Can Filmmakers Really Help Kodak Craft A New Image?

By J. Sperling Reich | August 4, 2014 8:55 am PDT
Tired of Hearing Film Is Dead

The long standing uncertainty over the future of 35mm motion picture film was finally laid to rest this past week by the Eastman Kodak Co. causing the industry to heave a huge sigh of relief. That’s one way to look at the company’s announcement of an agreement with what the Wall Street Journal referred to as a “coalition of studios” for the guaranteed purchase of set quantities of film stock over the next several years. Another way to see the news is as a temporary stay of execution for the medium.

Whether the stay will turn into a permanent reprieve for film depends on many factors not the least of which are the length of the deal, the amount of film stock being manufactured and the continued creative preference of filmmakers. More importantly, it hinges on whether Kodak changes the strategy and approach of its historic motion picture business. If recent maneuvers are any indication, there may be some hope, however slim. Let me explain.

Mandatory Prerequisite Background
No story about the current state of the Eastman Kodak Co. or its future potential would be complete without reviewing the company’s last several years, specifically the time period leading up to and after January 19, 2012. That was the date the 124-year-old company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The adoption of digital imaging and photography both in the consumer and commercial markets devastated Kodak which wasn’t able to modify its business and product lines fast enough. The recent announcement about motion picture film stock finally gives us a little glimpse into the financial damage the company suffered during the transition to digital cinema.

According to Jeff Clarke, who took over as the CEO of Kodak this past March, the sale of motion picture film declined from 12.4 billion linear feet in 2006 to 449 million feet last year. You don’t need a degree from a fancy business school to know that a 96% decrease in revenue is a bad thing. The sale of film stock, once a profitable cash cow for the company, now accounts for under 10% of Kodak’s USD $2.2 billion annual revenue.

Since 2003 Kodak laid off 47,000 employees (and stand at around 8,500), closed 13 manufacturing plants along with 130 processing labs. The industry as a whole went from 260 motion picture laboratories capable of handling film in 2011 to 111 last year. As certain studios ceased the distribution of their releases on 35mm even giants such as Deluxe shuttered their film operations in the United Kingdom and United States, auctioning off their analog lab equipment.

This year Clarke reports Kodak will likely lose money manufacturing motion picture film and hopes to break even in 2015.

Examining The Past To Predict The Future
Much has been written over the past few years about how Kodak wound up in such dire straits despite having survived more than a century as one of the most widely recognized and dominant brands in the world. Most news stories focused on the company’s slow response to the transition toward digital photography. Though this may be true, Kodak may have avoided its financial difficulties if it had spent more time studying not only its own past, but also that of photographic technology which has never remained static for long.

The French inventor Nicéphore Niépce began experimenting with photographic processes in the late 1700’s having grown frustrated at his attempts to draw and trace images from a camera obscure. More than 20 years later he was still working on a process to burn images into paper that he named heliography. The earliest known example of Niépce’s efforts from 1825 is considered to be the world’s first photograph. Niépce quickly transitioned away from photo-etching when he teamed up with Louis Daguerre in 1829 to create the physautotype, a photographic process that worked with lavender oil. Daguerre would go on to develop the photographic process further after Niépce died in 1833, inventing a process that might be more familiar to most of us; Daguerréotype.

From there Henry Fox Talbot went on to create paper negatives in 1834, initially upset that his experiment created a reverse image. He would later go on to patent what is now referred to as tintypes. All of this was but a fraction of the innovation in photography completed before George Eastman, the founder of Kodak, started a company in 1880 to manufacture photographic dry plates. It took another five years for the company to come up with film and it wasn’t until 1900 that Kodak introduced the Brownie camera popularizing photography for the masses.

This is all to say that like photography, as with most art forms, was constantly evolving. Kodak was a large part of advancing photography as an art form and technology in the early 20th Century. They company was so willing to push their own capabilities and the products they could develop that in the mid-1930s they even manufactured hand grenades for the military. Obviously, somewhere along the line Kodak abandoned its culture of innovation, otherwise it would have spent more time developing the very first digital camera one of its engineers invented in 1975. That’s right, the digital camera was invented at Kodak during the 1970’s. Hard to believe.

When digital technology usurped Kodak’s product line, the company only had to look at its own history to see the path forward. Instead, Kodak gained a reputation during that time period for its defensive business tactics. Whenever a competitor arrived on the market with a more advanced and desirable product, Kodak simply lowered the price of its own entrenched offering to make it more appealing. That’s precisely what they did with motion picture film stock; as digital cinema made distribution less costly, Kodak simply lowered the price of their film to the same level.

To be sure, Kodak made several attempts at breaking into complimentary businesses that weren’t reliant on their motion picture film, though such half-hearted attempts at pursuing digital cinema strategy for pre-show, servers, virtual print fees (VPFs) and the like were plagued by conflicting organizational agendas or internal (and external) confusion.

Filmmakers To The Rescue
Some of today’s most renown filmmakers could be faulted for behaving in the same myopic manner as Kodak. Rather than embrace the inevitability that the tools they use to practice their craft will evolve with technology, they are holding fast to the medium with which they are most familiar and which they believe still superior. It should come as no surprise then that Kodak has turned to these filmmakers for assistance in their struggle to save motion picture film.

