Depending on who you talk to, motion picture film is either dead, floundering, or very much alive.
In the past year, Kodak has announced the discontinuation of several 16mm stocks. Deluxe and Technicolor have closed their main film production labs and auctioned off all their equipment. (We got a couple splicers, other forward-thinking institutions purchased what they could, and much was scrapped). Seeing a first-run movie in 35mm is now such a rarity that we drove all the way to Madison to see the Liam Neeson thriller Non-Stop on film. (Chicago’s last remaining 35mm-only second-run house, The Brew & View, announced its own digital conversion two weeks ago.)
At the same time Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino, and others convinced major studios to place enough minimum orders with Kodak to keep film-on-film production a possibility for at least a few more years. Nolan’s Interstellar will open two days early on 35mm, 70mm, and 70mm IMAX, and the Weinstein Company announced that Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight would see the widest 70mm release in 20 years (presumably referencing Ron Howard’s Far and Away). On the other side of the world, Film Ferrania (a new company resurrecting equipment from the old Ferrania film factory) in Italy launched a $250,000 Kickstarter campaign (so far wildly successful) to reopen their film production facilities and start producing color reversal film–both 35mm and medium format still camera film, as well as Super8 and 16mm motion picture film.
Earlier this fall we spoke to George Campbell of ORWO North America, the North American sales division of ORWO FilmoTec GmbH. For the past three years ORWO North America has been making black and white motion picture and sound recording film available in 16mm and 35mm to archives, amateurs, and filmmakers. At a time when the future of motion picture film is at best uncertain, ORWO presents a welcome light at the end of the tunnel, and is one of the many groups working to change in dialogue from the wimpy “film is not dead yet” to “film is alive.”
JULIAN ANTOS: So what can you tell me about how ORWO North America came about?
GEORGE CAMPBELL: ORWO’s been around in their modern facility [in Wolfen, Germany] since the late 1990s. The legendary ORWO Film company [originally] closed when the Wall came down in Berlin in ’91 because they couldn’t compete with all the other film companies. Eventually they reopened in the late ’90s as ORWO FilmoTec GmbH.
[A few years ago] I had connections with the Library of Congress and Kodak was failing, so I started working very closely with Ken Weissman at LOC. That’s what started us off in the US: Kodak couldn’t guarantee film for LOC, and ORWO was an immediate replacement of equal cost. I connected the dots to LOC and from there we set up the consumer side. The marketplace has been shifting and we’re still trying to understand it. It’s a growing process because the industry is such a mess …
ORWO North America has only been around for a few years, why start selling film at a time when so much of the industry is abandoning it? Is the business successful?
We launched ORWO North America on 11/11/11, and there have been at least ten large labs that have collapsed since then. We had to figure out who we could work with and who would be innovative enough to help grow our industry. ORWO has grown tremendously in the past few years. We’ve been working with a lot of labs and government agencies internationally because of the exposure we’ve had in the US. Integration into different partnerships in the US has grown the global and German sectors, so that‘s what’s going on now …
[Film] has become a passion of mine because of the understanding of what it has brought to society and what historical importance it has. I work in a couple different industries and film has changed my life. Working with Ken at the Library of Congress, I learned about the “end of the world theory.” It’s what I’ve based Owro on: digital storage devices have a short life span. You have to transfer data every five years and this all costs money, and hard drives need to be maintained and turned on and someone has to do all this stuff…. Whether it’s sound film, or motion picture film or photos or whatever else needs to be stored–[film can be] stashed away for 500-1000 years without ever being touched…
So what the Library of Congress will do is take the “end of the world theory,” and put everything on film and keep it in their vaults hundreds of feet below the earth. It will sit there in a temperature-controlled cage, and whatever happens to the earth, the aliens or whoever finds us will be able to take this film and hold it up to the light or put it in a machine or whatever and find out what our culture is all about. And you can’t really do that with any of the digital products out there.
I like the idea of preparing film for the next alien invasion. Is the consumer side of ORWO pretty substantial or do you mostly sell to archives? Are there a lot of artists and filmmakers working with your film?
The consumer side is what’s next. Right now we’re working with some smaller groups like Mono No Aware. Steve Cossman [of Mono No Aware] is here in Brooklyn, and he’s a huge proponent. He’s been very helpful, he uses a lot of ORWO film. He’s a great guy, he works extremely hard, he’s extremely diplomatic, and he’s very good for the industry. He’s probably very good for me because I’m not very diplomatic.
[Cossman] and his whole crew are extremely professional … What he has done is incredible because he brings people, introduces them to film, and treats the professionals and the beginners exactly the same. [He] brings them all into a community and gives the all the opportunity in the world and teaches everybody. He’s a true professor of the film industry.
