To speak about Ferrania one must go back to the genesis of the company, in 1882 when the Società Italiana Prodotti Esplodenti (Italian Society of Explosive Products, SIPE) was founded in Cairo Montenotte, in northern Italy. It is during the First World War that SIPE reached its first pinnacle, producing nitrocellulose-based explosive powders for the Russian military.
Towards the end of the war, in 1917, after the Red October Soviet revolution, the SIPE lost a major customer and was well inspired to diversify its activity. Because the chemical properties of explosives and early film were very similar, the SIPE, in partnership with the European leading manufacturer of photography chemicals and materials, the French company Pathé Brothers, launched a firm called FILM – an acronym for the Italian Lamination Factory, Milan.
In 1920, with the support of external investors and the glass manufacturing company Cappelli, the group was able to manufacture products for still photography and cinema at a very reasonable cost allowing FILM Ferrania to raise to a worldwide leadership position in the film production industry. Under the management of Franco Marmont, from 1923, sales began a steady and fast growth thanks to, in particular, their great value for money.
The success of Ferrania coincides with the launch of the first Leica cameras, in 1924 by Ernst Leitz, which turned celluloid-based photography into the blockbuster product it was destined to become, putting an end to the glass-plates era. In the following years, the meeting of technologies minds and human enterprise has brought the world its share of very ground breaking products including X-ray technology, 16mm cinema, 35 mm and 120 mm film formats.
To crown its success, Ferrania reached new heights with its P30 black and white film which became a legend, in part because of a heavy marketing campaign in the United States, in part after being used in the movie Two Women, staring Sophia Loren and directed by Vittorio De Sica, which won multiple awards but also greatly because of Fellini’s success with 8½ staring Marcello Mastroianni and Claudia Cardinale, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Surfing on the general acclaim, Ferrania launched soon after a 35 mm and 120 mm version of the P30 enabling photographers to discover it and get that “Fellini feel”.
The first color emulsion, Ferraniacolor, launched in 1952, was poorly welcomed. In fact the criticism was quite hard; directors and photographers felt it lacked sensitivity in its first versions. It took Ferrania several years of R&D to bridge the gap between its color technology and the one of Agfa or Kodak.
However Ferrania remained the trademark of the Italian school of photography and cinema just as Sofia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida and Claudia Cardinale symbolized Italian style. The dominance of Italian cinema was very obvious, winning multiple awards and coining through an artistic renaissance Ferrania as the grain of Italy. The brand’s global awareness was equal to the likes of Olivetti computers and Fiat automobiles.
SIPE - Società Italiana Prodotti Esplodenti
The 30s have seen FILM continue its growth by acquiring Cappelli, the former partner company, and extending its offering to the camera market, becoming a world leader in both the film and camera industries with more than 500 employees and a 90,000 square meters factory.
As it goes, biographies of long lasting companies cannot be told without mentioning the political environment in which they have arisen, which in the case of Ferrania was very relevant. The 30s and 40s Kingdom of Italy was governed by the autarchic and nationalistic fascist regime that imposed Ferrania films to the movie directors in the country creating a very unique imagery; a decade of opulent and fanciful movies that became classics.
Just after the war, many Italian filmmakers developed a close relationship to the products of Ferrania developing the typical urban style that will be known as Neorealism. The technology developed by the Ligurian firm, a rendering very close to reality, allowed these iconic filmmakers to develop some of the main themes they were delving into and dwelling upon.
What started as an imposed constraint was masterfully turned into a trademark not merely used but clearly looked after by the Italian school of filmmaking. The likes of Pasolini, De Sica, Rossellini and Fellini used Ferrania for most if not all their career influencing generations of artists and movie makers. Although it isn’t necessary to validate the work of masters, simply as a point of reference for younger generations, we could say that Fellini’s movie 8½, entirely shot using Ferrania stock film, is still today mentioned by Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorcese, Roger Ebert and many more, in their all-time favorite movies.
In 1964, 3M acquired Ferrania in a stock purchase for some $55 million and created Ferrania-3M, becoming the largest acquisition by 3M in its 62 years of existence. With the new policy and R&D effort, Ferrania made huge upgrades to its products and also to its producing machinery. The pinnacle of the venture was the launch of the daylight-balanced color transparent film, a prodigious film whose quality was never equaled by the competitors. At that point, the campus in Liguria was growing fast, developing new products and reaching milestones, like the X-ray film that didn’t need a darkroom for processing.
All stories, they say, must come to an end, and all empires will fall, and surely enough Ferrania entered a very difficult era in the 90s with the increasing number of competitors – Ilford and Fuji among the major ones. In an attempt to try a different marketing strategy Ferrania started selling their films under multiple brand names, including Imation Chrome, keeping simply the “made in Italy” label. In 1995 3M decided to restructure the company, moving the film, audio and videotape production to a new entity called Imation.
The rest, to paraphrase Nabokov, is rust and stardust. Obviously the spread of digital photography was very detrimental and Ferrania was sold, in 1999, to an investment company. The brand was kept alive, but the resources, know-how and technology to raise to the challenge of a quickly moving global market were lacking, Fuji, Ilford and Kodak were just too powerful already.
Today, the new developments in the life of Ferrania give flickers of hope to the souls of many film lovers out there. Hope for what could be accomplish but also trepidation in the face of all that will be lost in the case of a failure. The Italian government salvaged and financed the maintenance of the industrial estate and machinery of Ferrania. A decade later, Nicola Baldini and Marco Pagni are thinking of ideas to give (re)birth to this fantastic phoenix… Let them tell you more about it and how you can help.