The Price of Film and It's Survival
Recently, I won an auction for ten rolls of Fujifilm Provia 400X (expired in 2014) for roughly $150.00. Whenever I can, I try to stock up on Provia 400X (or any other discontinued film variety). But, my effort has already become more difficult, because of my blogging. Recently, a vendor on eBay had listed five rolls of Provia 400X (expired in 2017) for $750. From my understanding, it was sold for $500. That is $100 per roll - which clearly is ridiculous. But, I suppose I only have myself to blame for driving up interest to that frenzied extent.
At the same time, I also won an auction for twenty rolls of Kodak Ektachrome 100VS (expired ten years ago) for $100. That’s $5 per roll for discontinued film that had been stored in deep freeze for most of its shelf life. I have shot a roll of this film, and it doesn’t appear to exhibit any significant signs of deterioration, which really makes it a steal. And, the fact that I won this auction after twenty-four bids - right down to the last second - made it all the sweeter. Still, it makes you wonder why the bidding did not go any higher for that listing.
Unbeknownst to many, the price of film is a contentious issue. Common in the vernacular of film photography is an ever present awareness that film is expensive - or rather - more demanding in terms of variable costs, as compared to the much less demanding fixed costs of a memory card used in digital capture. Because of that, the mantra stay broke shoot film is rather popular amongst film photographers. For that reason, film folks tend to be more sensitive towards fluctuations in film prices, given less inelasticity in demand.
Not surprisingly, there was much discontent when Fujifilm announced a price increase earlier in the year. Film folks were up in arms, burning online effigies on social media to voice out their grievances. It was all too much for them to take yet another price hike, which was regarded as an act of betrayal on those who had been most loyal to their product offering. I mean, how could they? With everything committed film folks had done to keep film alive, the least film manufacturers could do was reciprocate some appreciation.
Obviously, film folks are getting a raw deal from film manufacturers. How Fujifilm and Kodak can get away with highway robbery is just outrageous. So, it was from that mindset, along with a roll of discontinued film, a roll of expired discontinued film, and a roll of current production film, that I conducted this blog entry’s photowalk, in my own effort to put into perspective the mainstream attitude towards the economics of film and the fallout of its ensuing consequences directed onto the primary and secondary consumer markets.
Thing is, there’s just something about the current state of supply and demand in film that doesn’t seem to add up for me. Essentially, film folks want film. They want film manufacturers to continue film production. But at the same time, they are not willing to support the film industry in the way it really needs to be supported. In reality, what is fundamentally annihilating the film industry is an economics problem. Fact is, there really isn’t enough film sold to provide sufficient incentive for manufacturers to continue film production.
The economics of film is a discussion topic that is rarely addressed by film folks when addressing the demise of film. Instead, what seems to be the more popular narrative is the film versus digital thread in understanding contemporary photography. Digital imaging is the scourge that is ruining photography, in how it homogenizes photographic capture with flatter images out-of-camera and artificial renderings after-post-processing. But in doing so, it completely sidesteps the realities of economics in how it impacts film manufacturers.
What film folks generally seem to marginalize is the fact that film manufacturers are really corporate entities in the business of profitability. That is what they are, that is what they have always been, and that is what they will always be in the future. If there is enough consumers buying film - in spite of competition from digital imaging - film manufacturers will continue to produce more film. And if sufficient economies of scale can be achieved, they would even continue to produce more varieties of film at prices reflecting greater economic reach.
But as it is right now, film is sold in small quantities. It is not as profitable as it once was in the past - before the rise of digital imaging. And despite a resurgence of interest in popular culture, this renewed devotion towards film only covers a niche market. It comes nowhere close to the multiples of repeated sales enjoyed during the heyday of film photography. And unless film sales achieve the same level of profitability as it did before digital imaging, film manufacturers will not regard film production as a revenue stream worth pursuing.
For film folks, the harshness of that economic reality may appear excessive - that is to say - film manufacturers can be so heinous towards loyal analog photographers. Fact is, film manufacturers were never in the business of enriching the photographic experience for film folks. They were making film for the sake of making money - nothing more and nothing less. To that end, they were highly successful in profitability - so much so - that they had sufficient financial resources to fund the development of many new film varieties.
