Fujifilm announces a return to black and white photographic film production with brand new NEOPAN 100 ACROS II, available Autumn 2019.
The film photography community is once again up in arms about Fujifilm’s latest raft of price hikes. Cries of “Fuji-not-film”, accusations of hoarding frozen film and years-past film manufacturing shutdowns abound.
It is the opinion of this author that as a community, we have a bit of an issue with our perception. I believe the problem is not with Fujifilm for discontinuing film and trying to squeeze every possible penny out of it as it can. It’s with us, the film photographers.
Large, highly diversified international businesses like Fujifilm did not become so by being altruists and to TLDR the words which follow: We’ve forgotten the true cost of film photography and it’s turned many of us into cantankerous, entitled whiners.
A quick correction
Calling a wide swathe of the online community cantankerous, entitled whiners was probably not the best start I could have made for this opinion piece. Allow me a do-over with a bit of backfilling…
Given the tired, endlessly recirculated trope of Fujifilm’s hatred of film, the general disgust around rebranded/repackaged film stocks and woe-is-me lamentations of a lack of new hardware paired with the condescending snorts of “I could do better” when someone actually steps up, I should have said this:
“As a community, our conceit of somehow being deserving of film photography has caused us to take it for granted, allowed us to forget its true cost and led us to ignore the commercial realities of the industry and service providers that support a vastly shrunken market.”
To see how that revision would float, I put it out on social media ahead of publishing this article. If you’re so inclined, you can catch up on the threads it created on the EMULSIVE Facebook and Twitter pages. There’s also a nice thread over in the (closed but well worth joining) Negative Positives Podcast Facebook group.
In this article, I’m going to be talking about the first point above – the idea of Fujifilm hating film – and demonstrating why I believe that to be wrong.
A business trying to survive
The online film photography community has anthropomorphised Fuji’s (corporate) stance into the grunting, oafish behaviour of vindictive mutant that, on a deeply personal level, wants nothing other than to see the destruction of the very thing that gave it life. This is a laughable concept.
Fujifilm is not a monster, it is a highly diversified multi-national business. Objectively speaking, this means that if something works (i.e. if a division of the business or a specific product makes a meaningful profit or shows the potential for meaningful growth) it will be invested in and developed in line with the company’s wider aims and objectives.
Additionally, if a prior investment in a (now failing) product can generate further revenue or open markets through leveraging investment in its components, the opportunity will be taken. It’s a slightly oversimplified view but works for the purposes of this article and is essentially what has happened to Fujifilm’s photographic film business.
Balancing better business with legacy
There is plenty of insight into Fuji’s approach to innovating new markets through prior investment. Aside from third-party commentary, it has publicly laid out its VISION strategy – an ever-evolving family of programs which continually assess and direct the way the business operates in the face of the prevailing market (from current realities through to long-term anticipated market changes).
For a lean and highly focused business like Fuji, VISION has literally meant the difference between life and death and the book, Lean for the Long Term: Sustainment is a Myth, Transformation is Reality is a great place to start if you want to read more about market disruption, growth hacking and mindset.
It specifically notes Fujifilm’s efforts from the 1980’s to safeguard the future of the business by pivoting the investment it had made in photographic film products to help diversify:
“…it developed a three-pronged strategy: to squeeze as much money out of the film business as possible, to prepare for the switch to digital and to develop new business lines.”
Even if photographic film was still a large part of the business today, diversifying into new markets is still something Fujifilm would have done – it makes good business sense not to have all your eggs in one basket.
As it so happens, by 2003, photographic film was no longer capable of holding the company up financially. Two-thirds of Fujifilm’s film business disappeared almost overnight and the company needed to transition or fail. Thousands of jobs were cut, staff were reassigned but operating costs were ultimately lowered to the tune of UD$500 million.
The story of this sea change at Fujifilm, the “Second Foundation”, was documented by current CEO and Chairman, Shigetaka Tomori in his 2015 book, Innovating Out of Crisis: How Fujifilm Survived (and Thrived) as its Core Business was Vanishing.
It’s a fascinating insider’s take on how the business was saved and covers everything from retooling and downsizing to refocusing on new technologies and capitalising on existing assets. Significantly, Tomori writes about the emotional impact of losing photographic film as the business’ mainstay.
