A simple solution to the color film crisis?

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Color film is in a kind of crisis. While 2022 has brought us good news – the release of Adox’s new Color Mission and ORWO’s promised NC 500 film – the lion’s share of color film is still made by the two surviving color photography giants, Fujifilm. and Eastman Kodak.

Whether Fujifilm is still in the color film game is a source of endless speculation, and not something to delve into in this article. What has emerged over the past few years is that the film is a low priority for the Japanese imaging and chemical company. Even some of their most beloved films – like wedding photographers’ favorite, the Pro 400H – didn’t survive the showdown.

Kodak is king. Since surviving bankruptcy in 2012, Eastman Kodak’s film has been marketed by Kodak Alaris, which has exclusive rights to sell Kodak films worldwide. In recent years, they’ve bucked the decade-and-a-half trend of film abandonments by bringing films back from the dead – Ektachrome E100 in 2017 – and even releasing films in formats that didn’t exist. previously. One of the more positive recent developments was the surprise unveiling of the Kodak Gold 200 120 earlier this year.

But that came amid a wider problem for those shooting color film: spiraling costs. The resurgence of interest in film photography over the past five years has fueled demand, and Kodak Alaris is struggling to keep up. On top of that, the Covid-19 pandemic has created even more problems. Color films are available sporadically around the world and prices have only moved in one direction: up.

Take this example: Kosmo Foto contacted one of the major London film retailers to find out about the price increase. In 2017, as the analogue resurgence began to gather pace, this store was selling Kodak Portra 400 35mm for £8 a roll, Kodak Ektar 100 for £7.50 a roll and a 36-frame roll Kodak ColorPlus 200 for £4. Look at that price again: £4.

Adox Color Mission (Photo: Adox)
Adox Color Mission is a welcome new addition to the color film ranks in 2022 (Pic: Adox)

In 2022, when these films can even be found for sale, the prices are almost unrecognizable. A five-pack of Kodak Portra 400s now cost pennies under £100 from a major UK retailer. Kodak Ektar 100 is hard to find at under £13 and the once humble ColorPlus is now priced at professional film. It’s rarely under £12 a roll now, and that’s where you can find it. I went nine months without seeing a single roll of it in London recently. This same store, for much of the pandemic, had a sign indicating what color films were in stock in front of the counter because the staff were so tired of saying the same thing dozens of times a day.

For the first time in years, I see die-hard film photographers turning their backs on color film. The current cost of living crisis will not have helped, but the steady drip of rising prices during the pandemic has accumulated so far. Some of these photographers stick to black and white, where there are still affordable options. Others seem to move away from the cinema altogether.

As someone running a film brand (admittedly black and white only) in 2022, I am acutely aware of the enormous challenges facing Eastman Kodak. Their problems, as the biggest and best-known movie producer, eclipse mine. Kodak is the first name most people think of when buying film.

They are still struggling to keep up with demand, even as logistics and industry return to anything like pre-Covid normality. This is partly a problem that stems from a decision made ten years ago. In 2012, Kodak closed its giant film production facility in Guadalajara, Mexico after producing films for 50 years. The Mexican factory had 16 huge reels for film production, and Kodak heads decided they would never need more than two; the rest were scrapped or sold. This estimate did not take into account the resurgence of interest in film that began a few years later, and Eastman Kodak has been catching up ever since.

So what does Kodak do? Inventing new films? Despite its recent call for new blood to join the company, it’s probably fair to say that most of these new workers won’t be working on Bunsen burners and foaming cups trying to invent a new color film. It’s a fiendishly complicated chemical process that takes time and money in large amounts. Toxic chemicals once used in emulsion recipes can no longer be included due to tightening environmental restrictions. Movie recipes that were good 20 or 15 years ago now need to be changed. It is a laborious and expensive undertaking.

It’s also worth mentioning — as much as many critics of today’s movie prices refuse to admit — that we’re at the end of a historically cheap era for movies. Fujifilm and Eastman Kodak did not rationalize prices when film sales plummeted in the mid-2000s; the film was artificially cheap, and little long-term investment was made in production. Eastman Kodak at least justified the price hike (passed on to Kodak Alaris) as a way to reinvest in filmmaking and ensure the movie could still be made for years to come.

Old bus on the road in New Zealand (Photo: Stephen Dowling)
An old bus taken on a coastal road near Wellington, New Zealand on Lomography CN100 (Photo: Stephen Dowling)

In the short term, however, is there an answer to this color film crisis? Neither solution will be simple, but one could be much simpler than the alternatives.

Kodak Alaris has the exclusive right to market Kodak-branded films, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t Kodak films on the shelves under other names. Two recent color film releases – Film Washi’s X and Kameratori’s Santa Color 100 – are made from Kodak color aerodynamic films. But they are not the only ones.

Lomography’s line of budget-conscious CN color films were a favorite of budget-conscious photographers until recently, when, like Kodak and Fujifilm color films, the price skyrocketed. I remember being able to buy a three-pack of Lomography CN100 films a few years ago for £10.50. No wonder Lomography still has a place in the hearts of many film photographers.

Lomography, of course, does not have its own film factory and relies on others to make its films for it. Over the years, this has included Agfa-Gavaert, Foma Bohemia, InovisCoat – and Eastman Kodak. Lomography CN100, CN400, and CN800 are believed to be based on Kodacolor VR emulsions from the mid-1980s. The Kodacolor VR line began in 1982 with the release of VR 100, 200, 400, and 1000 films. more and released as the VR-G line later in the 1980s, before being renamed Kodacolor Gold films.

Kodacolor VR 1000 film box (Photo: Thistle33/Wikimedia Commons)
Kodak’s Kodacolor VR line from the 1980s lives on, many say, as the basis for Lomgraphy’s CN line (Photo: Thistle33/Wikimedia Commons)

If you’ve shot Lomography color films, you’ll know they’re grainier than the current crop of Kodak color emulsions; The CN100, on which I shot a lot, certainly reminds me of the Kodak color films of my childhood; it has a wonderfully warm and nostalgic palette. I love this stuff, although it pains me to pay close to £40 for a three-pack these days. (It’s cheaper to buy directly from Lomography’s European headquarters, but that at least comes with its own customs headaches in post-Brexit Britain.)

So if these films are still sold in 2022 (and they’re in stock), that means Eastman Kodak still has to make them and they comply with applicable environmental laws.

Lomography probably has some sort of exclusivity deal for these films, no doubt stemming from a time when film sales were much lower and Kodak was happy to keep the lights on. We are no longer in this world. Demand exceeded supply.

So here’s an idea: if Lomgraphy’s deal allows it, Kodak Alaris is launching its Kodacolor line as a new budget line of Kodak color films. They’re cheap and cheerful and grittier and less demanding than the Ektar and Portra and, yes, even ColorPlus. But they are also cheaper.

Because Eastman Kodak won’t have to spend the king’s ransom on R&D, these films can be offered at a much cheaper price. Here in the UK, how about £8 per roll. It’s half the price of a roll of Portra 160, for example. Professionals and those with the deepest pockets can always opt for the higher professional level films, but those on a budget will suddenly have a cheaper outlet. Films perfect for taking on a summer vacation, loading into a cheap compact for a festival or a night out with friends, and enjoying the trials, errors and happy accidents that come with learning to shoot on film.

Stephen Dowling

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