Publishers Should Be Watching Kodak’s Bankruptcy

Kodak or Fuji?  Whenever I landed a gig as a camera assistant back in the 90s that was the first question we’d ask.  Which film stock would we be shooting for a TV show or a movie didn’t really matter because both products were essentially the same, although some camera assistants swore that Fuji was louder in the camera.

But the real difference between the two companies became obvious as HD video came online.  Fuji’s response was to dive deep into this new technology.  Kodak dug in their heels.

Now as a lowly camera assistant, I shouldn’t have been more tuned in to the future than Kodak executives, but apparently I was able to see from the ground floor what they couldn’t see from the boardroom.  At the end of the work day on a TV show like Due South, I’d hand off ten $800 rolls of film.  The production still had to pay to process this film and then pay again to transfer it to video for editing.

So imagine my surprise when I got a daily on Earth Final Conflict, which was shooting HD.  I walked onto the camera truck, took one look at their rushes on the HDTV and said, “Oh, oh.  That’s the end of film stock in television production.”  That wasn’t the half of it.  At the end of the day I handed off two $100 HD videotapes, all ready for editing–no processing required.

Kodak reacted to this new technology by pouring R&D into the old film technology under the mistaken assumption that if film was still much better quality than HD that producers would continue to use it.  Kodak churned out one fantastic new film stock after another, culminating in the amazing 800 ASA film stock.  But the problem is that the price differential between HD and film was just too great, and the average TV viewer didn’t care if the blacks were crisp.  Film is still used on feature productions, but the majority of TV has switched to the much cheaper HD video.  That is a big chunk of the film stock market.

Kodak eventually got with the program and moved into digital, but they’ve had to go through some gut wrenching reorganizations while Fuji’s CEO was busy collecting an award for leading one of the best managed companies in the world.

I thought Kodak had survived, but on Friday their stock dropped by half after it was announced that they’d hired a law firm that specializes in bankruptcy.  Oops.  Too little.  Too late.

The publishers should be watching because they’re making the same mistake.  Kodak believed it was in the film stock business, but in reality they were in the image capture business.  Fuji understood this, and when a better technology came along they simply began hunting for ways to profit from this innovation.  I know purists will argue that film is better quality than HD, but some people also argue that a vinyl record album is better quality sound than an ipod–just try to go running with a record player.

Publishers believe they are in the printing industry, but they are in the book industry.  Books no longer need to be delivered to customers in the form of dead pulped trees.

I’m not saying paper books are going away forever.  Film is still used to shoot major Hollywood movies, but how many people use a film camera for their family photo albums?  I can tell you that very few TV series still shoot film, but back in the 90s they almost all did.

Publishers–rather than resisting e-books by trying to artificially hold the prices high and offering authors pathetic e-book royalties–should be looking at how to profit from e-books.

I’m on the ground floor of publishing, like when I was a camera assistant, but I’ve got that same feeling that I had back in the nineties when I wanted to run up to Kodak’s boardroom and scream, “Don’t you guys see what’s happening out there?”

Today I want to do the same in the boardrooms of the six major publishers.  I want to scream, “Don’t you guys see what’s going on out there?”

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