“The company’s core photographic film market was shrinking at a spectacular rate, and the situation was critical. Fujifilm had good management resources, first-rate technology, a sound financial footing, a reputable brand, and excellence in its diverse workforce. If all these assets could be effectively combined into a successful strategy and applied, I was sure that something could be done to save the day.”
~ Shigetaka Tomori
Fujifilm today is a closer competitor to AGFA healthcare and GE Healthcare than it is to Kodak, ILFORD or camera manufacturers. It is pragmatic, not vindictive and although there are many passionate evangelists of film photography inside the business, it is very important to grasp a single incontrovertible fact:
As a business, the primary goal of the organisation is to make money, be resistant to adverse market conditions, reward its investors and grow, year in, year out.
Of all the companies who were producing photographic film before the year 2000 that are still in business today, Fujifilm is literally the only one that escaped unscathed by bankruptcy, management buyout or significant external investment and is better secured than when it went in. It is by all accounts, one of the best managed and forward thinking of those legacy film businesses simply because it not only planned for the crash but grew through it and continues to innovate its business model well after.
“There was no inspiration, no intuition, it was an accumulation of intellectual work to the last. What is the potential and what kinds of products are required for the market? What is the core ability of our company? I read thoroughly and think thoroughly, and finally I have to decide as the president, because that judgment will decide the company.”
~ Shigetaka Tomori
Reading through nearly 20 years worth of annual reports, investor relations documents and “integrated reports” it is difficult not to see the emotional effects of Fujifilm’s transformation from a company that created the first Japanese motion picture film in 1934, to one which now makes most of its revenue from products and services which support medicine, healthcare and offices.
As I discuss further on, Fujifilm was not only prepared for changes in the photography market in the year 2000, it is also preparing itself for the next “post-digital” evolution.
Not a photographic film company
Even at “peak film”, the year 2000, Fujifilm’s Imaging Solutions division, which incorporated film, paper, chemistry, labs, other associated operations and digital photography, accounted for just 33% of the company’s ¥2,217.1B total revenue.
Fast forward to 2018 and wider Imaging Solutions division, which also includes digital imaging only accounted for 16% of the company’s ¥4,433.4B turnover – half of imaging’s year 2000 percentage contribution towards a revenue that has essentially doubled (see below, top-right).
Within Imaging Solutions, Fujifilm’s Photo Imaging division’s revenue (photographic film products) accounted for 67% of that 16% in 2018 – about ¥254B. Twice as much as Fuji’s digital camera and lens business (“Optical device and electronic imaging”).
As you might imagine, INSTAX and its associated products make up the majority of Photo Imaging’s revenue today. How much exactly isn’t something that’s made clear in Fujifilm’s public annual reports, however, Fujifilm does tell us that 7.7 million INSTAX series devices were sold during the financial year to March 2018 (200k over target and up from 6.6 million in 2016).
The remaining 84% of Fujifilm’s revenue (over ¥2,050B) was generated from office products and services, graphics systems, materials and healthcare (screens, devices, and consumer products).
Shigetaka Komori has stated as much himself in the past but please allow me to put it into my own words:
Fujifilm is no longer primarily a photography business, film or digital. From the perspective of numbers alone, it hasn’t been for over two decades. The company continues to produce a lot of film, it’s just not the kind you can take photos with.
Still, let’s not simply take the company’s CEO and Chairman at his word. How does the published data support this claim?
To repeat myself, at peak film, Fujifilm’s Photo Imaging division accounted for 33% of net sales (¥470.3B) and 60% of profits, according to Shigetaka Tomori. With two-thirds of the business wiped out over the next three years, one could be forgiven for thinking that the death of film meant an extinction-level event for Fujifilm.
The business had to innovate or die.
By 2011 the newly christened “Imaging Solutions” division, which encompassed both film and digital products was down to 14.7% (¥325.8B) of total revenue. Photographic film products accounted for just 8% of this. By 2012, Fujifilm had seen it’s market for photographic films and associated materials shrink to just 10% of the year 2000 peak.
In 2017, an unconfirmed report stated that photographic film alone accounted for only 1% of the company’s revenue.
Thankfully, work had already begun over a decade before peak film to leverage the business’ past investments and enter – or create – new markets. This work continues in 2018. The company has over 80 years of experience making film and 20,000 plus chemical compounds in its archives. What was previously research on slowing colour fading of film dyes, improving shelf life, improving coating techniques, building support structures, flexibility, and rigidity for photographic film and paper has now been redirected into cosmetics, semiconductor, imaging sensor design, LCD screens and medical research from Alzheimers to Cancer.
