A Manhattan bankruptcy judge has approved a plan for Eastman Kodak to emerge from Chapter 11 as early as September 3. The new company won't bear much resemblance to the film and camera company of yesteryear, though: It won't, for example, make or sell any products to consumers.
Manhattan bankruptcy judge Allan Gropper, in approving the plan, called it a necessary preliminary to Kodak's regaining what he called "its position in the pantheon of American business."
That position once was high. Kodak, by introducing the Brownie box camera in 1900, virtually invented popular, amateur photography. But last January, after decades of seeing its traditional business first eroded by foreign competition and then eclipsed by digital photography, it sought bankruptcy protection.
Kodak says in a statement that it is transforming itself into a seller of digital printing services to other businesses. That doesn't mean the company's traditional consumer products will disappear; but henceforth, they will be made by another entity, owned by a U.K. pension fund, and yet to be named.
Kodak, to settle $3 billion worth of pension obligations to its former workers in the U.K., is selling its consumer film and camera business to the workers' pension fund. Kodak spokesperson Christopher Veronda tells ABC News the fund has not yet settled on a name for its new enterprise, but that it has the legal right to continue using the name Kodak, if it wants to. "People will be able to continue to enjoy the same products, same name, same look," he predicts.
As for Kodak's remaining B2B digital printing business, Veronda notes that while its services and products will be sold directly to other businesses, those businesses, in turn, will make plenty of stuff that touches the public directly—catalogs, for example, and "eye-popping packaging" consumers will see on grocery store shelves.
The reborn company also will continue to make film for the motion picture industry.
A Manhattan photographer—a serious amateur who for many years has used the company's products--describes himself as "heartbroken" about Kodak.
"Kodak still produces the best film in the world, and will continue to do so, for as long as Hollywood directors prefer the celluloid image to its digital counterpart," he tells ABC. "We consumers benefit from that technology. But when the big boys out West are done with film, it's over for the rest of us. Images will be digital and only digital."
"They still have people with immense skill and who know how to win," Mark Zupan, dean of the business school at the University of Rochester, near Kodak's headquarters, told the Associated Press. "But it's also a team that has gone through hell for the last 10 to 20 years. It has been like constant water torture."
Founded by George Eastman in 1880, Eastman Kodak Co. is credited with popularizing photography at the start of the 20th century and was known all over the world for its Brownie and Instamatic cameras and its yellow-and-red film boxes. It was first brought down by Japanese competition and then an inability to keep pace with the shift from film to digital technology.
"Up until around 2005, Kodak was one of the most recognizable brands in the world, and that's now gone," Robert Burley, a photography professor at Ryerson University in Toronto told the AP. "It's only real brand recognition these days is as a failed company that was unable to make the transition from the 20th century to the 21st century. To some degree, they have become a poster child for a company that could not keep up with technology."
Kodak filed for bankruptcy protection last year after struggling with increasing competition, continuing growth in digital photography and growing debt. Since its filing, Kodak has sold off many of its businesses and patents, while shutting down the camera manufacturing unit that first made it famous.
"Kodak is a different company than the one in the popular imagination and very different from the one that filed for bankruptcy," Kodak attorney Andrew Dietderich told the court at the start of Tuesday's hearing.
In making his ruling, Gropper noted that his approval of the plan will result in the loss of retirement and health care benefits for many former workers, while many of the company's investors will recoup just pennies on the dollar.
"So at a time of admitted tragedy, let us take a moment to dwell on the future and hope that Kodak will be successful," Gropper said.
Kodak Chairman and CEO Antonio Perez said that with the ruling, the company is now poised to become a leader in the commercial imaging industry, providing professional services such as commercial printing, packaging and film for motion pictures.
Zupan said the company also has been developing an alternative for a key composite used in the production of touch-screen display screens.
The connection with consumers is gone, though. "Kodak no longer will have any of the core businesses that once defined it," Burley said.
Last week, a majority of the company's creditors voted to approve its plan to emerge. But some retirees, shareholders and other parties objected to it.
Although some shareholders argued that they should be entitled for something in exchange for their stock, Gropper said he ruled at a previous hearing that they weren't. He noted that the company's creditors will only receive 4 cents or 5 cents on the dollar for their investments and that they're entitled to be paid before shareholders are. Generally, holders of common stock do not receive anything for their shares when a company emerges from Chapter 11.
The U.S. Trustee also filed an objection challenging the legality of hefty cash and stock bonuses that Kodak executives are expected to receive when the Rochester, N.Y., company exits from bankruptcy protection.The Associated Press contributed to this report.