“[Many folks who bought the product]…didn’t realize how small the picture really was.”
— Bruce Godfrey, Polaroid Marketing Manager
“Personally, I don’t know why anyone would want it.”
— B. Alex Henderson, Prudential Securities Analyst
“…Captiva sales estimates and capital equipment spending was consistently based on incremental sales of 30 million [film] packs in the fifth year after Captiva’s inception. The sales never exceeded 5 million packs per year.”
— Milton P. Dentch, Fall of An Icon: Polaroid After Edwin H. Land
An Insider’s View of the Once Great Company
That was the official post mortem on Polaroid’s innovative, last-chance instant camera and film system, the wonderful but nevertheless doomed Captiva: the pictures were too small. Remember, the Titanic was a swell boat, also; Captiva was a few square inches short of a winning picture size, just as the Titanic was big on grandeur and luxury but short on lifeboats.
That’s how the story goes, or went. But is small picture size really the reason Captiva bombed? Or was it something else, something that has more to do with what might be called “The Winds of Change,” and less to do with picture size?
To quote the famous spiritual leader Jiddu Krishnamurti, “let’s look into this deeply together, shall we?”
A Changing World
The world has changed a lot since the 1990s, and for the last decade or so, people have gradually been weaned off of large desktop office computer monitors onto tiny handheld iPhone screens. Various new species of chiropractic conditions — not to mention eyestrain, headaches, attention deficit disorder, and insomnia — have appeared as a result.
With this preponderance of digital images — images with no “physical” or “material” reality or existence — actual hardcopy photos of any type are becoming rare, and thus welcomed like a long lost friend. And that’s one of many cruel ironies about Captiva’s failure: in 2017, smaller print sizes don’t bother anyone anymore; any kind of photographic print, especially an instant print that comes into physical being right before one’s eyes, is a genuine novelty (“now, more than ever”).
Anyone who doubts the appeal of small prints nowadays can just look at the wildly-successful Fuji Instax Mini line, which offers prints quite a bit smaller than Captiva’s; Polaroid was bashed and ‘dissed in 1993 for photos the size of baseball cards, while Fuji cleans up in 2017 on photos the size of credit cards!
And the venerable Hewlett-Packard has just introduced an instant picture printer, the HP Sprocket, based on ZINK (Zero Ink Technology) technology (originally developed inside Polaroid), which also uses prints that are smaller than Captiva’s.
What goes around, comes around. Let’s raise a toast to Dr. Land and party like it’s 1947.
And yet, the main threat to Polaroid wasn’t digital photography (yet). Rather, it was “big pictures” — large prints — and free duplicate pictures — cheap pictures — fast pictures — taken with inexpensive (even disposable) 35mm film cameras and printed in an hour at increasingly ubiquitous one-hour photo labs, huts, and kiosks, which constituted one of the major competitive challenges (okay, the primary death threat) to Captiva, and by extension, to my alma mater, Polaroid, itself.
How could the late I.M. “Mac” Booth, then-Polaroid CEO, possibly sleep at night, knowing that a $5 disposable plastic Kodak camera could often take better photographs on 35mm film than any Polaroid camera rolling off the assembly lines, from a $29 OneStep all the way up to the flagship $150 Sonar SX-70?
On the other hand, there was always the unique “instant kick,” available from Polaroid only, helped by the fact that ongoing film advances at Polaroid meant that the pictures, in many cases, looked pretty damn good. But the photographer had to get close-up, something we’ve all learned with Instax and especially Instax Mini. To paraphrase the old advertising slogan, “the closer you get, the better they (the pictures) look.”
And the lighting needed to be pretty good also. Colorful balloons and baskets of bright flowers helped, too. The film quality on Dr. Land’s Polavision Instant Movies was so poor that for the product’s introductory road shows, the great man had to bring in brightly-colored (and very well-lit) jugglers and mimes and bouquets of expensive fresh flowers, like Flo Ziegfield always brought on “more girls” whenever things began to drag onstage.
To this day, the “fault-tolerance” (latitude, detail, sharpness, color rendition and faithfulness, etc.) of ANY instant film falls short of traditional analog 35mm shots and their associated prints (of course, these are pretty much dead, too, so it no longer matters; old age and death do not play favorites). And yet, as we will see, the instant integral film pioneered by Polaroid still thrives, but Polaroid isn’t around to enjoy it, only those inscrutable, calculating Asian copycats at Fuji, and that small, merry band of quixotic heroes at Impossible.
That, also, just doesn’t seem fair.
At the time, Captiva could not really compete with this growing threat from traditional film photography combined with increasingly cheap cameras and fast, easy photo processing; instant pictures came up short in virtually every aspect of the user experience (and still do).