“Significant potential exists to harness the group’s technologies…nurtured in the photographic film and related materials fields”.
~ Fujifilm Annual Report 2012
With the shift from photographic film to healthcare, it’s easy to think that Fujifilm’s Photo Imaging division and photographic film specifically, was kept more for historical significance and brand value than its impact on the company’s bottom line. Considering the positive impact of its photographic film legacy on the future of Fujifilm, I’m not 100% sure this is true.
Fujifilm and Shigetaka Tomori’s “Second Foundation” helped save the business from the destruction of its photographic film business. In 2019, we’re already well into the destruction of the current digital photography market as we transition from DSLRs to mirrorless “pro” devices and as small integrated imaging systems in phones and other devices cannibalise them. With Fujifilm having survived film photography being removed as the primary pillar supporting the business, I’m left wondering if there will ever be a “Third Foundation” needed, or if the company is already diversified enough to weather future storms (history tells me there will be).
This leads me to…
We must better understand the modern film business
As film photographers, we have spent the better part of the last 20 years in an evaporating pond. Fujifilm has, understandably, periodically increased the prices of photographic film and paper through transparent, official announcements normally coming once every couple of years or so. A few minutes of searching Google yields the following record of Fujifilm price rises for photographic film, paper and chemistry:
- 2008: Film and paper +10-20% (source)
- 2010: Paper +5% (source)
- 2011: Paper +5-20% (source)
- 2012: Film +10% (source)
- 2013: Film +20-25% (source)
- 2013: Film +10% (source)
- 2016: Paper +10% (source)
- 2019: Film and paper +30% (source)
First thing’s first, the price of silver not increasing in line with Fuji’s price increases is often cited as evidence that the company is “milking consumers for all it can get”. When you’re making 1% of your business’ revenue from a product, honestly how much can you milk it to deliver a meaningful financial impact to your bottom line?
We should remember that silver is not the single contributing factor towards the price of photographic film. We also have constituent elements that go into making the film support, coating layers, suspension materials, the literal oil that greases the wheels of manufacturing, logistics, support, labour, packaging…the list goes on.
Respecting the financial cost it takes to bring a product to market and keep it there is something we all have to bear.
I want to compare Fujifilm’s price increases to others. However, trying to find reliable information for other film manufacturers is not as easy. As their main competitor (and another highly diversified business), I wanted to use Kodak as a comparison for the Fuji price increases I listed above. Sadly, Kodak’s website has changed so much over the past decade that many past links are no longer serving pages, and as most pricing updates are sent directly to distributors and filtered down to other channels, obtaining data as a mere mortal is not an easy task.
Here’s what I’ve managed to colled so far (mostly unconfirmed through official channels):
- 2008: Film ~20%
- 2012: Film and paper ~15%
- 2014: Film ~100% (Australia)
- 2015: Film 15-25%
- 2015: Film: 6-191% (Japan)
- 2016: Film: 10-15% (Japan)
- 2016: Film: ~5% (Japan)
- 2017: Film +8%
- 2018: Film +10% (unconfirmed)
- 2019: Film +5% (unconfirmed)
If you compare it to the list above of Fujifilm’s increases it’s not that different and in certain territories, Kodak film is now screamingly expensive (nearly AUD$40 for a box of 10 sheets of Tri-X 320). A 30% price increase from Fuji seems like a big hike today but it is not unprecedented. spare a thought for the poor Japanese consumers who saw prices for certain Kodak film stocks rise by nearly 200% in some cases back in 2015 (source).
Speaking to the US specifically, Fuji film has generally been the cheaper film option since the company first began selling film in the US in the early 1970’s. After picking up sponsorship of the 1984 Olympics (following Kodak’s refusal) and over 50,000 new distribution outlets as a result – Fujifilm quickly built their US reputation on cheaper retail prices (historically 85-90% of Kodak’s), and advertising that emphasised the value of quality over nostalgia.
1996 saw the expansion of Fujifilm’s then 7-year-old manufacturing facility in Greenwood, South Carolina – the first of three such facilities eventually created in the US. The plant added 35mm film production to its roster of photographic papers and inks just in time for mid-1997, when Costco switched out Fujifilm products in favour of Kodak.
