Long before we had iPhones and GoPros, or even VHS camcorders and recordable minidiscs, home movies and amateur shorts were shot on film: an 8mm strip of celluloid that Kodak debuted during the Great Depression to woo households that couldn’t afford the larger 16mm format. In 1965, Kodak refined the platform to a higher quality, cartridge based “Super 8.”
Now, 50 years later–and at least a decade after the “is film dead?” debate ended with a resounding “yes”–Kodak has teamed up with Yves Béhar’s design studio Fuseproject to release a brand new Super 8 camera to inspire the next generation of filmmakers to actually shoot on film.
Arriving at an undisclosed date, the first Kodak Super 8 will cost around $1,000, though the price of future iterations will eventually drop to around $400 to $700. It’s a lovingly retro affair, built around the classic Super 8 cartridge in a body of bent sheet steel, but it’s fitted with a combination of analog and digital technologies: the camera will feature interchangeable lenses, the classic Super 8 pistol grip, a top-mounted action grip, a USB-chargeable battery, and an LCD viewfinder. It will shoot in five speeds, too.
“The feel of the camera is professional, in a sense that it’s robust, bigger, and uses strong materials. Its [build is] really that of a tool. It’s like a hammer. Something you’re going to be using repeatedly and rely upon for your craft,” Behar says. “I think, in some ways, it is retro because the film, the reel, and the system inside the camera takes space. So it is about the size of a standard Super 8 camera. You can’t fit those traditional film components into a smaller form factor.”
It goes without saying that Kodak’s golden age is long over. Despite releasing the world’s first commercial digital camera in the 1990s, the company fell behind in a world that rapidly transitioned from ink to bytes. As a result, Kodak is left sifting through the remnants of its once rich R&D department for a breakthrough in pharmaceuticals or displays before the patents go obsolete.
Back in 1990, the company’s film business drove $19 billion in revenue. Kodak employed 145,000 people globally at its peak. Today, the company lives in the shadow of bankruptcy. Owned by a handful of investment companies, Kodak does roughly $2 billion of revenue with 8,000 employees. (Film only represents 10% of Kodak’s total business, while over half of Kodak’s revenue actually comes from commercial printing services.)
But $200 million or so is still a lot of money, and Kodak’s film business, while smaller than it once was, is profitable. When CEO Jeff Clarke took over the company two years ago, a key discussion was whether or not Kodak should stay in the film business at all. He was inspired to continue Kodak’s film legacy after discussions with Hollywood’s elite, people like Christopher Nolan, JJ Abrams, and Quentin Tarantino, who continue to leverage their influence with studios to use film regularly. “At the highest end, the directors of the most important films have made decisions that they’re going to continue to shoot on film,” Clarke says. “But you need a second generation.”
“We believe if film is going to continue, it is important that students have the opportunity, and artists have the opportunity [to shoot on it],” he says, likening the potential renaissance of film to that of vinyl. “Super 8 is an opportunity, a gateway, for people to come in and shoot film again.”
So in addition to releasing a new Super 8 camera, Kodak will be building out an entire infrastructure of development so that getting prints and digital conversions is convenient. You’ll buy the film. Shoot. Send it in to Kodak. And receive back a developed print to project as well as a digital file to edit or share on social media. The entire cost in materials and processing will run between $50 and $75 for every 3-minute cartridge of film.
“Is it more expensive than shooting something on your iPhone? Of course it is,” Clarke says. “But it’s definitely differentiated.”
As for the potential market size for Super 8, Clarke isn’t terribly concerned. He knows that the film money is never coming back, and in that regard, their Super 8 camera seems to be a defensive play more than anything else. “We don’t expect to grow back to the 50% [revenue] range of the past,” Clarke says. At minimum, Super 8 is a platform to keep an elite few using film into the future, and maybe more importantly, a tangible way to get people excited about Kodak again.