Film back from the brink: Kodak motion picture film into the 2020s

By John Barlow, January 2020

If you shoot a movie on 35mm film this year, it will almost certainly be shot on Kodak’s latest VISION3 stock. FilmoTec GmbH excepted (a German manufacturer producing specialist black and white motion picture film under the ‘ORWO’ brand), as of 1 January 2020, Kodak are the sole company still producing 35mm motion picture film.

Fuji, the only other company manufacturing motion picture film into the 2000s, stopped all production of their motion picture film in March 2013. The proliferation of digital filmmaking and decreased demand for film were explicitly cited by Fuji as the reasons for their decision to wield the axe. As of March 2013, Fuji were reported to have been providing 20 percent of all film used globally for studio projects. Rivals Kodak were already close to a market monopoly by this point, providing the remaining 80 percent. However, Kodak had been (and was still) experiencing its own considerable difficulties and the future of their motion picture film production looked far from certain.

Founded in 1880 in Rochester, NY, the iconic Eastman Kodak Company was famously one of the pioneers of photography and had grown into a large multinational through the 20th Century. Its global employee roster peaked at 144,000 in 1988. Revenues exceeded $13 billion in 2003. The Kodak brand and related trademarks were registered in 160 countries around the globe. Despite years of success and its market-leading status, the onset of the digital revolution hit the company hard. As the demand for film cameras and film declined, Kodak struggled with the transition to manufacturing digital cameras, products which themselves were soon to be displaced by smart phones with comprehensive digital camera capabilities. Combined with operational difficulties in the form of legacy liabilities from underfunded pension plans and sizeable employee healthcare commitments, and environmental liabilities spread across a broad manufacturing footprint, Kodak was in trouble. By year-end 2011, Kodak faced inadequate liquidity, with annual sales of $6 billion, $4.7 billion in assets and more than $7 billion in liabilities. The company filed for bankruptcy in January 2012. Comprehensive restructuring following the bankruptcy saw Kodak’s emergence as two separate companies, Kodak (registered in the US) owned by US creditors and Kodak Alaris (registered in the UK) owned by Kodak’s UK Pension Plan (KPP).

Vintage Kodak sign
Vintage Kodak Logo, Photo by Stefano Bertolotti, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The iconic brand lived on and saw a marked revival, but Kodak’s motion picture film (produced by the Motion Picture and Entertainment Division, which in turn sits within the larger Consumer and Film Division) was still to struggle. In 2007 Kodak started a four-year phased introduction of their current VISION3 line of motion picture film stock. This replaced their older VISION2 line, which was introduced in 1997. VISION3 represented a significant investment of time, money and effort. It was a significant commitment to the future of motion picture film. It was a comprehensive overhaul of their stock across the board, with particular attention paid to flexibility in post-production. VISION3 was the first line of film stock created specifically for a digital workflow. It can be colour graded and edited just as any digital cinema footage can be. However, these improvements to their product were not reflected in the sales figures. The Wall Street Journal reported that Kodak’s motion picture film sales fell by a dramatic 96 percent over the period 2006-14. Motion picture film was loosing Kodak considerable amounts of money.

The bad news for lovers of film on film in the 2010’s wasn’t just limited to the (mis)fortunes of Fuji and Kodak. The general shift to digital meant that other parts of the motion picture film infrastructure began to crumble. In the acquisition side of the industry, between 2010 and 2011, the last three majour motion picture film camera manufacturers, ARRI, Panavision, and Aaton, all ceased producing film cameras to focus exclusively on their digital models. Commenting in 2009, the then ARRI Vice-President of Camera Products, Bill Russell, explained “The demand for film cameras on a global basis has all but disappeared” and according to the camera rentals, “the amount of film camera utilisation in the overall schedule is probably between 30 to 40 percent”. In post-production and exhibition, processing labs were consolidating or closing as demand for developing, printing and distribution dwindled. The overwhelming majority of films transitioned from photo chemical finishing to digital intermediates. Senior industry figures like the then International Cinematographer Guild President, Steven Poster, and then Deluxe Digital Media Executive Vice President, Gray Ainsworth, were talking of having reached a tipping point. Things were looking bleak. The writing was all but on the wall.

Panavision 35mm camera
35mm Panavision Camera, Photo by Major Eleven, CC BY-SA 3.0

Fast forward to 2015 and after the lifting of a well-guarded press embargo, positive and dramatic news arrived from Kodak, like a bolt from the blue. Following extensive lobbying by high profile users of film such as directors Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino and J. J. Abrams, in 2015 Kodak secured agreements with a string of majour Hollywood studios to supply them with motion picture film. These included deals with Sony Pictures, Paramount, NBC Universal, Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, Disney, and the (now former) Weinstein Company. This was in many respects a quite extraordinary development. It saw studios commit to buying set quantities of Kodak’s motion picture film products for the upcoming years, irrespective of the studio’s existing shooting plans, be they on film or digital. It was widely perceived as representing (collectively) a deal that (in essence) saved motion picture film. On the announcement of the deal, Kodak CEO Jeff Clarke explained how “film has long been – and will remain – a vital part of our culture. With the support of the studios, we will continue to provide motion picture film, with its unparalleled richness and unique textures, to enable filmmakers to tell their stories and demonstrate their art”.

