Jon Bentley: Solving the color film shortage

August 7, 2022

As film production failed to keep up with demand, the cost of being a film photographer spiraled out of control. Jon Bentley ponders the solution.

The rising cost of 35mm

Something has to be done about the global shortage of color film. Prices are stratospheric and some varieties, especially in 35mm format, are virtually impossible to find. Enthusiastic participation in the nascent analog revival, at least in color, is getting frighteningly expensive.

The problem seems to be that Kodak grossly underestimated future film demand when it emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2013. It closed its plant in Guadalajara, Mexico, where 35mm film was “crafted” – a delightful term that refers to the slitting, cutting, edge-scoring, punching and packaging processes – and moved production back to the company’s base in Rochester, New York.

Only two of sixteen expensive machines called spoolers, crucial to the manufacturing process, were saved and shipped to Rochester. Kodak thought it would never need more than two. Then demand for movies unexpectedly exploded. Now it needs more machines but can’t easily recreate the lost devices – it’s a case where once they’re gone, they’re gone.

There’s no point in expecting Fujifilm, the only other company on the planet that currently manufactures color film in quantity, to make up the shortfall. Like Kodak, it did not anticipate the explosion in demand and too often its films are also out of stock or only available at exorbitant prices.

The faithful analog Ilford is also unable to help. Its giant black-and-white film factory in Cheshire would need massive investment to switch to colour, which requires additional coatings that the machines cannot handle.

Kodak Portra 800 35mm film

Kodak Portra 800 35mm film

Hope for the future of color film

Local, small-scale manufacturing operations are springing up all over the world. In Italy Movie Ferrania creates “the smallest full-service film factory in the world” and announced plans to develop color film.

Adox, a revived German film brand, has stockpiled equipment from shuttered film makers like Agfa-Gevaert and Konica and is gradually operating it in a former military laundry near Berlin. Much of the equipment has been expressly designed to manufacture films in smaller volumes, often while developing new emulsions.

Orwo is another old German cinema brand that has been revived. Its new limited-edition ISO 500 color film, Wolfen NC500, is produced alongside two black-and-white films, at a site where film has been made since 1910.

Elsewhere, crowdfunding is paying dividends. Los Angeles-based Cinestill, which repackages modified motion picture film in 35mm and 120 formats, has just funded 400Dynamic, its first film specifically designed for still photography and C41 processing. In Finland, Santa 1000 plans to repackage aerial photography and surveillance film into low-cost 35mm (recyclable) cartridges.

Taken together, all of these developments could be enough to restore a healthy balance between demand and supply and keep analog color photography reassuringly accessible and affordable.

Featured Image © Jon Bentley

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of amateur photographer magazine or Kelsey Media Limited. If you have an opinion you would like to share on this or any other photography-related topic, email: [email protected]

Need more practical tips for reducing film photography costs?

Check out Jon Stapley’s article: “How to do film photography on a budget”.

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About Debra D. Johnson

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