The world of silver halide photography has received a double body blow this month with reports of bankers being called in on the Kodak Alaris film business by its long-suffering owner, the UK Pensioner Protection Fund (PPF), and that Sino Promise – the relatively new owner of the rights to sell Kodak-branded silver halide paper and photochemicals – is about to shut down.
Inside Imaging was initially alerted to silver halide supply issues by retailers who have been unable to secure film stock from either Fujifilm or Kodak Alaris.
Fujifilm has made it quite clear that it has little interest in its film business other than as a means of earning revenue to invest into other business units. This translates into massive regular price increases and patchy supply.
The master plan for Fujifilm’s future is a document called Vision 2023. It’s a 35-page overview of Fujifilm’s mid-term plans for growth. There is not one mention of ‘Crystal Archive’, or ‘Velvia’, ‘photographic film’ or ‘photo paper’ in there. Just one page in the entire document addresses the Imaging business.
‘Healthcare and semiconductor materials will be our future earnings drivers,’ new Fujifilm Corporation CEO Teiichi Goto told Japanese journalists last year.
Fujifilm over the past couple of years has been dropping products from its film range and appears to be transitioning towards outsourcing film manufacture to Eastman Kodak. The ‘new’ made-in-the-USA Fujicolor 200 is the identical twin of Kodacolor 200 and when asked directly whether it was manufactured by Kodak, Fujifilm responded coyly that it works with ‘a pool of valued partners’ in film manufacture.
More recently there has been speculation that the replacement for Superia X-TRA 400, the made-in-the-USA Fujifilm 400, is re-branded Kodak Ultramax 400. (Fujifilm does not manufacture film in the USA, according to the Fujifilm website.)
The Kodak Alaris position is more perplexing. Unlike Fujifilm, it has no new ‘future earning drivers’ in its dwindling product range. Film is about as profitable as it gets for the Kodak brand licencing business. Towards the end of last year Eastman Kodak announced it was ramping up production, adding extra shifts for its film coating lines and generally going gang-busters.
‘Our film finishing area for example we have grown from a five days a week, single shift operation a few years back,’ said the head of Eastman Kodak film manufacturing last October. ‘To last year, we were three shifts, five days a week and now we are a 24/7 operation. In the last 18 months, we’ve hired over 300 people across the film and chemicals floor, and we’re looking to hire more.
“So, really our strategy of being the last company standing in colour films, the last company making colour films in both consumer and motion picture is paying dividends. We literally cannot keep up with demand, we need more employees. We’re hiring.’
– So where is the stock?
A quick check of online retail outlets confirmed that there was virtually nothing available in Australia.
Phil Gresham, whose business FotoFast in Brisbane has a focus on film photography, is so low on stock, not having received any orders for 2023, that he has gone from only selling film across the counter to ‘re-purposing’ SUC film for customers to use in their cameras.
Brendan Boxall (The Film Shop) which has also built a business around silver halide photography, is also concerned about his future prospects. He currently has no film to sell customers, which obviously has a knock-on effect on film processing services as well.
‘Due to the small amounts of stock we can actually get it is sold out in less than a week after it arrives. Then another couple of months go by before any more stock arrives,’ he told Inside Imaging.
‘Obviously with limited colour film available it has an effect on colour developing chemicals and equipment as well.
‘I dare say that the smaller labs will be having a difficult time staying in business during all this, as the amount of people that shoot black and white would hardly keep a lab with overheads in business…
‘When retailers can secure stock it is at increasingly extortionate prices. Official Kodak film distributor in Australia, UCC, hiked already high prices once again on April 1, while Fujfilm has been putting up prices of silver halide products by around 10 – 20 percent once or twice a year for the last few years.
Along with these swingeing price demands comes a level of contempt for retailer customers. ‘The difficult part is not knowing what is coming, when it is coming and how much we are allowed to order due to allocations for all retailers when the stock arrives,’ Brendan explained.
‘The lack of transparency from the Australian wholesaler is tough as we can’t give customers accurate information.’No doubt UCC are in the same boat, though, with Kodak Alaris, so all this points to people losing interest.’
Feedback from multiple retailers is that Fujifilm has an equally unhelpful, uncommunicative attitude towards its silver halide customers.’Fujifilm don’t really know or care about what they are doing. They don’t have much of an appetite for film these days,’ an industry insider said. ‘They are just not that interested any more.’
Black and white film is also thin on the ground, perhaps driven by lack of colour film stock, although not to the same extent.
‘The lead time for film is much longer due to an increase in demand, which has caused a shortage in supply,’ explained Clem Kennedy,joint managing director CR Kennedy, distributor of the Ilford black & white film range.