Alongside the studio deals Kodak engaged leading creative talent in promoting what they termed ‘the magic of film’, and partnered with key industry vendors. An example of the latter included the purchase of London’s ‘iDalies’ lab, which became Kodak Film Lab London and moved to brand new premises at Pinewood Studios. This Pinewood facility offers comprehensive negative processing services for motion picture films of 16mm, 35mm and 65mm gauges. The company has also invested in facilities in Long Island City, New York, where after its opening in May 2019 Steven Spielberg was the first client with his latest feature ‘The Papers’.

Clarke expected Kodak to lose money on film production in the first year and return to profit by 2016. Speaking at Cannes 2016 Steven Overman, President of Kodak’s Consumer and Film Division said “Kodak’s decision over 24 months ago to double down on our support of film as a medium was one of the most prescient choices we’ve made”. Overman was clear that the strategy was a success, stating “It’s worked. We’ve turned the trajectory around. In Europe alone, sales of 35mm motion picture film have doubled in 12 months.” Kodak’s reported financial results for the third quarter 2019 include a net loss of $5 million on revenues of $315 million, but also crucial growth in key print and film product areas. Revenues for the Company’s film business grew 21 percent year-over-year for the year to date.

15 films at the 2017 Cannes film festival were shot on Kodak stock. Sean Baker’s ‘The Florida Project’, was shot on both 35mm and an iPhone, showing there’s a place for digital and film even in the same production. Films shot on motion picture film nominated for Oscars in 2019 include: Spike Lee’s ‘BlacKkKlansman’; Yorgos Lanthimos’ ‘The Favourite’; Hirokazu Kore-eda’s ‘Shoplifters’; John Krasinski’s ‘A Quiet Place’; Adam McKay’s ‘Vice’; Damien Chazelle’s ‘First Man’; Marc Forster’s ‘Christopher Robin’; Steven Spielberg’s ‘Ready Player One’; and James Gray’s ‘Ad Astra’. Director’s have turned to film for a number of recent blockbusters. In contrast to Lucas’ entirely digital prequels, J. J. Abrams decided to shoot ‘Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens’ on 35mm. Colin Trevorrow’s ‘Jurassic World’ was filmed in both 35mm and 65mm. Zack Snyder’s ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’ and ‘Justice League’, and Patty Jenkin’s ‘Wonder Woman’ were all filmed with Kodak products. Amongst other other high-profile films shot on motion picture film in 2019 include: Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Irishman’; Harmony Korine’s ‘The Beach Bum’; Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’; Michael Goi’s ‘Mary’; J. J. Abrams ‘Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker’; Benedict Andrews’ ‘Seberg’; Robert Eggers’ ‘The Lighthouse’; and Kriv Stenders’ ‘Danger Close’.

Poster for Benedict Andrews' 'Seberg' 2019
Poster for Benedict Andrews’ ‘Seberg’, 2019, A fim shot on a Panavision 35mm camera and processed at the new Kodak Film Lab, New York

Endless debates rage as to the merits of film v digital, of latitude v resolution, and so many other relative qualities and shortcomings of the different shooting formats. There are no definitive ‘winning’ arguments in these debates. There is no agreement. People will continue to make compelling arguments one way or another for as long as there are different ways to record moving images.

What the filmmaking community can agree on is that the preservation of motion picture film as a viable commercial shooting medium is fantastic news for anyone and everyone who values choice and having access to the widest possible variety of creative tools to tell a story on screen. Filmmakers of this generation and hopefully generations to come will continue to have the chance to realise their projects on film as so many greats have done over the past 100+ years of films’ sometimes triumphant, sometimes troubled, but always rich, history. Such opportunities extend beyond Hollywood studio productions. So long as 35mm motion picture film is manufactured, then the ecosystem of artist / experimental / indie filmmakers who use smaller 16mm and 8mm gauge film will be guaranteed access to film, as the larger stock is cut down and perforated to make these.

Maintaining a sound financial footing for motion picture film is absolutely critical, but Kodak’s breakthrough in achieving that goal in 2015 came with a huge sideways bonus for filmmakers. As Kodak CEO Jeff Clarke put it, “a large part of this will be a deeper recognition that film is valuable”. The value of which Clarke spoke is rooted as much in intertwined, emotional notions of history and art as it is in business and finance. This notion of film being valuable will, I think, be one of the most enduring messages to come out of the set-backs endured by motion picture film in the 2010s.

Of course there are those, myself included, who have concerns about Kodak’s current monopoly. Kodak’s acquisition of iDalies, for example, means Cinelab London is the only other competitor for 35mm processing in Britain, a majour and growing market for 35mm motion picture film. Needless to say this leaves the UK badly exposed to any potential downturn in Kodak’s fortunes and / or detrimental changes to its overall business strategy. The sooner FILM Ferrania (a recent grassroots effort to restart independent manufacture in Italy) can get some new motion picture film out the door (and this remains a huge challenge) the better. A difficult decade for those with an interest in making and watching movies shot on film is over though. Thanks to Kodak at least, the next decade is certainly looking a lot brighter

#FilmWorthy

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