The company was left sitting on 2.5 million of rolls of film. Their response was to slash prices by 30%. It was brutal but had a long-reaching impact on the company’s ability to survive the fast-approaching digital rise. The encroachment of Fujifilm on their home turf caused many problems at Kodak. The company lost revenue and market share and was forced to restructure, shedding as much as 20% of its workforce over the following three years but still slowly losing ground to the more efficient Japanese business machine.
All this to say: if Fuji were really raising prices above the current market appetite and had been doing so for years, the street price of Fujifilm would be significantly higher than Kodak, ILFORD or other film stocks. It’s not.
As consumers, we have two choices when encountering a price rise: buy the next best cheaper option or…
Patronage = survival
I should not need to point out that as responsible consumers, we need to pay the going rate for products and services we wish to consume. By this I mean a price which supports the manufacturer as well as the supply chain that gets the product from them to you.
“…if prices really rise by X% I will stop using Y“
This is the type of comment that could have been copied and pasted from forums and website comment sections any time since the birth of the internet. People have short memories and I will take a leap and say that as it relates to Fujifilm, the vast majority of people making these comments were not customers in the first place in any meaningful sense of the word.
Prices rise and people will continue to purchase Fujifilm products regardless of that. Social media and internet forums where most of these comments are made are not necessarily the places high-volume users of Fujifilm or other film products live. That is to say that this kind of commentary may not be representative of someone using film commercially as, within reason, those high-volume customers will be rather price insensitive.
It may be a bit of a hard pill to swallow but as film photographers, we really do have it good right now. Film photography is cheap. Look:
In 1977 a roll of 110 format Kodacolor II film had an average retail price of $2. Kodak needed to absorb increased material and operating costs, and a 3% price rise was announced. $2.06 doesn’t sound too bad but before you say, “there’s no more $2 film in 2019“, remember that adjusted for inflation, that works out to $8.31 in today’s money.
Kind of puts that sub-$8 cartridge of Lomography Color Tiger 200 into perspective.
110 film may not be a great example of the deep pricing divide I’m trying to get across. Let’s take a look at Kodak Tri-X. In 1957 a 135/36 roll of Tri-X was retailing for $1.15. In today’s money, this works out to be $10.49. That’s nearly $5 more than BH’s current retail price.
We’re simply not paying as much for film photography products today as we were – and that’s without talking about camera hardware. Adjusted for inflation, a brand new Nikon F3 with 50mm f/1.4 lens would cost in the region of UD$3000 in today’s money. Buyers are already complaining about having to pay a tenth of that.
Less money going to producers/manufacturers means less money for R&D and advertising. If business X is not able to create that “meaningful profit” I mentioned earlier, why stay in the market? A smaller potential market equals less interest in investment, equals less cash to spend on research and development, equals product stagnation, equals cost-cutting.
Buying a company’s product is no guarantee that said company will continue to produce it – especially if they are selling it at a cost that does not support the business going forward. That said, sales are sales and the best metric for understanding demand.
Could your hate be misplaced?
Hate is a very specific and often subjective thing. Regardless of what the endlessly tested marketing would have you believe, established businesses (photographic or not) prefer to take a pragmatic, considered and commercially sound approach to their operations.
Why does the online community come down like a ton of bricks on Fujifilm over any other business when it decided to hike prices, kill a film, paper or chemistry? The easiest answer to latch onto is the rather huffy, anthropomorphised and laughable, “Fuji don’t care about film”. The preceding text unravels this claim somewhat.
I’ve said my fair share about Fujifilm over the years. For the most part, I’d like to think I’ve maintained a somewhat balanced view of the company in the face of its apparent hatred of film. That includes the most recent Feb 25th announcement of a minimum 30% hike on photographic film prices.
I’d like to think that the vast majority of the film photography community feels the same as I do, which is that Fujifilm is a business doing what a business needs to do to ensure the financial viability of a product. Sadly, it seems I’m in the minority.
This negativity along with the conspiracy theory you’ll see thrown at almost any recent Fuji-related content on the web doesn’t really shift the needle in any positive way. What it does do is one, provide everyone outside our little slice of photography with the (correct?) impression that we are in fact those cantankerous, entitled whiners I mentioned up top and two, perpetuate the utterly absurd myth that Fujifilm is in fact, the devil incarnate.