‘Usually, we were getting our orders of film supplied within two weeks, now the orders are taking ten to twelve weeks to be supplied. To combat this, we are trying to order in larger volume, and hold more stock. Our advice to dealers is that they should also look to hold more stock,’ he said.
There is a knock-on effect if Kodak and Fuji run out of colour film stock, as consumers will settle for black and white, causing unexpected increases in demand.
He said Ilford film lead times are expected to improve and be back on track ‘towards the end of the year’.
The UK also seems to be suffering a film drought, with almost every film SKU in the Jessops range on back order.
On the other hand, there appears to be ample supply in the US. B&H Video is well stocked (although at eye-watering prices) and at the other end of the spectrum niche silver halide specialist PhotoVision also has more products available than not.
Sky News UK reported this week that Kodak Alaris’ owner, the UK Pension Protection Fund ‘is close to hiring bankers to oversee a sale of the photographic equipment company it took ownership of in 2020’.
While the PPF ‘declined to comment’, the story has not been denied by either the pension fund nor Kodak Alaris. Having off-loaded the paper and chemistry business to Chinese supplier Sino Promise two years ago, Kodak Alaris now comprises the Kodak photo kiosks and film division, and Alaris, which makes document scanners and software.
Kodak Alaris has never paid a dividend to the PPF, nor to the previous owner from 2013, the Kodak UK Pension Fund. The Kodak UK Pension Fund initially assumed ownership of Eastman Kodak’s photographic and document scanning brands in lieu of a US$2.837 billion claim against Eastman Kodak.
The PPF is now in the invidious position of underwriting Kodak Alaris losses to the tune of $50 million, with the business unable to attract finance from conventional sources. It’s surprising to close observers like Inside Imaging that it has taken this long for the PPF to decide to cut its losses.
Perhaps the best outcome for photographers hoping for a future for film photography (if Kodak Alaris is indeed for sale), is for Eastman Kodak to take back the film business (essentially the licence to market the Kodak film which it already manufactures). Manufacture of both Fujifilm- and Kodak-branded film should give the Eastman Kodak coating lines the economies of scale to be viable given current levels of customer demand.
Paper & Chemistry a bigger challenge
Supply of silver halide paper and chemistry is if anything under a darker cloud. As noted above, Fujifilm is increasingly disengaged from silver halide. Supply of both lines in Australia is erratic to non-existent. It’s competing supplier, Sino Promise, has been a profound disappointment since it purchased the Kodak paper and photochemistry business from Kodak Alaris about two years ago.
We reported 12 months ago that ‘severe supply and cash flow difficulties could lead to consumables shortages for local Kodak-supporting minilabs and prolabs.’ While Sino Promise has bumbled along into 2023, supply and cash-upfront demands have continued to blight its customers.
Now there is word that Sino Promise is about to abruptly cease supply.
US photo industry news website Dead Pixels Society posted the following (unverified) message on its Facebook page this week, purportedly from Sino Promise Canada:
The poster, Roger Boon, (Photo Tech Enterprises, British Columbia) was keen to understand if US customers of Sino Promise had also received similar advice.
Calls and messages to the local Sino Promise operative went unanswered as usual, so we asked Shane Martin, Australian Photographic Supplies, which stocks Kodak silver halide paper and chemistry if it had any information to share.
‘We know there is a situation, but not what is really happening with the business going forward,’ said Shane. ‘There are lots of rumours but nothing out of Sino Promise here in Australia, USA or head office China.’
He said APS had good stocks of Kodak Endura and Premier Digital papers and paper-processing chemistry, but that ‘film processing chemistry is a huge problem worldwide’ which was also being experienced by Fujifilm and CPAC (Champion) possibly driven by lack of supply from Sino Promise.
However Australia/New Zealand CPAC photochemicals supplier Independent Photo Supplies, while confirming it was taking on a lot of new ex-Fujifilm and Kodak customers, said there were no supply issues from the Malaysian-based manufacturer. IPS said shipping CPAC chemicals was relatively easier because they weren’t required to conform to rigorous and costly ‘dangerous goods’ shipping regulations.
Another reliable industry source we spoke to also had an understanding that Sino Promise was about to cease shipping Kodak paper and chemistry. Sino Promise manufactures and ships photochemistry from China and ships Kodak paper manufactured in Colarado mainly from the US.
‘The are just letting the company die,’ the source said. ‘So they don’t have to pay anything in the way of severance pay and the like.’
He said last orders for paper and chemistry were ‘going out as we speak’.