About a year ago, the last motion picture film camera rolled off the assembly line, marking a historic day in film history. Now we have Fujifilm deciding that it will no longer be producing motion picture film, and Kodak is continuing its bankruptcy proceedings, selling off its still photography division, and ending its printer business. Just five years ago, the idea that motion picture film may be going the way of the dinosaur was unimaginable. Sure, RED had come along and given us the first real glimpse of the true digital replacement, but the technology still seemed a long ways off. With the economic downturn -- and certainly some mismanagement along the way -- Kodak was the first to show signs of danger, and now Fuji sees the writing on the wall, and is getting out of the game before it's too late. But what else will contribute to the demise of film?
Here is Fuji corporate explaining the situation:
...However, in order to adapt to the recent rapid transition of digitalization in the shooting, producing, projecting and archiving processes of motion pictures Fujifilm has decided to shift its business operations to provide products and services designed for digital workflow of motion picture production and projection. Digital cinema camera shooting has been gaining momentum, and digital editing that heavily uses CG composition and VFX processing has now become common in motion picture production. There is also an increase in the number of movie theaters that converted to digital projection, following the increase of 3D motion pictures, implying the dramatically advancing digitalization in the motion picture industry. In such trend, Fujifilm has strived to reduce the costs of the production process for its existing negative films and positive films and continued to supply such films. However, the dramatic decrease of demand in the last few years has become far too great a burden to be covered by corporate efforts. Therefore, it has been decided to discontinue the sales of negative films, positive films, and some other products of motion picture in a prospect of March 2013.
The answers seem to be clear from Fuji's press release. It's a number of factors, but a huge source of income for both Fuji and Kodak has been film release prints. Even with many moving to digital early on, film release prints still dominated the landscape because most theaters had not converted over to digital yet. Today, that situation is vastly different, and with each progressing day, a lot of major theaters now have only digital projectors, which require a Digital Cinema Package consisting of a number of files to play the movie.
The return of 3D forced theaters to hurry with their conversions, or risk losing out on the bigger studio releases throughout the year. Since the 3D of today is digital only, cinematographers are being forced to leave behind film on those particular projects. In the process, many are finding that the digital files give them results they've never seen before -- especially in regards to clarity and grain. Roger Deakins has moved on from film, as has Dariusz Wolski, who has worked recently with Ridley Scott and was responsible for the Pirates films. Jeff Cronenweth, a common DP for David Fincher, has all but abandoned silver halides as well. Once they try digital, many DPs are choosing not to go back, and for obvious reasons -- they get a cleaner file, with similar dynamic range, and better sensitivity in lower light (not to mention the simple fact that they can see their results while shooting, rather than waiting for dailies).
These are the very same people that Kodak and Fuji have relied on to buy thousands and thousands of feet of film negative, and when they decide that they either can't or don't want to shoot film, there's no turning back. No one could have predicted that the transition would have happened this fast, and come March of next year, Kodak will be the only motion picture film game in town. Kodak as a company is a few business quarters away from disappearing forever, and has been selling off patents to try to stay afloat. It's also selling off it's still photography and printing businesses, with the former being decimated by digital many years before.
So how much longer does film have left? Has the last major motion picture to shoot on film already done so? Neither answer is clear, but Fuji getting out of the game may actually give Kodak a second chance on life. Digital projectors will continue their move forward, but almost all films are finished through a digital intermediate, and have been for quite some time. Once Kodak goes, however, that will do it for major productions shooting on film. We may still get archival film prints from both companies, but negative shooting stock will all but disappear. This is not the "end of the world" speech on a busy city street corner, this is really happening. Film developing labs have been closing left and right, and so even if a company decided to continue dealing with motion picture celluloid should Kodak's business bite the dust, people will have a hard time actually developing that film material without labs to facilitate the process.
It's definitely a sad development for those who love film, but the time has come to accept that digital is not going anywhere, and shooting on film will continue to get more expensive. With the ability to make your RAW digital images look like film, the benefits become increasingly slim -- just a bit of nostalgia, really. In just a few years, all but the smallest art house theaters and museums will be completely digital. As each cinematographer moves on from the format, it means less and less future films will be shot that way. I would not be surprised if another five years from now, motion picture film is finished. Digital camera technology is moving far faster than anyone could have predicted, and young people are growing up having never shot a piece of motion picture film. I'm thankful that I got the opportunity to shoot both motion picture and still photography film, but the time has come to say goodbye. A few will cling to the very last days, and freezers will surely be stocked full of raw negative, but short of The Impossible Project getting into motion picture film, we're only a couple years away from the end of the line. There will not likely be any fanfare at the end since people will be shooting film until all remaining stock is exhausted (and of course we may still be archiving on film), but Fuji seems to understand something that Kodak will soon learn: shooting on motion picture film is dead.