What seems to be absent in the criticism towards film manufacturers is how expensive new film development actually is. For every premium film (now discontinued) like Fujifilm Provia 400X or the many varied iterations of Ektachrome, film manufacturers must exhaust a significant amount of capital in development. After that, there is that matter of scale in manufacturing - whether it is worth the time, energy, and resource to make it. Beyond that, organizational realities must be addressed with regards to allocating staff and budget.
When you buy a roll of film from the primary market - and not on eBay - you are actually paying for the variable costs in film production. That includes labor costs, pension plans, health care benefits, cost of goods sold and manufactured, administrative expenses, and corporate obligations like dividends. And if profitability begins to decline, conventional business practices will force film manufacturers to downsize both their product offering and scale of output, given reduced sales required to fund these departmental operations.
Given the new economic realities of the film industry, long-established film manufacturers like Fujifilm, Kodak, and Agfa-Gavaert are all looking to exit the business. The fact that they have discontinued many product lines and increased the prices of existing ones would indicate their intent. And because they have invested millions in developing their range of products, none of them will sell their intellectual property rights required to revive them - at least not at prices feasible for interested parties wanting to revive these discontinued film.
As such, any expansion of existing film variety must start from scratch. That said, it is a prohibitively expensive process. The prospect of any entity willing to accept the financial risk in developing a product of questionable profitability is unlikely. Furthermore, the prospect of investing time, energy, and resources in any such venture is more-so unlikely, given exposure to organizational responsibilities in the face of less inelastic demand from a niche market. In other words, you’d have to be crazy to actually throw money into that pipe dream.
Alternatively, expansion of film variety can also come from repurposing cinema film stock still in production or in inventory. After all, there are still many proponents in the motion picture industry that continue to use film in their cinematography. As a result, film manufacturers still produce motion picture film stock. But, converting it from motion picture to photo film stock has its drawbacks. Because a rem-jet layer must be removed from the film, defects invariably crops-up. In my opinion, that seems to lead to a less delicate rendering.
Personally, I believe film is teeter-tottering at the precipice of extinction. That is unfortunate, given how much I really love film. In the best case scenario of realistic expectations, film manufacturers will continue to produce a small selection of staples. Kodak Tri-X 400 should be saved from the chopping block, as is Kodak Portra 400, and Kodak Portra 800 too. That said, Fujifilm and Agfa will completely exit the analog film business. In the end, that leaves Ilford, and a handful of small players repurposing existing motion picture film stock.
If only film folks bought more film and did not gripe about its high prices. Joking aside, there’s no way that film folks could ever come up with the shortfall that film manufacturers used to earn from regular folks who did not have an alternative medium of capture. In essence, it is the people who took bad photos on special occasions that funded the breadth and depth of the film industry. But now that they have all migrated to the convenience of digital imaging, the billions manufacturers once earned is no longer there to fund expanded production.
In my opinion, any attempt to save film photography would require consumption at the same levels before the rise of digital imaging. Without similar profitability, economies of scale cannot be met. As a result, that renders any prospect of investing time, energy, and resource too risky. Given how spendthrift film photographers tend to be - following the mantra of staying broke to shoot film - you'd have to be crazy to pursue that pipe dream.
If film folks are unwilling to outbid me by even a couple of dollars, what reasonable hope is there for the future of film? Discontinued film is in rare supply, and should really be regarded with much greater value. Because of that, I have done what I can to stock up until my freezer is packed to the colloquial rafters.
That said, the writing is on the wall. It’s only a matter of time before I exhaust all the film I’ve since stocked up… well… that is unless some white knight comes up with a credible solution to address this economic problem.
All images were tweaked on Adobe Lightroom and digitized on a Fujifilm S5 Pro + Nikon AF-S DX Micro 40mm f/2.8G + Bolt VM-210 + Nikon ES-2. Some images were leveled and cropped for the sake of presentation.