Kodak Touts Rebound at ASC Clubhouse

Industry heavyweights show their support as the company announces new deals with five major studios.

Stephen Pizzello

Industry heavyweights show their support as the company announces new deals with five major studios.
At top, honored guests at the ASC Clubhouse: Tyler the Creator, Quentin Tarantino, Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach.

Photos by Getty Photography, Vivian Lau, Aleksandra Majka, Tiana Paopao and Stephen Pizzello  

Kodak’s motion-picture business is showing promising signs of a rebound, according to Steve Bellamy, president of the company’s motion-picture and entertainment division.

Inside the ASC Clubhouse during the event.

On Jan. 29, Bellamy chose the ASC Clubhouse in Hollywood as the setting for a series of announcements during a press conference that was followed by a glitzy Kodak Film Awards ceremony featuring some of the industry’s top supporters of film: directors Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig were all on hand to receive honors and support the format, along with ASC cinematographers Rodrigo Prieto and Dan Mindel; recording artist, producer and music-video director Tyler, the Creator; music documentarian Fran Strine; first-time feature filmmaker Melina Matsoukas (Queen & Slim); actor Alan Ruck, who accepted the TV Series of the Year Award on behalf of HBO’s Succession; and other notables who touted film emulsion’s creative benefits.

Kodak’s Steve Bellamy with Lifetime Achievement Award honoree Tarantino. “Six years ago, all of the rest of us came in behind [Christopher Nolan]," says the director. "He led the entire charge. We were all junior partners — he was our captain. He was the one that made all the phone calls, and he was the one who told us how dire [the situation with film] was. We would have just been whistling happily [as we went] over Niagara Falls. Everyone knows where I'm comin’ from, man — if Kodak stopped making film tomorrow, I’d be writing books the day after tomorrow. That would be the last stand. There is a whole spectrum of craft that is being lost by people constantly working in digital. That’s not demonizing digital, but there is a level of craft [with film.] If you’re using a rhythm machine, it’s not the same as having a drummer. And soon, you’re gonna be in a place where nobody knows how to play the drums. And we can’t let that craft go away.”

A frequent guest at the Clubhouse, Christopher Nolan takes the mic.

The headline from the press conference was Kodak’s announcement that it has renewed its contracts with five major Hollywood studios: Disney, NBCUniversal, Paramount, Sony and Warner Bros. Kodak maintains that the new deals will provide a stable baseline for long-term film sales, as well as cost savings due to improved forecasting.

Bellamy added that Kodak has also forged a promising working relationship with Netflix, reaching deals to provide film for top productions such as The Irishman, Marriage Story and a forthcoming television series helmed by Damien Chazelle (First Man, La La Land).

Statistics presented during the press conference support Kodak’s assertion that film sales are on the upswing; in 2019, the company says sales of 35mm stock rose by 6 percent. Bellamy asserted that sales of 65mm camera negative were even more robust, showing a 500% increase over sales figures from 2015. He maintained that in 2019, Kodak sold more 65mm stock than in any prior year. On a related note, he reported that more than 2.5 million feet of IMAX negative was shot over the past year — also the most ever.

Lumière Award honoree Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC: “The whole thing of film vs. digital is so 2015. Film is here to stay. I really think so, and I’m grateful for that, because it’s a medium that I appreciate having the possibility of using. Film is fantastic and digital has its advantages. When we were color-timing The Irishman, we had to make the digital parts look like film — so we did that, and we matched the look pretty well. But I remember there was a certain scene we were color-timing where I was thinking, ‘Why does this feel so good, and why is it so easy to color-time?’ [And I realized,] ‘Oh, we shot that on film.’”

Sales of smaller-gauge formats were also showing improvement. Bellamy said sales of 16mm film stock were at the highest point in seven years, nearly doubling sales figures from 2015 and reversing a six-year decline with four straight years of double-digit increases. According to Kodak, Super 8mm sales have improved significantly over the same stretch, with four straight years of 35% growth. Filmmakers have also demonstrated an increased appetite for black-and-white film capture, with features such as The Lighthouse, The Painted Bird and Bait contributing to an increase in volume from 3.6-million feet to 4.5-million feet over the past three years.

Baumbach: “I shoot on film because I love how it looks and feels and smells and sounds, but also for emotional reasons. It brings me back to my childhood in Brooklyn, where I watched movies projected on film. My concern now is that every young filmmaker who says they want to make their movie on film is told it’s too expensive. Film should not be a luxury item in our business, available only to us old, crazy people — and Greta Gerwig. Digital is great, and if it enables more directors to make movies cheaply and personally, I’m all for it; but it’s a different thing, in my opinion, and shooting on film rather than digital should be an aesthetic choice, not a financial one.”

Kodak also announced multimillion-dollar investments in Super 8mm, acetate production and film-sensitizing infrastructure to meet the growing demand for film production. The company also plans to hire 220 new operators, technicians, chemists, engineers and maintenance workers to rebuild a film-centric workforce.

