Kodak pursues indies for film sales

Matthew Daneman, Staff writer

Christopher Nolan shot Interstellar on Kodak-made film. Steven Spielberg did likewise for Lincoln. Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and his upcoming Hateful Eight both use Kodak film.

But the future of Kodak’s once-mighty movie film business might lie not in big names and big productions but among the ranks of small, indie films and filmmakers.

Eastman Kodak Co. earlier this year launched in the United Kingdom its Kodak Independent Production Package — essentially a movie-making kit that includes a camera and film as well as processing and telecine services for transferring the film to video. And it plans to expand the Production Package later this year to the United States. During the twin Sundance and Slamdance film festivals held in January in Utah, Kodak was there handing out awards to filmmakers.

“We’re very tuned in to the independents,” said Andrew Evenski, president and general manager of Kodak’s entertainment and commercial films business. “We’re trying to bring people back into the fold, saying film is available to you.”

Welcome to what Kodak hopes is the third act of the story of its film-making business, wherein after flying high and going through its precipitous fall, Kodak experiences somewhat of a comeback — or at least a leveling off.

Motion picture film long has been big business for Rochester-based Kodak. Its transparent roll of film, put on the market in 1889, made possible Thomas Edison’s motion picture camera two years later.

But 100-plus years hence, the same digital technology that crushed Kodak’s photographic film business also has chewed up much of its entertainment imaging work. George Lucas’ Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was shot both on film and with high-definition digital cameras. And when it came out in 1999, it was the first widely released feature film to be shown digitally, on four screens in Los Angeles and New York. That marked the beginning of very hard times for Kodak’s film manufacturing business in Eastman Business Park. In 2014, the company turned out roughly 450 million linear feet of film for producing and showing motion pictures. That’s roughly one twenty-eighth of the motion picture film the company produced in 2006.

For the first nine months of 2014, what the company calls its “mature businesses” — a catch-all for everything from motion picture films to the inkjet cartridges it still makes for its discontinued line of desktop printers — represented $259 million in sales, down roughly 30 percent from what the company did in the first nine months of 2013.

While consumer inkjet “has done modestly better than we expected … film has done modestly worse than we’ve expected,” CEO Jeff Clarke told Wall Street analysts. The company’s year-end 2014 numbers are scheduled to be released Monday.

All that came atop Kodak’s 20-month Chapter 11 bankruptcy that wrapped up in September 2013.

But then came some rare good news. The company in February inked film supply agreements with the six major Hollywood production companies — 20th Century Fox, NBC Universal, Warner Bros. Entertainment, Sony Pictures, Paramount Pictures, and Walt Disney Co. — that saw them agreeing to continue to buy film well into the future.

The company has been mum on the details of the agreements, such as the duration, but such agreements mean “We’re going to continue to manufacture for the foreseeable future,” Clarke said.

Company spokesman Christopher Veronda said, “With the agreement with the industry and our new efforts to promote motion picture film, we expect further declines to be less significant.”

That foreseeable future, however, looks increasingly like the LP record industry — LPs being a similar piece of 20th-century technology still holding on in the 21st, though a shadow of what it was before the advent of cassettes, CDs and now digital streaming.

Kodak is no longer doing R&D into updating its film products with new lines. The employee headcount in the parts of Eastman Business Park dedicated to film manufacturing is a fraction of what it once was. And the company is looking to its film business to fill in the gaps and keep the machinery running as it tries to build up its functional printing work, using that same huge infrastructure of coaters and perforators and other specialized equipment for making such products as solar cells or computer touchscreen films.

However, Evenski said, the company is considering bringing back some discontinued products. And the decline in its 16mm film has leveled off, he said.

“Is (film) a niche business? Is it a lot smaller than what it used to be? Yes,” Evenski said. “But it’s still a very important business for Kodak.

“It’s been a tough ride … with the bankruptcy and everything else. We’ve had no quality issues even through all these downsizings. Yes, we have a smaller footprint with people. But the quality levels have never been so high. And we’ve maintained that pride. Maintaining a high quality level in this industry is key.”

The digital woes are not Kodak’s alone. Kodak’s main film business rival, Fujifilm, quit making most of its motion picture films in 2013, saying that despite its furious cost cutting “the dramatic decrease of demand in the last few years has become far too great a burden.” And New York City’s last film processing and printing lab, Film Lab New York, closed its doors at the end of 2014.

Richard Crudo, president of the American Society of Cinematographers, said the decision to shoot digitally or on film usually revolves around finance.

However, he added, with labs that can handle developing and processing film few and far between, “Most people are extremely dubious about shooting film and look to digital as the default choice.”

Yet film still has a strong cachet, particularly among starting-out cinematographers, Crudo said: “I find that the majority of fledgling cinematographers have a burning desire to shoot film. They feel it legitimizes them because it requires a true vision to execute properly. As to the future of film, I’ll always love it and wish there could be a future, but…”

Michael Satrazemis, director of photography for the AMC television series The Walking Dead, which shoots on Kodak film, said the production has been guaranteed Kodak will make the film stock it uses for at least the next two years.

