Can he re­vive the Po­laroid era? Let’s see what de­vel­ops

Can Im­pos­si­ble Project CEO OSKAR SMOLOKOWSK­I get us to smile for the cam­era?

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - NEWS -

When Im­pos­si­ble Project, the com­pany founded to re­vive pro­duc­tion of Po­laroid film, re­leased its first batch of prod­uct six years ago, the re­sults were em­bar­rass­ing. Pic­tures fre­quently had weird splotches on them and oc­ca­sion­ally leaked cor­ro­sive chem­i­cals. Some­times an en­tire $21, eight-pic­ture pack of film would spit out of a cam­era at once. The pho­tos that did de­velop took as long as an hour to do so, which is not very in­stant.

“The prod­uct was barely us­able,” says Oskar Smolokowsk­i as he sips green tea at a New York City bak­ery. The Im­pos­si­ble Project’s 26-year-old chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer is in town to dis­cuss launch plans for the I-1, the com­pany’s new cam­era, which goes on sale May 10. Priced at $299, the I-1 mar­ries dig­i­tal con­trols with ana­log pho­tog­ra­phy. The cam­era’s me­chan­ics, right down to the dis­tinc­tive whine of the rollers that eject each pho­to­graph, evoke Po­laroid’s legacy, but Smolokowsk­i is ea­ger to point out that the I-1 is not a Po­laroid prod­uct.

Un­til now, his Ber­lin-based com­pany made film that worked only in vin­tage Po­laroid cam­eras. With the mar­ket for con­tem­po­rary in­stant-film cam­eras quickly grow­ing into a prof­itable niche for Ja­pan’s Fu­ji­film and oth­ers, Smolokowsk­i is bet­ting the I-1’s hy­brid de­sign will of­fer the first real chance to de­cou­ple Im­pos­si­ble Project’s fu­ture from Po­laroid’s past.

Like sim­i­larly tri­umphant nar­ra­tives about the re­turn of vinyl records and in­de­pen­dent book­stores, Im­pos­si­ble Project’s story be­gins with the rapid col­lapse of a legacy ana­log in­dus­try fac­ing dig­i­tal dis­rup­tion. Dur­ing its hey­day in the 1970s, Po­laroid, based in Cam­bridge, Mass., had as much as $2 bil­lion in an­nual sales (more than $ 12 bil­lion i n to­day’s dol­lars) and 50,000 em­ploy­ees. And, like Ap­ple to­day, it was the most ad­mired con­sumer tech com­pany in the land, ac­cord­ing to Christo­pher Bo­nanos’s book In­stant:

The Story of Po­laroid. But decades of mis­man­age­ment took their toll, paving the way for the first of two bank­rupt­cies in 2001. As it bounced be­tween own­ers, Po­laroid quickly dis­con­tin­ued cam­eras and film.

Flo­rian “Doc” Kaps, an Aus­trian bi­ol­o­gist who at the time was work­ing for Lo­mog­ra­phy, a Vi­en­nese com­pany that mar­kets new ver­sions of quirky Soviet-era film cam­eras, spied an op­por­tu­nity. He ap­proached Po­laroid in 2005 with a mar­ket­ing plan heavy on so­cial me­dia and e-com­merce. “They told me, ‘If you re­ally be­lieve in this s---, you can be a dis­trib­u­tor,’” he says. Kaps be­gan sell­ing dis­con­tin­ued Po­laroid film for more than twice its orig­i­nal price on his web­site, un­saleable.com, along with old Po­laroid cam­eras he bought on EBay and re­fur­bished. Three years later, when Po­laroid an­nounced it would close its last film fac­tory, in En­schede, Nether­lands, Kaps scraped to­gether €180,000 ($204,000) to buy the plant’s equip­ment and struck a deal with the land­lord to take over the lease. For an ad­di­tional €1 mil­lion, he pur­chased Po­laroid’s re­main­ing film stock, which he sold to fi­nance the re­vival of the plant at a to­tal cost of €4 mil­lion. Un­saleable was re­branded Im­pos­si­ble Project, af­ter a quote from Po­laroid founder Ed­win Land: “Don’t un­der­take a project un­less it is man­i­festly im­por­tant and nearly im­pos­si­ble.”

Mak­ing film is a del­i­cate dance of chem­istry and physics,

P h o t g ra p h s b y M a rk P e c k m e zi a n

● Herchen helped work out the kinks in the film’s chem­istry

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