It's a rather stunning graphic, there on the lower left (labeled "Fading Film")—sourced from the Photo Marketing Association (PMA). You can get the gist of it at a glance. It shows a fall in sales from a billion rolls of film a year in 1999 to a mere 20 million last year.
The article says that according to Yukihiko Matsumoto, chief researcher for the Jackson, Michigan based PMA, sales of film cameras in the U.S. "have tumbled from 19.7 million cameras in 2000 to 280,000 in 2009 and might dip below 100,000 this year." Informative article, I thought—especially the part about the "rich irony" halfway through the article.
What that all says to me is...time to shoot some film! We're in the silver twilight, the last gasp of a tradition that started a hundred and seventy-two years ago. What a privilege to be able to partake of it while it lasts.
(I do understand that that might not be the exact conclusion everyone will draw from this data.... :-)
(Thanks to Jim Loudon)
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Andrew: "According to posts over on Rangefinderforum.com and according to my local film lab, which thankfully is a good one and knows how to properly do B&W film, film use is ticking up. The real question in my mind is, how long can it remain profitable for the companies that make film? There could still be a demand for it, but if it's a money-loser for Kodak, Fuji, Ilford, etc., then it might disappear for that reason. Any metrics on profitability for these companies?"
Mike replies: Film use as a whole is not "up" by any stretch of the imagination. The "film renaissance" stories you're seeing are derived from the fact that film sales at Harman Technology were up 8% in 2010. That means that use of Ilford black-and-white film—and possibly also black-and-white film across brands, though I can't verify that—is increasing, not that film use as a whole is increasing.
Then again, sources tell me that Harman just laid off 20% of its workforce and raised prices for the second time this year because of increases in the cost of silver. The article linked above—sourced from the PMA, which is the best source for such information outside of the companies themselves—mentions that film is still profitable for Kodak. I've been saying for a number of years that film will never go away entirely, and I still think that's true...but what I'm talking about when I say that is black-and-white film. It's at least possible that color film will become entirely extinct some day.
For decades, we read truisms about how photographers should be grateful for the mass market because it subsidizes the products we all need and benefit from. Well, that's what's going away—that mass market. The adjustments are wrenching for the major players, and are happening swiftly. But it's likely that there will always be enough of a market for a residual industry. A film coating line is just not so technologically complex or capital-intensive that a few small companies can't serve a small enthusiast market for the materials. We almost certainly have some adjusting left to do before some sort of stability is achieved, however—that much seems pretty safe to say.
Personally, I'm not sure I even care if color film survives or not. I never much cared for most commercially-available color materials, and after looking at digital prints by Charlie Cramer recently, I certainly can't be convinced that traditional color processes have anything to offer over and above what digital color does (the case is closer with Ctein, but dye transfer can't be considered a commercial process). Digital and its technological auxiliaries so far (Photoshop etc., inkjet printers) seem well-suited to color—as we regularly moan about around here, digital products are virtually all color-native as they have so far been designed and marketed—but the ancient Talbotian double-negative process for black-and-white has long been simple, effective, distinctive, and elegant, and I hope, trust, and believe it will endure.