The current hipster-preference for washed out pictures and moody lighting and incomplete image development had not yet developed (as it were); instant photography users were still taking photographs of their kids and dogs and vacations, not artistic shots of gorgeous naked women, crouched down, without reason, in the corners of abandoned, unheated warehouses and wrecked factories, or wearing frilly, flouncy dresses, holding bouquets of flowers dreamily in the nearest misty enchanted forest, under the towering pines, waiting for Prince Charming to show up on a white horse, sweep them off their feet, and spirit them away from this cold horrible digital world to a perfectly warm and fuzzy analog realm where everybody drives red Vespas, stays young forever, and shoots photos exclusively with free Hasselblads and lifetime film supplies handed out at birth along with social security numbers.
Hey, is there room on the back of that white horse for another passenger?
The Enemy Within: Polaroid’s Existing Instant Product Families
Captiva was also competing with other Polaroid products, and personally, I think this competition was the real killer, “the enemy within.” Polaroid’s existing family of instant cameras and films were excellent, fully up to the job. Who needed anything else, instant-wise? There was nothing really new under that blazing instant sun. Polaroid was in a box, a beautifully-built box, Dr. Land’s handiwork and lifework, and nobody there knew how to get out of it (to Polaroid’s credit, neither did outsiders like the regrettable, clueless Gary DiCamillo. Next time, stick to power drills and hand saws, buddy).
To this day, I wonder if Dr. Land didn’t plant a kind of “Easter Egg” in the organization that detonated after he left, with a slow-burn fuse. In fact, I have often thought this about Land, and also about the late Ken Olsen at the once-mighty Digital Equipment Corporation. How could these huge corporate behemoths have disappeared from the face of the earth, while IBM, Kodak, General Motors, and other Dinosaurs still stalk the planet, albeit somewhat anemically and anorexically?
But when it came to “the next big thing,” well, sometimes you need it, but just don’t have it. Polaroid didn’t have it. As with the ill-fated Polavision that came before it, people predicted and suspected disaster but didn’t do anything about it; deer caught in the headlights, paralyzed with fear and inertia. Captiva was all Polaroid had, but it wasn’t the solution. The fix wasn’t in.
Simply put, from the user’s perspective, if you wanted to do “the instant thing,” there were already a gazillion Polaroid cameras from which to choose, along with the mature, familiar, high-quality, affordable, and larger-imaged SX-70, 600, and Spectra films.
Captiva would have had to offer something really unique and appealing (emphasis added) in the film department (emphasis added again) as well as the camera department.
One out of two ain’t bad.
A Fine Camera Doth Not A Uniquely New and Compelling Photographic Experience Make
The Captiva camera was definitely up to the task, anyway. In fact, the Captiva hardware is a lovely piece of engineering and manufacturing work, designed and built in the good old U.S.A., in Norwood, Massachusetts; manufacturing cost approximately $160 in the early 90s, each one sold for $100 at a big loss to Polaroid, hoping against hope to make it up with future film sales that never happened, not even close.
The Captiva’s clever inside-the-camera film storage system may have encouraged people to shoot more film, but as they say (well, maybe as they used to say at W-1, Polaroid’s Waltham, Massachusetts-based film manufacturing plant, recently bulldozed to make room for, you guessed it, shopping malls and condominiums), you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him burn film.
This feature may have been a bit self-serving on Polaroid’s part — sure, the occasional market research guinea pig may have squealed about not knowing where to put the pictures after they emerged from the front of an SX-70 or OneStep, but was it really such a big problem? Try your pocket, dummy; warm pockets help on cold days.
Was the Captiva solution really going to change anything? It was clever, sure. Handy, yes. But revolutionary? Not quite, not anywhere except on Planet Polaroid, where innovation had basically frozen since Land left in 1982.
Otherwise, the Captiva was a compact, well-made, easy-to-use folding Single-Lens-Reflex design with bellows, autofocus, and auto exposure, arguably as elegant and competent, if not iconic, as Dr. Land’s unwieldy, difficult-to-focus, cricket-shaped brainchild. But here’s another glitch in the Polaroid Matrix: If Spectra had the “best” (biggest) film, then how come Captiva had the best camera but the smallest film? This was a bit of a misstep in Polaroid’s product positioning lineup.
I always admired the beauty of General Motors’ once-perfect product hierarchy, from Chevy at the bottom to Cadillac at the top, and lots of well-placed steps in-between (Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick). I still use this basic template to explain quality differences to my customers. It mirrored the career development and salary arc of many American family-men and householders, everyone part of one big happy “GM Family.”
You could live within it, content, and never look or step outside it. When you’d bought a Caddy, you were at the very pinnacle, the apex, the apogee. There was nowhere to go, not even up. It may have been silly and old-fashioned and artificial, but it was perfect nonetheless; a Madison Avenue Marketing Man’s Dream, and a viable lifetime blueprint for one’s automotive-consumer-existence.
In my weekly Captiva Grief Recovery Support Group meeting, we all lament the death of this terrific camera (the film was fairly ordinary; it featured a Polapulse battery, 10 pictures per pack, the latest film chemistry technology, and one unique difference: a large, pod-sized film trap and frame at the top as well as at the bottom of each picture, presumably to facilitate customers writing notes on the front of the pictures).