While the bulk of Kodak’s film output is used at movie theaters for projection, there are fewer projectors even able to handle film.

Rochester’s Cinema Theater converted to digital projectors in 2014, following in the footsteps of previous switch overs by everyone from Avon’s Vintage Drive In and Rochester’s Little Theatre to the major area multiplexes. Evenski said the percentages of theaters that have converted to digital projectors range from the mid-90s in the United States to 65 to 70 percent in Latin America.

Evenski said that along with targeting indie movie makers, the company hopes to find natural allies with the remaining indie movie houses that haven’t yet gone digital.

“I want to talk to the independents and studios together,” he said. “I met with one of the independents and said ‘If you had to pick 12 films, I’ll try to go through the studios and say we have to print these.’

“And we want independent (moviemakers) to aspire to be like Christopher Nolan and J.J. Abrams — use film, separate your project from the digital landscape, make it different. Almost like ‘Get into the club.’ 

Film v. digital: Experts weigh in

 Cinematographer and director of photography Richard Crudo, president of the American Society of Cinematographers, has worked on such projects as American Pie, American Buffalo and several episodes of the FX television series Justified. He has worked exclusively in digital for the last several years. “A film project could certainly appear with the next phone call, but I suppose Elvis could just as easily quit working at the convenience store and return to the stage in Vegas.”

“In terms of color depth and management, contrast, trueness of blacks and an ability to handle bright areas in the frame, film still holds the upper hand. Film is also a stable medium, meaning that its archival qualities will keep it around for a hundred years or more. Artistically, most cinematographers cite the intangible quality of film’s “look,” that is, the unique beauty of almost anything originated on celluloid. In most cases it’s also appreciably more complimentary to actors’ complexions.

“Digital technology’s great advantage is that it is immediate. Under optimal circumstances what you see on the monitor at the time of exposure can be amazingly close to what the final image will look like when all is said and done. The cameras can be smaller, lighter and faster to cart about the set than their traditional counterparts ever were. In post-production the Digital Intermediate has introduced more opportunities for creative manipulation of the image than there are moves on a chessboard. Digital technology also lends itself to easier manipulation for visual effects than film and allows for lightning fast execution of editorial decisions. Every DCP (Digital Cinema Package — the modern equivalent of a film’s release print) is identical, thus ensuring that under proper conditions every audience will view exactly the same thing, regardless of when or where they see it. The image is tack sharp from corner to corner, very often exceeding film’s native resolution by leaps and bounds.

PaoloCherchiUsai, senior curator of motion pictures at the George Eastman House, co-founded the Selznick School of Film Preservation in 1996 and serves as its director. There is both an artistic and a cultural argument to be made for using film, he said.

“There is a specific texture to motion picture film, a specific look. The grain of film stock gives the moving image a distinctive aura, I’d say, that cannot be reproduced by digital means. One isn’t better than the other, it’s different. It’s a mistake to discuss the film vs. digital issue in terms of what’s better/what’s worse. It’d be a little bit like discussing whether an oil painting is better or worse than a fresco. They’re two different modes of expression. Film stock gives the image a look that is unique to film, which is why some directors of photography prefer this to the look of digital.

“From a cultural standpoint, there’s the fact that film stock has a much greater longevity than the digital image. Its easier to preserve. (With humidity and temperature controls) film will survive hundreds of years with very little maintenance. Preserving one minute of digital image costs 11 times more than preserving one minute of film. Digital is so pervasive … the nonspecialists believe the digital image is so cheap to obtain. It may be cheap to obtain but the infrastructure behind it is far more expensive.”

Michael Satrazemis is director of photography for the AMC television series The Walking Dead and has directed some episodes. The post zombie apocalypse hit show is shot primarily on Kodak-made Vision3 7219 film

Before the series started, Frank Darbont — who developed the series — tested shooting it digitally and on film side by side. Film “works for the story,” Satrazemis said. “It has a texture. The color palette of film was better for the show. (Film) is an aesthetic, it’s an actual look. It has a texture to it and softness that resembles how we see things. We don’t see things as sharply as digital.”

Shooting on 16mm film also allows quicker, more mobile shooting and crews, which can be useful on the series, he said. “We move so fast, it’s a real asset timewise,” Satrazemis said.

Post production work remains easier in digital, while digital has its own advantages in other settings such as a tight shot or when you want the aesthetic of digital, he said: “There’s no wrong.”

But Hollywood’s love of big, special-effects-laden superhero, sci-fi and fantasy films probably helped speed up the move from shooting on film stock to filming digitally, he said. Digital “opened the door to these giant blockbusters you never could do” otherwise, he said.

— Matthew Daneman


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