The Future of Film

By Conor Risch

© Jake Chessum
Jake Chessum made portraits of actress Jenny Shimizu for Corduroy magazine using film.

This is a slightly updated version of the article that appeared in the June issue of PDN with the title “Film Frenzy.”

When Eastman Kodak Company announced the discontinuation of its line of professional color reversal films on March 1 it was the latest disappointment in a months-long string of miserable news from the company. The slow march toward Kodak’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing in the beginning of 2012 was preceded by weeks of gloomy rumors and news stories about shares of the company’s common stock dropping below $1.

After Kodak’s bankruptcy announcement, photographers who over the past several years had seen film and paper stocks discontinued, labs shuttered, and analogue photography equipment and resources dwindle could be forgiven for believing that the drawn-out “death of film” was finally reaching its conclusion, and that the discontinuation of Kodak’s slide film was the beginning of the long-rumored end.

The reality, however, is that the film business remains profitable for Kodak and other film manufacturers, and film is showing glimmers of a resurgence among professional photographers and analogue enthusiasts. Manufacturers, photographers and retailers alike report signs of a rising demand for film. But whether or not Kodak’s film business will survive bankruptcy proceedings, and whether the film market will be sustainable long-term without a hike in prices, remains to be seen. (In early May, FujiFilm announced a 20 percent price increase for all of its films that will take effect in August 2012.)

The Profitability of Film
Ironically, Kodak’s U.S. professional film revenue grew 20 percent in 2011, and, according to Scott DiSabato, Kodak’s U.S. marketing manager for professional film, pro film sales in Europe and Japan are also showing signs of improvement. “Could [the U.S. market] be an early barometer of what is happening? I sure hope so,” DiSabato says. “The U.S., Japan and certain countries in Europe tend to lead all things photographic.”

DiSabato stops short of saying the decline in professional film sales has hit its low point, and that the pro market has begun to come back. “I think you’d like to see two-to-three years [of growth] in pro film before you made a statement like that, but there’s a lot going on.”

Kodak’s competitors have also recently suggested that film remains a profitable business. One manufacturer, Lomography, is seeing substantial growth.

FujiFilm declined to comment specifically on its 2011 film sales for this article. But in January, a FujiFilm product manager told a reporter for the Web site TechRadar that the company’s film division is still profitable, and claimed that the decline in worldwide film sales is slowing.

Michael Bain, a U.S. representative for Harman Technology, the company that manufactures Ilford films, reports that Ilford's sales were up in 2011. "This is a trend we began to see about three years ago after some years of declines," he says.

Lomography, a company that manufactures analogue cameras and film, says its worldwide sales doubled in 2011, when the company sold two million rolls of film. The labs at Lomography’s “Gallery Stores” in cities throughout the world “are constantly at capacity,” says U.S. marketing manager Angela Bilog.

Rebecca Kaplan, who owns photographic equipment retailer Glazer’s Camera in Seattle, reports that analogue photography products are “still a profit center for our business.” After the market shifted following the introduction of digital photography, Kaplan says, their film photography sales numbers have stayed consistent for the past five years.

B&H’s director of corporate communications, Henry Posner, notes that the store still stocks 35 different types of new 35mm film cameras and nearly 60 different enlargers. Though the amount of space devoted to analogue photography may shrink, Posner says, “We will continue to carry film, film-related supplies, darkroom, etc., as long as any remains available.”

The Pro Market
According to DiSabato, Kodak’s growth in the U.S. pro film market has come from three “segments”: fine-art and documentary photographers, which includes the education market; portrait and wedding photographers who are using film to differentiate their businesses; and what DiSabato calls the “lifestyle market,” people who aren’t necessarily professionals but who appreciate analogue photography on an esthetic level. Among commercial photographers, which Kodak classifies as everyone working professionally except for wedding and portrait photographers, “we’re seeing a bit of reemphasis on film, which is great,” DiSabato says.

Ken Canham, of K.B. Canham Cameras, a small manufacturer of large-format cameras, has been working with Kodak to establish a special-order film service that allows individual photographers or groups of photographers to order custom sizes of any of the emulsions Kodak offers. The only requirement is a minimum purchase of roughly $14,000 worth of film, depending on the emulsion. Canham put together his first order for 8 x 10-inch T-Max 400 film 16 months ago, and since then he’s done more than $160,000 in custom Kodak film orders. “We’re on our way to do more than that this year,” Canham adds.

While his first film order came from a group of photographers, the majority of Canham’s orders thus far have been from individuals from the United States as well as from places like China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Romania and Western Europe.

“I think the future of film looks good,” Canham says, “but the environment’s changed tremendously.” Instead of buying film as needed, large-format photographers have to get comfortable with planning ahead and paying several thousand dollars up front to buy a supply of film that may last years.

Ilford saw the most substantial growth in its 120 roll film and sheet films, including its ultra large format, or "ULF" films, for which it takes custom orders once a year. The program has been a "big success," Michael Bain says. He also credits growing interest in plastic and medium format cameras for part of the growth in 120 roll film sales. "We are very optimistic about the future," Bain adds. "We see continued success in the education market as well as the fine-art market."