In kicking off the press conference, Bellamy conceded, “At Kodak we haven’t been talking to the press in the last five years that much. Before that there was not lots of news about film that was very positive. You had 10 years of double-digit declines; every monkey wrench you could throw at the medium [was] thrown at it. The two biggest volume drivers for film were print and television, and you had both of those industries kind of just shrink to nothing in one fell swoop with the SAG-AFTRA strike and with the virtual print fees that basically forced projectors to become digital projectors instead of film projectors.

“The current CEO of Kodak, Jim Continenza, was the chairman back then, and was basically asked by a lot of people to shut the factory down — the last film factory in the world — and he chose not to.

“Our division restrategized. We changed from a company that was basically taking orders to become a company that really tried to super-serve artists and help people get movies made, [or] make better movies.”

Gerwig with Bambauch and Tyler, the Creator. “I had not shot my first movie [Ladybird] on film, because I was told, like most young filmmakers are, that it was too expensive," said Gerwig. "Then they give you this [routine] where they go, ‘It’s really hard. And no one knows how. It’s a big problem. Nobody even knows how to load it.’ These are actually the conversations you have. But I knew that was not true, because I’d been on films with Noah Baumbach, like Greenberg, shot by the great Harris Savides [ASC]. When I went to go shoot Little Women, I knew that [shooting on film] was what I wanted, [but] it was a fight every step of that way. Everyone kept pushing to make it happen, and eventually it did happen, against all odds. I just knew it was just one of those moments where if I didn’t say, ‘I have to shoot this on film,’ I would never get to shoot a movie on film — they would know I would give. You kind of have to dig in your heels and say, ‘This is absolutely what I want.’”

On the topic of exhibition, Bellamy maintained that more theaters are projecting film prints, citing 56 venues in Southern California and 32 more in Northern California. Tim League, the founder and CEO of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema and Drafthouse Films, participated in the panel to express his own support of the format. “We’ve been at it in the exhibition world for about 22 years, [and] we came into it with two basic ideas: we want to be at the service of the creators, and [we want to] exhibit their work as they want it to be seen. One of our main priorities is to have the best possible presentation, and you can’t service the greatest artists working in this industry without having film presentation. So we’re committed, for the long haul, to having 35mm and 70mm [in our theaters].”

Bellamy noted that Kodak has now opened or taken over photochemical labs in New York, London, Atlanta and Mumbai to increase film-processing capacity.

Christopher Nolan with Tarantino. “I first had the pleasure of actually getting to talk to Quentin just some years ago," said Nolan. “I had the rather great task of calling him up to let him know that the medium that we so loved was under great threat. His response was characteristically blunt, and clear, and sprayed with profanity, but the substance was very simple: that a Quentin Tarantino production demands film.”

He also cited an increase in high-end film scanning before introducing Will Cox, CEO and lead colorist at Final Frame, who outlined some of the benefits of his company’s Luna Scanner, which he claims is approximately 45 times faster than the typical film scanner handling 65mm film at 8K resolution. The Luna can scan 35mm to 16K and 65mm 15-perf film to 23.5K — preserving, by Kodak’s estimate, at least 36 times more information than 4K. “The scanning of film for a long time has been about making an electronic estimation of what’s in film. We wanted to see how close we could get to really cloning the film.

Tim League, the founder and CEO of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema and Drafthouse Films.

“When we look at the Kodak specs [for its film stocks], we’re discovering that the company has been incredibly conservative over the years, and that there’s a lot more [resolution] in film than they say. We’re actively scanning now at 23K. It’s a preposterous amount of data to try and wrangle, but we’re seeing that that’s not even enough. So what we’ve discovered in terms of real-world scanning resolution is that for 35mm, somewhere between 16K and 20K [is] the point where you’re getting [all of the data] out of the film that is there. That’s far more meaningful resolution than in any digital camera anywhere. [In scanning the documentary] Apollo 11, all of the footage was 50 years old, and it looked like it was shot yesterday — and we only did that at 8K, because internally we couldn’t tolerate more data. That’s coming. But we need something like 40K to really get [all of the information] that’s in 65mm [film stock.]”

Dan Mindel, ASC, BSC hoisting his Lumière Award trophy: “Every time I look at dailies and I see film, I’m reminded why it’s such a great format to work in.

Vanessa Bendetti, Kodak’s global managing director of motion picture and entertainment.

“Bellamy and Vanessa Bendetti, Kodak’s global managing director of motion picture and entertainment, also took pains to address the notion that shooting on film is more expensive than digital, contending that the format can save productions money by eliminating DIT carts and monitor villages, creating lower shooting ratios, and reducing some postproduction costs.

Following the press conference, Bellamy presented a series of Kodak Awards to the assembled honorees: a Lifetime Achievement Award for Tarantino, who was introduced by Nolan; Auteur Awards to Baumbach and Gerwig; Lumière Awards to ASC members Mindel and Prieto; a Maverick Award to Tyler, the Creator; a First Feature Award to Matsoukas; a Documentary Award to Strine and Power Chord Films; a Theatre Award to Alamo Drafthouse Cinema; and the TV Series of the Year Award to Succession.

ASC vice president Stephen Lighthill cuts the Kodak cake.

Picking up the Series of the Year Award for his show Succession was actor Alan Ruck, with Mireille Enos.

The celebration continued into the night, outside the Clubhouse in the Sim Plaza courtyard.

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