J.J. Abrams, Judd Apatow, Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino have all vowed to continue using traditional film to shoot their movies and urged studios to ensure stock exists for future use. The only notable helmer absent from this list might be Steven Spielberg who up until “Tintin” still shot 35mm film and edited on a Moviola. Heavyweights such as James Cameron and Peter Jackson began using digital cameras ages ago and as such would not be expected to appear in Kodak’s defense.

Kodak is demonstrating some industry savvy by appealing directly to creatives, a tactic used quite adeptly by Dolby most recently as they rolled out Atmos. Having written proprietary technology out of digital cinema specifications, studios weren’t eager to take up Atmos and get into another sound format war as they had in the 1990s. So, Dolby turned to filmmakers such as Ang Li, Abrams and Jackson knowing that if creatives fell in love with the immersive sound technology, they would request that it be used on their releases, thus going around studio decision makers.

Historically saying “no” to filmmakers, especially A-list directors, on a frequent basis has been the cause of more than a few studio executives resigning from their positions to “spend more time with family”. As Bob Weinstein, co-chairman of the Weinstein Company told the Wall Street Journal about the Kodak arrangement, “I don’t think we could look some of our filmmakers in the eyes if we didn’t do it”. And there you have it.

Other studios joining Weinstein include Paramount Pictures, Universal Pictures, Walt Disney Studios and Warner Bros. Though these same studios would need to continue employing celluloid for archival purposes, their requirements would not have been enough to sustain Kodak’s motion picture business. The company was already toying with the idea of shutting down its motion picture film manufacturing plant in Rochester, NY if orders didn’t increase.

There is one key difference between Kodak’s strategy with filmmakers and that of Dolby’s. Dolby was soliciting creative backing and support for an emerging technology that is subjectively superior to the current standard. Kodak, on the other hand, is utilizing filmmakers to make the case for a technology many view as obsolete to the standard being adopted, at least when it comes to exhibition (not for archiving). That motion picture film provides filmmakers with a different (and some argue, better) aesthetic when acquiring images presents Kodak with an opportunity to transform its business.

We Make Film

Promoting Artisanal Filmmaking
Much in the way hipsters have helped popularize certain trends in mainstream society, what with their third wave coffee, organic produce, craft beer and micro-distilleries, there is a general movement toward patronizing smaller, craft producers of certain goods and services. I’m still waiting for manual typewriters to make a comeback, with students and wannabe writers giving up their laptops for more traditional writing utensils. Without the craft and artisanal movement websites such as Etsy wouldn’t exist… or maybe it’s the other way around.

Whatever the case, my point is that Kodak was once a brand that was seen as “cool” and “cutting edge”. Over the last twenty years the brand became irrelevant as customer wants and needs shifted toward digital technologies provided by other manufacturers. In short, Kodak as a brand became “unhip” and archaic. The company is viewed similar to typewriter manufacturers Underwood, Remington and Smith-Corona; as anachronistic.

Now is the time for Kodak to drastically alter the way it markets products such as motion picture film to customers. Instead of simply taking the money from studios to buttress film stock for a few more years worth of revenue, Kodak should completely upend its strategy by reinventing the brand with consumers. Though studios, distributors and filmmakers are the company’s true, if not only, customers, Kodak could be transforming its image by promoting film as the choice of the more discerning crafts person. The filmmakers who really care about making great, hand crafted movies, like in the days when miniatures were used instead of CGI, shoot on real film… with real sprockets. The kind that requires a lab and projector to see what you’ve shot, rather than the instant gratification of seeing it played back seconds later on a monitor. Truly talented filmmakers, the ones that make movies a cut above the rest, use Kodak motion picture film.

Put another way, cool hipsters don’t drink Starbucks, they drink Blue Bottle, Stumptown or Inteligentsia. They don’t drink Budweiser, Miller or even Samuel Adams, but rather Firestone, Stone Brewing or Sculpin. And if you’re really cool, you drink Pabst Blue Ribbon because it harkens back to the 1950’s and 60’s.

This artisanal approach might also attract younger filmmakers more comfortable with digital tools – ones who learned their craft without ever touching celluloid. Wanting to achieve a certain “look” or hoping to work in the tradition of predecessors they admire, up-and-coming creatives might occasionally opt to shoot film on certain projects, foregoing their familiar digital workflow. Scorsese suggested as much in a recent statement about the Kodak deal:

“Film is also an art form, and young people who are driven to make films should have access to the tools and materials that were the building blocks of that art form. Would anyone dream of telling young artists to throw away their paints and canvases because iPads are so much easier to carry? Of course not.”

Scorsese went on to make the aesthetic argument for traditional celluloid:

“Everything we do in HD is an effort to re-create the look of film. Film, even now, offers a richer visual palette than HD.”

This very well may be true, though as the history of photography has taught us, there will someday be something superior to film stock, crisper than HD and more robust than digital cinema. We just don’t know what it is yet. When we eventually figure it out, the aesthetic of film as an art form will shift and evolve over time, possibly to a point where few actually recall the look and feel of an image captured on traditional motion picture film.

This thought reminds me of the moment, a few years back, when my seven-year-old daughter asked, “Papa, what did you study in college?”

“Film,” I said. “Filmmaking and film production.”

She thought for a second and then asked, “What’s film?”

J. Sperling Reich