Clients are also asking photographers to shoot film for certain jobs. Pari Dukovic, who shoots film exclusively, has been working for magazines like New York and The New Yorker, and says that editors come to him for the grainy, painterly look he achieves using high ISO black-and-white and color films. J.Crew asked Jake Chessum to shoot film for a project for one of their specialty stores in New York City a couple of years ago, and a few magazine editors have asked that he shoot film recently.

Photo students continue to use film, and educators continue to teach darkroom printing. Stephen Shore, who is head of the photography department at Bard College, says that a few years ago incoming students began showing up with no film or darkroom experience. More recently, during an introduction to the program he gives at the beginning of each year, when he told the students their education would be analogue until they were juniors, “spontaneously a bunch of students started clapping.”

“There was a trend toward digital,” Shore says, “and then, starting a couple of years ago, I saw a trend toward film.”

Film is certainly not dead, in other words. But whether it will continue to be sold in yellow boxes by the Eastman Kodak Company is still very much in the balance.

The Kodak Conundrum
The market for professional film, even if it continues to rally, is probably not enough to sustain Kodak’s film business long term, DiSabato says. “As things stand now, you would almost say no, [not] at the price points that people are used to today.” The overall film market—which includes consumer and motion picture film—remains in decline worldwide.

Kodak’s pro film business needs to generate earnings from operations for each film it offers. Profitability depends on economies of scale, and finding efficiencies in processes that are common to the manufacturing of pro, consumer and motion picture films. These include the production of components such as acetate base for film, canisters and boxes, things like dye couplers that need to be synthesized from raw organic chemicals over months-long periods, and of course emulsions. It also includes Kodak’s distribution infrastructure.

As demand for consumer film and motion picture film wanes, the fixed costs of manufacturing and distribution are shared among fewer rolls of film, and a greater percentage of those fixed costs are absorbed by the professional film business.

Kodak’s outdated manufacturing facilities are another issue affecting the profitability of all of its film businesses. Kodak’s factories and distribution facilities “were built decades ago for a much bigger traditional photographic market,” DiSabato notes.

Retooling for a smaller market “would help solve some of the problems,” DiSabato says. But despite positive signs in the U.S. pro film market, “it’s going to be hard to ever justify the investment necessary to right-size this when [the overall film market] is declining.

“It makes more sense to try to work with what we have and just be a lot smarter about it,” DiSabato adds. “I think it would take several more years of flat, sustainable [demand] and pockets of growth for the company to really look at it that way.”

The irony is that a small film company would have the opposite problem. DiSabato notes, “Someone who decided to get into film and can make it as well as Kodak would be growing and would be able to justify all sorts of investment.” That describes the situation Lomography is now enjoying.

“Even though the goliaths are having trouble making it work, there is always room for smaller and leaner companies like Lomography to create interesting and innovative film products,” says Lomography’s Bilog. While she wouldn’t comment specifically on whether the company would move into the pro film market, Bilog did say, “There is still a market for many of the films being discontinued by the big brands. We can’t give specifics, but there are always interesting and exciting film projects in the future.”

Five years ago Kodak did make the investment to retool and reformulate its recipe for color reversal film. Also known as chrome or color transparency film, this film type has suffered the worst decline in the professional photo market, DiSabato says. Even after the advent of digital photography, commercial photographers and studios continued to rely on transparency film because it provided a known color space that allowed for easy color matching for print. When digital photography advanced to the point where it provided equally reliable color management, demand for color reversal film went away.

Prior to retooling its film manufacturing, Kodak was producing large batches of color transparency emulsion, using what they needed, preserving what they could and then discarding the rest, because the “recipe” for color reversal emulsion was created for a much larger production run of film. “You may think you just need to reduce the materials [to create less], but it’s so different,” DiSabato explains. “You basically almost have to create new films again.”

Even with the investment Kodak made in retooling its production, “the rate of decline for transparency film still resulted in the decision we had to make recently” to stop producing transparency film, DiSabato says. Part of the reason the transparency film business wasn’t sustainable for Kodak was that “most of the components were completely unique,” he adds, meaning the film could not share costs with other products.

As Kodak has improved its Portra color negative films in recent years, the company has found ways to use components that are also used in consumer film and motion picture film manufacturing, improving efficiency and sharing costs. “That’s real good news for color negative,” DiSabato notes.

There are no plans to discontinue further films, “but nothing is off the table either,” DiSabato says. “We sometimes view this as pruning a tree. If a branch is sapping and sucking the life out of the tree, we’re going to prune it. Our management looks at professional film as a whole so we don’t want any one emulsion or format to make the entire range look unhealthy … It hurts me to say that because I love every film and I’ve met really passionate people on the other side of the camera that have made their living with these materials.”

Amid the uncertainty of Chapter 11 bankruptcy, Kodak’s U.S. pro film division is working to “improve profitability for professional film to the highest degree we can,” DiSabato says. “We know that the capital and the resources necessary to produce film are huge, but with all of that, film remains profitable.

“What we don’t know is what Kodak will look like in the future, so what we’re trying to do is basically lobby within the company to say: We’ve got a great business here, it identifies with and is a major component of our brand, it continues to make money for us, and we’re seeing great pockets of success here and there,” DiSabato adds. “But, other than in some cases worldwide, all film, all categories, we’re still in decline.”

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