In a comment written in response to the "Film Falls Off a Cliff" post below, our friend Thom Hogan (of ByThom.com, the world's best Nikon news site) wrote the following:
Beware that statistics can show something both 'up' and 'down' simultaneously. You have to look at what's being measured. The 'down' statistic is overall film sales. This is a 'global' statistic, the entire universe of film. You can have 'up' statistics, too. For instance, if there were 10 competitors each with 10% of the global market, the global market shrinks by 50% and six competitors close their doors, someone's sales are going to go up (maybe all of the remaining four, but by definition, at least one).
I talked to one local lab about this. Their sales were up, and they felt comfortable that film was seeing a resurrection. Then I pointed out that all their local competitors were now closed, so anyone who was still shooting film who had used a local competitor was now coming to them.
Still feel confident that things are 'up'?
Just so. Oren and I had been discussing this privately. He referred to it as "taking share from others." Writing back, I wondered what accounted for Harman's 8% rise in sales in 2010. "It's quite possible it could have been linked to disappearing competition as easily as increased popularity. I really don't want to have to research it—especially since I know the conclusions will be, well, inconclusive—but it's quite possible it could be simply people migrating to Ilford as other B&W films went south. Impossible to know without more data than we have readily available."
The concept was most vividly and succinctly put into words in my experience by the late Ian Brightman, who was at that time the owner of Beseler, the enlarger manufacturer, in a meeting in the publisher's office at the photo magazine I edited. The publisher asked him if he was worried about the decline in enlarger sales, and he replied, "Not necessarily. In a down market, the last man standing makes out like a bandit."
But what if there is no 'last man'?
A somewhat related topic is what happens to industries when none of them can weather an abrupt market change (apropos the Ctein column below, I should say that I'm doubtless discovering for myself ideas that are very familiar to economists—I've never taken an econ course in my life, more's the pity).
To create an illustration, let's say that somebody invented hovercars that were half as expensive as automobiles and ran on antigravity, sunlight, and optimism. The market for gas cars would crash as the world's population swiftly migrated to hovercars for their personal transportation. But let's say that 15% of the population still needed or wanted petrol cars*. The problem would be, for the short term, that for a while there would be a huge number of perfectly good gasoline-powered cars glutting the used market—so many for so little money that, for a good long stretch of time, no one would need to buy a new car. So all the car manufacturers would go out of business, or switch to making the newfangled hovercars.
But then, eventually, the supply of decent used petrol cars would begin to dwindle and disappear. At that point, the 15-percenters are in trouble, no? Because they still want to use petrol cars, but no one is making petrol cars any more. The irony in this scenario is that there might be, at that point, a market perfectly sufficient to support one or two companies making petrol-powered cars. There just wouldn't be any manufacturers who had survived from the era of petrol-powered cars to supply them. (And, of course, re-starting an industry is much more difficult and expensive than simply continuing an existing industry, even on a much reduced scale.)
If I had to put my own name to this problem, I might call it "discontinuous demand." Not only does an industry get whacked by an abrupt shift, but there's a period when the remaining demand "looks" artificially low, because of temporarily high supply from the used market.
That's the situation film camera makers find themselves in right now, I suspect. There's probably a market out there for film cameras—it never really went away, and it will be sufficient in the future to support one, two, or three small companies. But it can't support any camera manufacturers in the interim, because of the vast supply from the used market that it can't compete with.
The situation isn't absolute—there are still some nice film cameras available. But you'll notice that many of them are niche products suited to markets that were already very small even before digital came along. (I'm speaking mainly of bespoke handmade view cameras. The Fuji folder is another example—Fuji was making the odd occasional quirky one-off camera every now and then back in the film-only era, too.) Those companies can deal with limited demand, because they'd been dealing with a limited market all along.
Crystal ball gazing
My friend Phil Davis used to tell me he didn't fear death—that his problem with reaching the end of his life (he died at 85 in 2007) was that he was so curious about what was going to happen next. I won't be around to survey the camera market in 2060, but I wish I could be. I'm very curious as to what it will look like.
I'll make two predictions: first, that large-format black-and-white optical-chemical photography, practiced by a small band of craft adherents, will be the very most prestigious form of photography—and that there will be one, two, or three small manufacturers making a variety of film cameras, steaming merrily along and doing very well, thank you. Just a guess.
*The diehard pessimists?
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by David A. Goldfarb: "Case in point:
Featured Comment by Chad Thompson: "As much as people love to trot out the old adage involving buggy whips, something a little closer to home is the wet plate camera. Currently there are about three manufacturers of them here in the states. Near as I can tell they're all doing fairly well selling their buggy whips. Here's my whip:
"And thanks to another reader here for the referral to the builder."