If Fujifilm’s social media accounts actually interacted with the community now and again, perhaps we’d be less inclined to hate but they are what they are and do what they do. They must bring some value to the business, even though they bring little to the online community. Perhaps they’re not meant to?
…but wait, Fuji doesn’t make film any more
Please, really? One or two poorly sourced articles do not a truth make. Dig deeper.
I’ll admit that based on the pace they have been discontinuing film stocks, it is wholly possible that Fuji have stopped making film. Precoated, prerolled rolls of film could now well be sitting in a cryogenic storage facility on the 72nd basement level of Fuiji HQ designed based on plans stolen from Akira, ready to be wheeled out to customers driven mad with lust and hatred for their latest film fix. If Fuji has already stopped making film and this is confirmed, I will gladly accept it and move on but before jumping on the bandwagon I had to run the numbers.
Please give me a wide berth for the assumptions below.
According to Manny Almedia, president of Fujifilm North America’s Imaging division, “The film market peaked in 2003 with 960 million rolls of film, today  it represents roughly 2% of that”. That’s approximately 19 million rolls of film.
Assuming Fuji’s film coating capabilities are close to that of Kodak, each coating event will product 10-15 master rolls of film (appx 4ft wide and 6,000ft long). Each coating event is capable of producing 3 million rolls of 35mm film. If the global demand is ~19 million rolls of film per year today, Fuji would need six coating events producing 60-75 master rolls in order to meet the demand for one year.
If we follow the assumption that Fujifilm stopped producing film five (ish) years ago and that we’re now only seeing frozen stocks being shipped, that would mean that the company would have had to have produced and stored somewhere in the region of ~350 master rolls of film just to meet demand for the past five years. I will also assume that the master rolls were not sliced up or that the film was packaged and given far-in-advance batch numbers and expiry dates.
Honestly, that’s a really big freezer.
I find myself wondering, about the cost of electricity and maintenance. Surely Fujifilm wouldn’t just have huge freezers sitting idle? Did they build them? Rent them? Wouldn’t the running costs outweigh any financial gain? More to the point, wouldn’t the reputational impact of a batch gone bad be something the business would want to avoid?
It is more likely that new coatings of photographic film stocks are subject to allocation of resources vs profitability. Fujifilm still produces X-ray films, which are (from a revenue standpoint) responsible for about the same income as still photographic film. We know the business has no issue with making film (as in a physical film substrate) and we know it has no issue with coating. It makes more sense to me that the company is focusing on making films which make the lion’s share of revenue: Pro 400H and slide film.
In short, unless there’s a huge change in the volume of film being consumed, we’ll see every other Fujifilm film stock discontinued with the exception of Pro 400H and perhaps a single slide film. That’s what my gut tells me.
My numbers here might be a bit off but the point remains the same: If you’re in a shrinking market you support the elements of it that are still making you a healthy margin. Also, there’s no point in low-ball price gouging in a market that accounts for 1% of your revenue. Better to increase prices by 500% and make that 1% 5%.
You missed a whole bunch of stuff
I did. I also took a few shortcuts. This started off as a short, 500-word rant asking readers to stop anthropomorphising Fujifilm as some malevolent entity hell-bent on killing film and ran away with me.
Take from the above what you will. I have done my best to lay out both historical evidence and my thoughts on Fujifilm in a way that outlines some of the method in what others may consider to be madness.
I’ll close by saying this: ask yourself if you’d rather another company exit the end-to-end film manufacturing space or if you’d like them to try to maintain a presence, even if that means they’re charging more for it – perhaps even charging a more appropriate price for it.
I for one would prefer a world where Fujifilm exist than not. Competition is good for the market and I’m sure that Kodak, ILFORD and others agree to a point.
If at the end of it all Fujifilm is simply increasing prices to slow demand and eke out a longer supply life for whatever coated stocks and raw materials they have stored at absolute zero on the 72nd basement floor at Minato HQ, so be it.
Perhaps at some point during this drawn-out strangulation of photographic film, some clever clogs will have figured out and built a small-scale, low-volume coating platform and share it with us under Creative Commons.
Until then, there’s always INSTAX.
PS. I’d like to extend my thanks to David Allen, Rob Hawthorn, Monika, Aislinn Chuahiock and Sam Cornwell for their insight and help on sanity checking me and providing some valuable suggestions as to where I might take this article.
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