I recently heard from the young folks at Impossible (think tattoos and beards), who report that Polaroid destroyed the Captiva film machine(s) at the Enschede, Netherlands factory at 5 minutes to Midnight, before Impossible came in and saved the rest of the equipment. Stateside, Polaroid also destroyed one or more brand new film machines while stillborn in their crates, unpacked and unused, million-dollar-baby infanticide, when it became acutely obvious they would never be needed. Ouch, that really hurts, 25 years later, and I’m not even an engineer.
The bottom line is that nobody, ever again, is going to manufacture film for these terrific cameras, meaning you can buy them for $10 on Ebay and put them on your shelf as a testament and a shrine to what can happen when you head down the road with the best of intentions, but imperfect plans.
What’s the truth, the cold, brutal, unvarnished truth? By 1992, the Polaroid Party was ending. As people put on their coats and went home, they may have been shooting just about exactly as many $1 Polaroid instant photos as they wanted to shoot, both for economic as well as habitual personal reasons. Captiva wasn’t going to change that. It was like watching reruns on television. Saturation and concomitant numbness had set in. Isn’t one picture of the family dog enough?
At best, Captiva was simply going to cannibalize sales of other Polaroid Products, not convert people away from 35mm cameras and film, or get them to consume more Polaroid product. In the end, it didn’t even do that.
If You’re So Smart, What Should (Might) Captiva Have Been?
Given Captiva’s unhappy fate, one can only imagine what Captiva could or might or should have been. Sometimes, as anyone who has had a loved one die from some terrible disease or accident can attest, there is simply no hope, only healing. One can guess, and brainstorm, and pray, and conjecture, but it’s all just a mental exercise when the grim reaper pays a visit. That cold-hearted bastard does not like to leave empty-handed.
3-D Pictures? Very Doubtful. Duplicate photos emerging at one time from the camera? Cool, but double the film costs. Really Large Photos, bigger than Spectra? Maybe, maybe, maybe (that’s my best bet, but I don’t know nothin’). What was needed was the equivalent of a KILLER APP for Polaroid.
The late Peter Wensberg, Polaroid Marketing V.P., wrote in his book Land’s Polaroid that after Land’s Polavision introduction nearly 20 years before, one was impressed with the obvious technical achievement, yet left without the feeling that something really new and useful had been birthed.
This was the identical situation with Captiva; Polaroid hounded Land out of his own company as payback for the pain of Polavision, and yet pulled the same stunt itself — introducing world-class flops, and betting heavily on them — without any input from our dear departed genius, who severed all ties with Polaroid in the 80s, and died in 1991.
When Steve Jobs was thrown out of Apple, he hadn’t yet invented the iPad and the iPhone and the iPod, a handful of modestly successful consumer products…but the company rehired him, as we all know, and had the good sense to retain him until he left feet first.
Land was older, and may have been out of ideas…but possibly not. And given the fate of Captiva, and “Helios,” a failed medical imaging product, maybe the Board of Directors was a bit hard on Land, in retrospect. Maybe they killed the goose that had laid golden eggs for them for decades. Since Day One, in fact.
Unfortunately, perhaps, the state of digital photography was not sufficiently advanced for Polaroid to have developed and shipped a hybrid digital/analog instant camera. Indeed, Fuji has just gotten around to doing this with its Instax Square lineup, released this week. With this new instant camera, part instant and part digital, Fuji has opted for a relatively small picture size, advanced photo controls, and in-camera (digital) photo “storage.”
Hmmmmm….let’s see now. Today, in May 2017, the newest and most advanced instant camera on the planet — a camera very likely to succeed in the market, given Fuji’s demonstrated engineering and marketing savvy — offers relatively small pictures, all the familiar limitations of instant film, and advanced features such as auto-exposure, auto-focus, built-in flash, and in-camera photo storage.
Sounds familiar…sounds like Captiva! Like I said, kids: what goes around comes around.
* * *
PostScript: Film Size Comparison Chart
Polaroid iZone: 1.5″ x 1″ = 1 Square Inch (Runaway Success)
Fuji Instax Mini: 1.8″ x 2.4″ = 4.32 Square Inches (Runaway Success)
HP Sprocket: 2″ x 3″ = 6 Square Inches (Just Introduced)
Polaroid Captiva: 2.87″ x 2.13″ = 6.11 Square Inches (Total Flop)
Fuji Instax Square: 2.5″ x 2.5″ = 6.25 Square Inches (Just Released, Jury Out, Probable Success)
Fuji Instax Wide: 3.9″ x 2.4″ = 9.36 Square Inches (Big Success)
Polaroid SX-70/600: 3.1″ x 3.1″ = 9.61 Square Inches (Runaway Success)
Polaroid Spectra: 3.5″ x 2.9″ = 10.15 Square Inches (Big Success)
Lesson: DOES SIZE MATTER? MAYBE!!!