Corrado Balestra taking spectrophotometric measurements of an emulsion sample in the LRF. Balestra is an expert in emulsion manufacturing and melting. © Aischa Gianna Muller (www.aischamuller.com)
Film is finished. Film is dead, declared deceased by David Lynch, among others. Contrary to all declarations, however, this year, two enterprising Italians have recently begun manufacturing film, and may have hit a turning point in their quest to make film’s resurgence a sustainable reality.
In 2003, Ferrania became the first of the major film manufacturers to declare bankruptcy. The Italian company, which produced the cinema film stock for such classics as De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief and Fellini’s 8 1/2, along with 35mm and 120 film for stills, had an expansive campus in the Liguria region of northern Italy, and the capability to produce almost 330 million rolls of film per year. Those days ended with the expansion of digital photography.
But there’s new life for the old Italian brand. Intrepid film devotees Nicola Baldini and Marco Pagni have managed to form a new, leaner version of the old company, called FILM Ferrania, with a group of former employees itching to get back to their life’s work. They recently completed a successful Kickstarter campaign, raising $322,420 to purchase and relocate the old Ferrania manufacturing equipment, which had been collecting dust on the Liguria campus. They’ve already begun manufacturing the first batches of 135 and 120 film for still photography, as well as Super 8 and 16mm film stocks.
“Everyone told us we were crazy,” Baldini says in their Kickstarter video, admitting “perhaps” it was true. “Or maybe not…” Pagni counters.
Marco Pagni (left) and Nicola Baldini (right).
Their plan was to scale down the massive operation of the old Ferrania to make it more sustainable. The original company still produces industrial chemicals at the Liguria campus, but the equipment they needed was scattered throughout a series of abandoned buildings.
The small Research & Development team is comprised of former Ferrania employees Corrado Balestra, Daniele Montano, and Danilo Ferraro (who study and prepare the chemicals); Ezio Perone (who coats the film); Renzo Manera (who finishes the film); and Marco Scognamilio, who oversees the entire process. They set up shop in the Laboratori Ricerche Fotografiche (LRF), the small R&D building on the Ferrania campus where they used to test the films they manufactured. It’s a small-scale version of the entire plant; everything needed to make film lives inside the LRF. It was owned by the government of Regione Liguria, where the plant is located. But seeing economic benefits to the restoration of the old plant, Regione Liguria offered FILM Ferrania team a favorable lease.
But the team still had a “goldilocks” problem. The equipment in the LRF was too small to mass-produce enough film for their business, and the full-scale operations were too large: The building that (just barely) contains the precision coater they needed was nine stories high and 100 meters long. “Big Boy,” as the team calls the industrial film coating facility, is designed to make as many as 330 million rolls of film in a year—an unrealistic goal for sales, as Ferrania’s 2003 bankruptcy proved.
“If there’s gonna be any long-term viability for film, it has to be done on a much different scale then it’s done currently,” says David Bias, who heads FILM Ferrania’s nascent U.S. office. “The scale of the operations of Kodak and Fuji are literally just too big for long-term sustainability.”
So the Ferrania team set out to scale their operations “just right,” using the Kickstarter funds to purchase “Trixie,” the large-scale triacetate base production machinery that makes the plastic that holds the film together; “Walter,” the high-volume chemical synthesis lab that makes the chemicals (named after Breaking Bad‘s Walter White); and “Big Boy,” which they would scale down to meet their production needs.
So who is the Ferrania customer? To hear Bias tell it, their customer base is diverse: professional digital photographers who shoot film in their spare time, kids who grew up with digital devices in their pocket at all times, for whom film is a brand-new thing, and older people who never really latched on to digital devices. Film used to be the only option for photography; now that there are so many options, shooting on film has become a deliberate, conscious choice.
“No longer do you have to buy film if you want to take a picture,” Bias says. but it doesn’t mean people won’t buy film. The last analogue photography project Bias worked on, the Impossible project, proved that. “You want to buy film. That’s a very, very different kind of thing.”
Ferrania can’t match the scale of Kodak and Fuji, so its film won’t be a low-cost alternative—Baldini and Pagni’s goal is not to undercut the big boys. Kodak and Fuji are the only other players who can manufacture color film from start to finish, and as they continue to make less film at higher prices, the companies that rely on their materials for production—such as AgfaPhoto and Lomography—may not be able to keep up. Ferrania should have an advantage to start, at least; their first production runs will be reversal film—which Kodak already killed, and Fuji has severely cut back (most recently, cutting Velvia 100F 120).
“Kodak and Fuji are going to exit from their traditional analogue market,” Baldini claims in an email interview with PDN, “while Ferrania is investing to redefine the market in order to be sustainable for many years ahead.”
Baldini’s drive to save film is partly about esthetics. He is a filmmaker, and his decision to launch the company began with his desire to shoot on film that didn’t exist anymore. Time will tell if the artistic vision of a pair of dreamers will provide a solid enough foundation to support a business. But the pair has at least 5,582 Kickstarters at their back, and a quick look at the #FilmIsAlive hashtag on Twitter and Instagram—which they’re using to promote the relaunch—shows they are not alone. The audience is there, and they’re passionate. But as operations get into full swing, will they put their money where their mouths are?
Baldini says the company’s profitability hinges upon how much film they are able to produce, “because the market is very willing to accept new analogue products that fit specific needs.” They plan to ramp up production steadily over the next three years, and project a profit as early as 2016.
“I think film has become more of an art material,” Bias says. “The people who shoot film, want to. They seek it out, and they spend the money that it takes to do it.”
Related Link: The Future of Film, May 2012