The End is Near; Buy Film or Order Champagne
by, 01-08-2012 at 12:32 PM (2583 Views)
I am not in the habit of cutting and pasting items from forum posts into this little blog, but the flurry of opinion and argumentation makes it almost impossible to make a point that rises above the din. So I'll record my thoughts here in slightly expanded form.
At issue is the demise of Eastman Kodak, that 120 year old American company founded by George Eastman himself in 1892. Kodak brought us so many wonderful "Kodak moments" that it's hard to imagine America without them. This snippet from another beautifully cinematic episode of Mad Men quite nicely sums up what Kodak was all about:
For some, it's quite an unpleasant shock to go from this plausible boardroom presentation... to today's market reality (click to expand thumbnail):
Clearly, there isn't much encouraging news from EK, and some see their demise as inevitable... and also a harbinger for the film market as whole.
It's time to set the nostalgia aside and ask what individual film photographers and studios should do, as we filmies go through yet another Chicken Little moment. What do we know for sure, versus what is being speculated? And how do we prepare ourselves?
First, it is apparent that Ilford is poised to capture most of Kodak's black & white market share; Fuji will likely capture the remnant colour market share and lure TMax enthusiasts with Acros. Ilford and Fuji will probably eke out more pure profit per unit sold than Kodak ever could. There are many reasons for this. One reason is Kodak's diversion of film-related resources to other sectors... a much maligned ballyhoo strategy which was arguably necessary, albeit improperly executed. Also, much of Kodak's manufacturing capacity already sits mothballed. It seems that little was done, at the precipice of the downturn, to ensure that the EK could scale back and maintain production -outsourcing as necessary- as the market contracted. But much of that capacity has already been picked up by other companies; if this weren't the case, then current prices would be much higher. Moreover, there has been a sense that many of us film shooters have been holding vigil while the company euthanatizes its film sector- a sense that has already driven many of us, somewhat bitterly, to their competitors.
So a big part of the good news, if there is any, is that the transition to companies like Ilford and Fuji is well underway, and both have better long-term position to defend and perhaps even expand their market. Regarding demand, this is of course worrisome in some film sectors (cine, e6) but quite solid in others (b&w). And as I have mentioned many times before, there is precedence of companies becoming far more profitable as the number of competitors declines. Yes, we don't like to compare rolls of film to cigarettes, but there you go, the business model is before you. Pursuing adjacent sectors and cannibalizing your competitors is how you do it. And those strategies can be very successful.
What does all this mean for the individual photographer? Years ago, when I heard that Polaroid was going under, I bought up a good amount of 8x10 polaroid. When deciding whether to invest in that, my motivating thought was: how much will the last polaroid print be worth? And the correct answer was, of course, priceless. Regardless of whether that last image is a cat's ass or the Queen of England. So, with no experience using 8x10 instant film, I bought... and then sold it a few months later at 3x+ profit, when I saw that the worth of the individual sheets exceeded the price I could set on my own 8x10 polaroid output. I don't like cats and I doubt the Queen would have me over, so why not let someone else shoot the frames. Last I heard, someone at a fancy studio in New York did profit quite handsomely from the 8x10 polaroid packs that I sold.
The moral of the story is that there is plenty of profit (financial and artistic) in reach of those confident enough of the long-term worth of their output to see beyond the ups and downs of individual companies. We who aim to record valuable images must recite, as a mantra, that the value of the images created by historic processes will actually increase in the coming years. The analogy to the aforementioned companies is clear. As less people produce high-quality, archival silver and Pt/Pd prints, the value of the output from remaining few will increase.
To put it another way: as long as the traditional process is completed to archival (=collectible) specifications, the image composition is solid, and the final image affirms the special capabilities of the medium, then the traditional print will be far more valuable than a comparable inkjet facsimile. That is, unless somebody really famous personalizes the inkjet- a rare exception!
It is my opinion that there is no better time to assert the long-term worth of traditional / alt process-derived imagery. We must make the best use of what is available, invest appropriately... and shoot, shoot, shoot... and print.
I do realize that some of you may not have sufficiently deep pockets and clear artistic visions, to profit from a longer-term investment in film. If so, then my best advice is to dress up like Don Draper and purchase some champagne... and lift your glass in honor of the brilliant people behind all the wonderful scientific and artistic accomplishments recorded by film for more than a century.