The Surprising Fate of Film

June 8, 2016

By Greg Scoblete

When describing the state of film in 2016, one could do a lot worse than crib Charles Dickens’ famous opener from A Tale of Two Cities. For some film formats, it is the best of times. For other formats, not so much.

That may sound odd, even counterintuitive, given that so much film news of late highlights the termination of product lines and steep price increases on remaining films to cope with declining sales. But the state of film in 2016 defies easy generalization.

Instant film, for example, is enjoying the best of times—and not just relative to other moribund analogue formats. It’s legitimately a hot-selling product.

Fujifilm shipped 5 million Instax cameras in fiscal year 2015 compared to just 1.4 million digital cameras. To put that in perspective, the previous sales record of the Instax line was back in 2002, when the company sold 1 million of them. Not surprisingly, Instax film is also a hot seller. It even topped the charts in Amazon’s camera department during the 2015 holiday season.

According to Oskar Smolokowski, CEO of Impossible Project, the instant film and instant film camera business has never been stronger. According to Smolokowski’s back-of-the-envelope calculations, if you discount the business Polaroid did with government and corporate entities (which is now all digital), instant film sales in 2015 were at or very near the format’s all-time highs.

The Impossible Project, which was founded in the wake of Polaroid’s collapse to make instant film for Polaroid cameras, is no longer focused on preservation but on growing its user base and improving instant photography. The company sold a million film packs last year and is on pace to beat that number in 2016. “For us, the big thing now is working on the film and making it more instant and making it better,” Smolokowski says. “We’re reinventing the process.” That means developing a new instant film camera and new films that develop faster, he adds.

Instant photography’s rebirth is largely the result of young consumers who don’t see a digital camera as being all that fundamentally different from a smartphone, Smolokowski says. “But film is quite different. An instant photo is a completely different mindset. There’s more gravity with each shot.”

“Shooting any type of film, but especially instant film, is something that perhaps people don’t realize they miss because they haven’t done it for 15 years—or ever, if they’re below a certain age,” Lomography’s online marketing manager Katherine Phipps tells PDN via email. “But once they do, it’s an instant attraction to the process and the result.”

Film’s comeback has taken many forms, from Revolog’s handmade special effect films, such as “rasp,” which produces arty colored scratches, to Kodak’s ambitious relaunch of Super 8mm.

Motion picture film is also enjoying better times, albeit not as good as instant film. Poised on the brink of extinction, Kodak’s motion picture film business was rescued after several high profile directors, including Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan, publicly rallied to save it in 2014. Since then, support from the motion picture industry has pushed Kodak’s once beleaguered business back into the black. Though the company lost money every quarter on film in 2014, it was profitable every quarter in 2015, Steven Bellamy, President of Kodak’s Motion Picture Film business tells us via email.

The turnaround is now secure enough that Kodak no longer speaks of “saving” its business, but growing it.

To that end, the company has embarked on a more ambitious project of promoting the comeback of Super 8mm filmmaking for independent filmmakers, documentarians, consumers and everyone else operating outside the rarefied confines of Hollywood studios and blockbuster budgets. The company won a surprising amount of attention at the Consumer Electronics Show (of all places) when it announced plans to ship a line of Super 8mm film cameras later this year.

“Film is the artful medium, it is basically infinite in color and image characteristics,” Bellamy says. “Film is also future-proof. I had a meeting the other day with an owner of a treasure chest of content that was created in 1080P and 2K.  That person said that the market had completely dried up for licensing and those assets were no longer annuities because a 2K asset is obsolete in a 4K world. This is no different than when a 4K asset tries to make it in an 8K world, or an 8K asset in a 16K world.”

Filmmaker Pablo Madrid Lopez, who won Kodak’s international Super 8mm filmmaking competition in January, says that he has been offering his motion clients a Super 8mm option for the past few years. Since winning the contest, “a lot of clients ask me for [Super 8],” he tells us. Lomography, too, sees strong demand for the 16mm motion picture version of LomoChrome Purple—the company’s “ode to Kodachrome.” “It sells out every time we get stock in the U.S.,” Lomography’s Phipps says.

Other film formats, however, have not fared well. According to PMA Market Research, roll film sales have plunged from a high of 948 million rolls in 2000 to just 31 million in 2014. Fujifilm continues to scale back its roll film offerings and raise prices, repeatedly saying that demand is drying up. Without the pull of commercial opportunity, still photo film is more often relegated to personal projects or artwork.

“Unfortunately clients these day just don’t have the budget to pay for raw film, processing and scanning,” photographer Amanda Friedman tells us. “I wish they did.”

Friedman, like Serbian photographer Vladimir Milivojevich (aka “Boogie”), still shoots film for personal projects even if commercial opportunities are all but nonexistent. Boogie tells us he prizes film because “it exists in the real world, it’s not just a bunch of zeros and ones on some hard drive that will eventually fail one day.”

For Jeff Lipsky, shooting film is about “reconnecting with the cameras that I love.” Lipsky tells us he still brings a film camera and a roll of film to most jobs and will use them if there’s an opportunity. He’s even mixed in images shot on film with images shot digitally for clients, but says he hasn’t sold a client an image shot on film since the digital era.

Nevertheless, analogue photography retains enough of a passionate following that businesses such as Revolog and Lomography have carved out niches selling film and film cameras. According to Revolog co-founder Michael Krebs, the company’s film customers include pros working in the fashion industry. Lomography’s Phipps says that the company sees “a good number of young editorial photographers in our New York City store buying and processing film.”

Just as vinyl record sales have surged improbably in the face of streaming services, analogue photography and filmmaking has managed to survive and in some cases thrive, in the digital era. Long may they do so.

See the story in the digital edition (for PDN subscribers; login required).

CreativeLive Video Tutorial: How To Shoot With Film

Related: The Future of Film (2012)

(Instant) Film Is Not Dead: Fujifilm Sees Strong Sales of Instax Cameras (2015)

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