Sony Tape Shortage Sends Film, TV Industry Reeling

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The closure of the Japan-based factory that has the monopoly on production of a tape crucial to the TV and film industry has Hollywood insiders scrambling to cope with the shortage.

The Sony plant, based in Sendai, was shuttered after the devastating earthquake and tsunami, halting production of the coveted Sony HDCAM SR Tape, which is used to create multiple copies of films and TV shows for distribution. Two-hour tapes ran $250 before the shortage. Now, a 90-minute HDCAM SR tape goes for $999.

"I won't use the word catastrophe, but it's an emergency situation in the broadcast community," said Dave Miller, who is the chief operating officer at the media supply company Empress Media, Inc.

Miller's company, which is based in midtown Manhattan, does much of its business from selling tape to television stations and post-production companies.

"Unfortunately, Sony had a monopoly on the product and they made it in one place," Miller said. "So, a confluence of factors together make it a large emergency because a lot of people in broadcast have come to rely on this format — they have the cameras, they have the decks. ... It's how this content is being produced and distributed across the country and across the world now to a larger extent."

Miller said his company's supply of Sony HDCAM SR tape stock sold out as soon as TV and film companies got word that the Sendai factory was closing. It remains a unclear when the plant will resume manufacturing elsewhere.

"Sony has shipped nothing, and is not being very informative when they're going to get production on their key lines again," Miller said. "And the other major manufacturers, they can't double production in a week or frankly in a month."

Sony did not get back to WNYC with a comment about when tape production would begin again.

Many of the nation's television networks stocked up on Sony HDCAM SR tape after the Sendai factory closed.

The Scripps Network, which includes the Food Network, the Travel Channel and HGTV, among others, said it was also looking at whether it could accept alternate mastering formats—it now masters on HDCAM—and was allowing producers to recycle media cards.

"So far, the shortage has not had a significant impact, but if it should continue, we may have to get even more creative in how we handle the situation," said Cindy McConkey, a Scripps spokesperson.

Sam Verda, who works as the general manager of the eastern region for the media storage firm Preferred Media, Incorporated in North Bergen, N.J., said his company had seen an uptick in clients' requests for tape evaluation, the process of recycling tapes.

Preferred Media degausses tapes with magnets then does a thorough process of making sure tapes are clean before sending them out to clients. Its clients range from film companies to television networks.

Verda said tape evaluation was a cost-efficient way to deal with the Sony HDCAM SR tape shortage.

Sony HDCAM SR tape"First of all, you can recycle that tape quite a number of times," he said, depending on the condition of the tape. "Everything being good, you can probably use that tape and recycle it anywhere from 20 to 30 times."

Independent filmmaker Walter Forsberg, who is also a research fellow at NYU's Moving Image Archiving and Preservation Department, said he worked hard to find a HDCAM tape this week. The Toronto Hot Docs Film Festival where his film "Farenheit 7 Eleven" will be screened required that he send the festival a copy of the film using that format.

"I called up Technicolor and wanted to output from my computer to tape so that we could exhibit the work, and I was told, 'We can book you the output for your film but we definitely don't have any HDCAM stock. You'll have to provide that,'" Forsberg said. "And so the last week was spent calling up every tape supplier and vendor that I could find on the Internet, asking them — and hearing from them — that they had none."

In the end, Forsberg's roommate, a video editor, gave him a tape from his own supply.

Michael Jackman, whose company Deluxe does everything from film production to color correction to producing ads for iTunes, said until March, his company had dealt almost exclusively in Sony HDCAM SR tape stock.

"In film and television and many of the other productions that we do, the standard deliverable, which is the master, we create has been by default HDCAM SR tape," Jackman said. "Even when we do a feature film, we then create a master for video production from which Blue-rays and DVDs are made and that has also been delivered on HDCAM SR. And then when we do a network television show — HBO etc. — same thing."

Deluxe has dealt with the shortage by recycling tapes for clients and hopes to soon be delivering films to clients in an even more sustainable format: digitized files.

"Honestly, it's green to recycle and even greener to be using a file-based work flow 'cause then there is no, you know, disposable stock or consumable stock," he said. "It's literally a file that sits on a drive."

The following networks either declined to comment on this story, or said they could not locate a spokesperson to comment on this story: NBC, CBS, Fox, WNET, HBO, A&E, ESPN and the Rainbow company's network, which includes AMC, IFC and Sundance, among others.

Other companies with factories affected by the earthquake include Fuij, Maxell and Microboards Technology.