photographic film factory / Cairo Montenotte / 1915 - 2009 / 2010, 2011
Ferrania is the toponym of a little agricultural hamlet hidden in the hilly, wooded inland of Savona, where the Alps meet the Apennines. Here, a large explosives factory was opened in 1915 by SIPE-Società Italiana Prodotti Esplodenti to satisfy the demand of its main customer, the Russian Empire. After the collapse of the latter in 1917 and the approaching of the end of war, the factory was intelligently reconverted to the production of photosensitive material such as photographic film, by taking advantage of the manufacturing linkage between nitrocellulose and celluloid. For this purpose, SIPE together with Pathé Frères created FILM-Fabbrica Italiane Lamine Milano, a new company registered in Milan and operative at Ferrania. New buildings specifically designed for film production were thus erected on the right bank of the Bormida river, while the bulk of the former explosives factory on the left bank was refurbished to host the manufacturing of celluloid and various needed chemicals by means of SICED-Società Italiana Cellulosa e Derivati. After some years dedicated to start-up and testing, film production became finally stable in 1923-24.
The withdrawal of Pathé from the shareholders in 1926 paved the way for the full “italianization” of FILM, especially in terms of finance and management. The rise of Fascism, with its strong nationalist emphasis (industry, cinema) and heavy propaganda, created the perfect conditions for the expansion of the company. Under the direction of Dr. Franco Marmont FILM's production grew considerably, including 16mm, 120 and 35mm roll films and even X-ray sheets. After a short but intensive cooperation with Ditta Cappelli, a milanese manufacturer of photographic plates dating back to 1886, FILM took over it in 1932 becoming then Fabbriche Riunite Prodotti Fotografici Cappelli e Ferrania. First cameras began to be manufactured at the former Cappelli’s plant in Milan. Once the financial control of the company was taken by Istituto Finanziario Italiano in 1935, a season of incredible further grow was launched. Big investments were thus made in research (foundation of in-house research institute, studies on color film), technology (continuous emulsion production, automatic coating) and marketing (national photographic competitions, artistic advertisement, etc.). In the framework of the brand building strategy, the company was renamed in 1937 simply Ferrania, to underline the relevance of the major production site, at the time employing around 1300 people.
After the end of World War II, production recovery was driven by the successful Ferraniacolor 12 ASA color film (1947), the second ever manufactured worldwide after Agfacolor (1936), as well as high-quality b/w films such as Pancro C7 (1949) and, later on, the “legendary” P30 (1959). The wide use of the latter in post-war Italian cinematographic productions, including masterpieces such as “Roma Città Aperta” (Roberto Rossellini), “Ladri di Biciclette” and “La Ciociara” (Vittorio De Sica) and “Otto e 1/2” (Federico Fellini), made of Ferrania a leading manufacturer of photosensitive material. With 170 different products and 4000 employees Ferrania covered, at the time, almost the entire imaging sector, similarly to major international producers such as Kodak, Agfa and Fuji. In 1964 the control share of the company was taken over by the US-based 3M group (former Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing), which aimed to extend its core business (adhesive and magnetic tapes) to the imaging sector. In the following years, under the management of the joint-venture Ferrania 3M, much efforts were devoted to R&D, training and technological upgrade. Traditional b/w photo-cinema films were abandoned in favor of roll color films, more consistent to market requests. The increasing control of 3M became evident in 1971 after the incorporation of Ferrania 3M in the parent company 3M and the subsequent creation of 3M Italia, which meant the definitive suppression of the original name “Ferrania”.
In the 1970s the production was systematically addressed by 3M to diagnostic imaging. Innovative technologies such as Trimax™, world’s first rare earth X-ray intensifying screens, and Trimatic™, first centralized daylight film handling system, were developed at Ferrania. On the film side, although color film was further improved and commercialized worldwide under the 3M key brand Scotch™, its production began to be seriously affected by the fast spread of digital technologies in late 1980s. Things get worsen so much that in 1996 3M decided to spin off the former Ferrania business to Imation, an independent company created on purpose. In 1999 Imation was then taken over by Schroder Ventures investment company and renamed Ferrania Imaging Technologies, with the aim to rescue color film production through the new Solaris™ brand. The latter revealed soon to be unsustainable in a market increasingly dominated by digital technologies, thus leading the company to bankruptcy in 2003. After having been acquired by the Genoese Messina group in 2004, the whole production site has been gradually split among different sub-companies: Ferrania Technologies (existing film and imaging production lines), Ferrania Solis (photovoltaic technologies) and Ferrania Ecologia (biogas plant). Film production, at the time still partially conducted in the oldest factory buildings, was definitively stopped in 2009.
The final, still open-ended chapter of this incredible story is that of Film Ferrania, a start-up company founded in 2013 by Nicola Baldini and Marco Pagni with the aim to restart a small scale, high-quality analog film production by reusing part of the original equipment and the existing structures, such as the former LRC (research center) building in which they're currently located.
Thanks to Lidia Giusto, a dear friend and colleague, for the precious support in outlining the history of Ferrania.
Colombo, C. (2004), Ferrania. Storie e figure di cinema e fotografia. Immagini dall'archivio fotografico Fondazione 3M, De Agostini, Novara.
Bezzola, G. (1994), Dalla Ferrania alla 3M, 3M Italia, Milano.
Salmoiraghi, A. (1992), Ferrania. Dalle antiche ferriere all'industria dell'immagine, Marco Sabatelli Editore, Savona.
Declaration of cultural heritage (2016) of part of the former Ferrania factory, by the Liguria Region Secretariat of the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage.
Fondo Fotografico Ferrania 3M, online photo archive with hundreds of beautiful images dating back to the period 1920-1960
Cinegiornale Luce (April 7, 1941) | Newsreel showing film production at Ferrania (English subtitles).
Lavoro a Ferrania (1962) | Documentary film (28') produced by Ferrania advertising office and directed by Piero Portalupi, describing in detail the photographic film production process. Music by Bruno Maderna.