Heads up – our processor is broken. Oh yeah and the film processing industry is fucked. You may be asking “Is the profanity really necessary Enny-penny?”. Yes. Yes it is. Now let me be clear – our current technical hitch seems relatively minor and we’ll no doubt get it sorted but it’s a symptom of a wider reaching issue plaguing the photo industry right now. Unless something gets done about it film processing as we know it may very well die a slow, undignified death – rather unbefitting of the medium.
The simple fact is no one is making commercial film processors any more and those that did are now dropping support for the units that are already out there. Spare parts are becoming rarer and rarer and as such prices are steadily increasing. Larger retailers are starting to abandon film altogether – in March Boots announced that it was planning to close 220 of 320 of it’s photo labs and there’s rumblings that a popular supermarket chain may be planning the same. Smaller labs like ours are left running on a a dangerous combination of ancient machines, tight cash flow and spurious amounts of hope.
The thing about processors is that they’re an awful lot like cars in the sense that they’re large mechanical boxes with many complex moving parts and custom electronics i.e. many points of failure. Most units found in your average minilab are somewhere between 15-25 years old. They require regular maintenance and are best getting an annual service from an engineer. Even if you give your machine all the care in the world something at some point will fail – just hope it’s something minor like a belt which you can replace yourself and not, say, the replenishment system which wouldn’t only cost the Earth for the parts but a significant chunk of change for the engineer to install it. A string of bad luck could easily sink a smaller retailer as nearly happened to us last year.
So where is the industry heading? Big retailers abandon film whilst the smaller ones either slowly follow suit as it becomes less economically viable or simply implode under the financial burden. There may be a few left who perhaps hand process (which would drive up processing prices) but it would become increasingly difficult and expensive to process film. This in turn would drive down film sales which in turn drives up prices. Higher prices reduces demand, film lines get axed, choice is reduced, even less people shoot and the whole thing spirals – It’s a self reinforcing cycle of self destruction.
This isn’t just me being an alarmist. This sentiment is shared by many across the industry. When our processor went down the other day and I had no clue as to the severity of the problem I had a look around to see what I could find in case we needed to replace the machine. I managed to find one machine in decent condition priced at £1200. To pick up the same machine two years ago was £100. “Demand is through the roof and getting hold of working units is getting harder.” I was told. “If you want it best ordering quick – it won’t be here long.”
I didn’t have £1200 spare on Friday and the unit is gone today.
The thing is there’s a very simple solution to all this. The industry needs a new generation of machines – ones built with today’s market in mind. But who is going to build one? Fuji? Ha! Fat chance. Fuji are as committed to film as I am committed to eating my own feet. They’re not even supporting the machines they’ve already built, never mind dedicating resources to designing, manufacturing and distributing a whole new generation of film processors. Kodak? Whilst I don’t doubt they’re commitment to continue to manufacture film I can’t see them building a new machine either. They’re busy righting their ship after that little bankruptcy episode a few years back. So who then will come to the aid of the film lovers across the world in this time of absolute and unrelenting crisis? Well I guess we’ve arrived at the point of this article. We could spend years waiting for something to happen or we can take the bull by the horns and do something ourselves. We want to build a new machine – something sleek, simple, with off the shelf components and 3D printable parts – something user serviceable and cheap to fix. Something that isn’t reliant on the whims of uncaring corporate giants. Problem is I’m no engineer and neither is Megan. We know what a machine needs to do. We have examples of machines lying around the lab and we have technical manuals. What we need now is some help on the actual engineering side. If you think you’d be interested in helping us out then please give me a shout at email@example.com to discuss and maybe, just maybe we can save the industry from this slow death spiral.
To be continued…