrand says Panavision's rentals cost about 15% more than Arriflex's.

Leasing suits the accounting practices of studios that budget films as independent economic ventures, and thus do not want to make big capital expenditures. For Panavision, leasing offers greater quality control, important to an image-conscious firm whose name is a household word appearing on screen credits.

"With leasing, they overhaul the cameras every time they go out, so I'm guaranteed what is basically a new camera every time," said Harry Mathias, an independent cinematographer who says he always requests Panavision equipment.

Besides costing less, platinum system cameras offer other advantages over their gold system predecessors. For example, the viewfinder is much brighter, a feature that is useful in poor lighting conditions, and the camera is quieter, which helps in intimate, close-up scenes.

The system has gotten rave reviews. "It's so quiet, you can't hear it," said Harvey Genkins, a cinematographer for 36 years.

Don Henderson, manager of film production for Walt Disney Imagineering in Glendale, said he would find the digital coding on the new platinum system especially useful in synchronizing images with sound in complex television-production processes.

"They truly are the ultra-cameras," he said.

Camera operators, who often visit Panavision to put together systems for particular films, have a say in suggesting various additions, such as a hook for their sunglasses on the side of newer-model cameras.

In some cases, a cinematographer can have equipment custom-made. For example, in the 1962 film "Lawrence of Arabia," Panavision made a lens that was used to photograph actor Peter O'Toole from a great distance, desert heat rising in waves around him.

Cannon Group's "Cobra," starring Sylvester Stallone, had a special Panavision fish-eye lens used in a chase scene that allowed the camera to film both sides of the street as well as the actors in one of the speeding cars.

Long an Influence

Panavision has long had an impact on film making. The company was founded in 1954 by Robert Gottschalk, then 36, a technician who worked at a small retail camera store in Westwood and who enjoyed experimenting with wide-vision lenses.

Gottschalk, a man who is said by many to have ruled Panavision "with an iron fist," was president of the company until he was stabbed to death in his Bel Air home in 1982. His live-in lover, Laos (Ronnie) Chuman, now 31, was convicted and sentenced to 26 years to life in state prison for the crime, which attracted widespread publicity.

Panavision's first business in the 1950s was selling lenses to MGM for projectors in movie houses. The lenses were for the new, wide-screen processes known as Cinemascope and VistaVision. Gottschalk began designing and making camera lenses soon afterward.

The company began designing cameras in 1966. The goal at the time was to develop a smaller, lightweight unit more adapted to location shoots for the cinema verite style becoming increasingly popular at the time in Europe.

Developing the new equipment was not easy. In the 1960s, cameras typically weighed 60 pounds and required four people to maneuver and lift them.

So when Panavision and Arriflex, then a maker of camera lights and production equipment, both came up with their 20-pound hand-held cameras in the early 1970s, it created a sensation.

Panavision's lightweight camera, the Panaflex, was introduced along with the gold system of lenses and accessories. It helped standardize what was then mostly a business of mixing and matching camera bodies with lenses.

Panavision's ownership changed several times, although company officials say it always has been profitable. In March, 1985, Warner Communications sold it to two investor groups, Boston Ventures Limited Partnership and Interscope Communications, for $52.5 million in cash, along with warrants giving Warner the right to buy back up to 15% of the company.

The investor groups installed Farrand, a former electronics entrepreneur who never attended college, as president and chief executive. Farrand had been the head of the coin-operated products division of Atari, formerly a unit of Warner.

Six months after the deal was completed, Farrand and Frederick W. Field, a member of the Marshall Field family of Chicago controlling Interscope, bought out the other investors. They remain the sole owners.

Farrand said he views the price cut for the new platinum system as a way of broadening the company's market and speeding its growth. Panavision had 1985 revenue of approximately $50 million, up 50%since 1980.

'A Growth Company'

"Everybody thinks that we own Hollywood, the world," Farrand said. "They think we have a lock on the market. Well, we don't. This is a growth company."

As part of its expansion, the company started a research center last year that employs 28, several hundred yards west of the company's headquarters on Oxnard Street.

Overall, the company employs 250, most of whom work in Tarzana, at a facility that befittingly looks like a cross between a Hollywood studio and a manufacturing plant.

Staffers, including top executives, typically wear open-neck shirts and jeans to work, although they are known to pull out all the stops with evening wear for special Hollywood occasions.

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