Kodak is back in the news again after some time flying under the radar, and for a somewhat surprising reason: The Trump administration has tapped the legacy film and photography pioneer to produce pharmaceutical ingredients.
The company will receive a $765 million government loan to launch a new division called Kodak Pharmaceuticals, which will eventually produce as much as 25% of the active ingredients for generic medications in the United States. The deal helps fulfill a key Trump administration priority to reduce dependence on foreign production of drugs and other crucial products.
It’s something of a twist in the storied, 140-year history of the Eastman Kodak Company (KODK). The firm made film photography accessible to the masses — making the “Kodak moment” synonymous with taking a picture. But Kodak failed to capitalize on its invention of digital photography in the 1970s, and it eventually filed for bankruptcy in 2012. Since then, the company has been trying to reinvent itself, and in recent years has leaned heavily on the production of advanced chemicals.
Though the move into pharmaceuticals seems like a large leap, Kodak CEO Jim Continenza last week called the chemical business “the heart of who we are.” Kodak’s stock has surged around 530% in the past five days following news of the agreement.
“We’re in this business, just not in a large way, and this is a chance for us to expand,” Continenza said.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo described the effort as one to “restore Kodak’s role as an American innovator, and a formidable force in the chemical industry.”
Here’s a look back at some of the biggest moments in Kodak’s history, and how the photography and film company became positioned to lead a major Trump administration priority.
‘You push the button, we do the rest’
1880-1881: Kodak founder George Eastman invented a new formula for making dry plates, a key piece of photography equipment, and began manufacturing them in Rochester, New York. He called the business the Eastman Dry Plate Company.
The firm transitioned through several names before landing on the Eastman Kodak Company in 1892. (The word “Kodak,” according to the company, was invented by Eastman out thin air: “The letter ‘K’ had been a favorite with me — it seems a strong, incisive sort of letter.”)
1888: Eastman released the first Kodak camera. At the time, photography was not a mass business because of the technical skills and equipment needed to do it, but the Kodak camera was designed to make photography more widely accessible. Eastman coined the slogan: “You push the button, we do the rest.”
1889: Kodak released the first commercial transparent roll of film, enabling the development of the motion picture camera. Since then, the company has received nine Oscars for technical and scientific contributions to the movie industry.
1929: Kodak marketed its first film designed for then-novel motion pictures with sound.
1960s: Kodak’s marketing leaned heavily on the idea of nostalgia. A 2007 “Mad Men” episode nodded to this strategy in a Don Draper speech about the carousel slide projector.
1969: Astronauts on the Apollo 11 space flight used a special color camera built by Kodak to take photographs during their first walk on the moon.
1970s: By this time, Kodak was responsible for 90% of film and 85% of camera sales in the United States, according to The Economist. But that powerful market position would not last.
1975: A young Kodak engineer created the first digital camera. But the company failed to capitalize on the invention, fearing its popularity would take away from film sales.
1988: Kodak made an earlier foray into the pharmaceutical industry when it bought Sterling Drug Inc. for $5.1 billion. At the time, Kodak was the largest maker of photographic products in the world, but it faced growing competition in photography, and was in the process of diversifying its business. The company already had a life sciences segment, which the Sterling acquisition was intended to boost, the New York Times reported at the time.
1994: Kodak sold off the remainder of its Sterling assets for $2.9 billion in cash, part of a move to concentrate on its core photography and imaging business. Kodak had previously sold Sterling’s pharmaceutical business for nearly $1.7 billion in cash, according to the Associated Press.
2004: Kodak stopped selling traditional film cameras.
December 2010: Kodak was delisted from the S&P 500. Its sales had shrunk almost in half between 2005 to 2010, and profits had dried up.
July 2011: Kodak said it was exploring the sale of more than 1,100 patents, or 10% of the company’s patent portfolio.
January 2012: Kodak filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Though some of its most valuable patents at the time were for digital imaging — including some used in smartphones — the company had fallen behind rivals in digital photography. At the time of its filing, the company said it had assets worth $5.1 billion, but it also had 100,000 creditors and debts totaling $6.75 billion.
February 2012: The company exited the digital camera business, and said it would instead license its brand name to other camera manufacturers.
2014: While Hollywood had largely moved on to digital production, Kodak in 2014 inked an agreement with industry leaders to continue making film for motion pictures, the Wall Street Journal reported. Kodak was the only major producer of motion picture film remaining, and its revenue from the business had tanked. The effort to keep it alive evidently had some success — Warner Bros’ much-anticipated film Tenet, set to release later this year, was shot on Kodak 65mm film.
2018: Kodak announced a plan to launch a “photo-centric cryptocurrency” called KODAKCoin, causing the company’s stock to surge 125% following the announcement. Little came of the effort.
July 28, 2020: Kodak won a government loan to transform into a pharmaceutical ingredients producer. White House trade adviser Peter Navarro said the company’s expertise in fine chemicals was borne out of its film legacy. The following day, Kodak’s stock price rose so fast it tripped 20 circuit breakers throughout the trading session.