There’s a lot more coming in this fall. My manufacturing partners are working with me on developing the consumer side so it’ll be a lot more robust. People are learning about us a little more and using us. I think this is becoming a really solid boutique industry that will be growing. There’s opportunity, and small cinemas and theaters around the country. I feel horrible that all of these 35mm projectors were tossed. Where are they all?
Oh, we got some of those…
So, Kodak has recently announced that they’re discontinuing some 16mm black and white stocks, including duplicating stocks which are really important for preservation, and 16mm black leader which is important for cutting A/B rolls. Is ORWO going to be able to fill that gap?
So, yeah, we have 16mm and 35mm duplicating film. I’m working with groups that have used it in the past. Figuring out the estimated amount of film that’s going to be purchased is really important, [then] I can start developing and investing in what we need to cut down and what we need to bring to the States.
Are you able to produce film in relatively small batches?
Yeah, it depends. We have the capabilities of slitting and perfing 35 down to super 8, and we can produce fairly small batches.
Sometimes people will see things are out of stock and sort of go, “Oh well,” and give up. Our small orders get sold out relatively quickly and tend to fluctuate wildly. It’s important for people to work with me to secure film.
One complaint I hear a lot in general is that film is expensive. “You can’t get it locally anymore, you have to send it out of state to get processed unless you live in LA,” etc.
You know what, it’s not that expensive. If you’re going to do a high quality piece, then do film. And if you’re not, then go do videotape or whatever. If that’s what you want, that’s great, but, hey, you’re going to find complainers in every industry. I’ve realized this working in digital advertising, plastic deposits, and green technologies, all kinds of different industries. I find complainers and whiners in every single one of them, but there are also brilliant people and brilliant artists. And I’ve met incredible artists that work with film all the time and they do great stuff. These are the guys I love to work with and I do work with. And they’re earnest and they work hard and they’re very supportive of what I’m doing. They work with me and they’re helpful.
I’m by no means a professional cinematographer or a technical film engineer. At the end of the day, I’m a salesperson that has a passion for film. It almost took someone like me to understand the value of the industry so that someone who’s been in it for 30 or 100 years or whatever won’t ruin it.
A lot of these guys that are involved in the film industry, they’re kind of retiring. There’s not a lot of young blood there. They’re not going to let some young guy in unless there was some kind of apprenticeship, but they’re probably deathly afraid. You can’t run a business in fear! It’s a classic mistake, and one of the reasons why film has gone down so quickly: fear and poor management. Sure, it’s going to cut down because of all the new technologies, but you can’t cut it out. So many people just jumped ship, or gave up, or blamed it on the Man. Or blame it on people like me!
If someone wants to work in this industry, we have to work together, you know. People ask me for free film all the time, and I don’t have short ends, and the Germans don’t have short ends. My manufacturing partners are very efficient. There’s not a lot of leftovers, and that’s part of what enables us to continue on and grow. We work with very specific black and white film, we don’t plan on growing into color, we don’t plan on developing any more specific film grades, unless there’s a market for it. And by that I don’t mean one guy calling me or e-mailing me, telling me how much he needs a 400 foot can of film, you know.
Kodak makes a beautiful color film and it looks like Hollywood will float them at least for a little while and the archival color stuff, too. We’ll see what happens, but they’ll probably own the market on the color side. The black and white might be diminishing here and there, but it’s only because they have to. All these big labs are shutting down. Deluxe’s Burbank facility shut down a couple months ago…
There’s not a lot of money to be made here. Luckily I have alternative sources of income, so I can kind of bounce them back and forth from each other. I work six different jobs.
Sounds familiar! Are you the only employee of ORWO North America?
I’m the only employee, and I have six jobs! But hey, this fall we’ll be investing some more money so we can keep this thing up and running and we see the value in the market. It’s a crazy industry but it’s exciting! We’re growing and we may be the last ones standing. Who knows? My manufacturing partners are great guys. My partners in Wolfen, Germany are completely sweet.
I work with some of the most incredible creative artists. And film as a medium is beautiful. When it’s processed properly there’s a deeper level of grey contrast that you can work with … there’s so much different opportunity you can utilize film for and it’s not that expensive.
It takes a pro. It takes testing. It takes a creative person to go there and do the work. We’re developing the company to be a sustaining force and stand the test of time in the US and globally. You have to be creative in the development and sales of your film as much as you have to be creative with the processing and shooting of your film. If you don’t have the money, you have to conserve and be efficient. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do.