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Launching Films

UK Film Distribution Guide

The origins of UK film distribution

The theatrical landscape of 1915

Moving pictures were barely two decades old in 1915 and it would be a further dozen years before they began to talk. Yet curious members of the public watched nascent film shows in as many auditoria UK-wide as today - around 3,500. Ambitious entrepreneurs who travelled the land, offering short reels for exhibition in theatres and halls, can hardly have imagined the global phenomenon of the cinema in the early 21 st century. Where no screen existed, the small monochrome images were simply projected on to whitewashed walls.

The UK's first purpose-built cinema had opened in 1909. A swift expansion followed, partly because nitrate film stock, being highly flammable, required the construction of separate projection booths.

London's Electric in Portobello Road can claim to be the oldest survivor, looking much the same now as when built in 1910. Like virtually all proto-cinemas, it is a rectangular hall with a barrel-vaulted roof, decorative plasterwork and a flamboyant façade. Later that year, the Duke of York's cinema in Brighton and the Phoenix, East Finchley, were completed.

Very few circuits had emerged at this time. Among the largest were Albany Ward (29 screens), Provincial Cinematograph Theatres (18), George Green's 10-strong chain in Scotland and Pyke's in London. Some chains over-expanded and were absorbed by their competitors; mergers and acquisitions would be a persistent trait of the industry.

Admission prices ranged from two pence for a place on a bench at the front ('the cheap seats') to a shilling (5p) for a tip-up seat in the balcony. UK admissions ninety years ago were close to 20 million from a population of around 44 million. Cinemagoing rocketed beyond all dreams between the two world wars, peaking in 1946 at 1.6 billion admissions, the surely unbeatable all-time high.

Distribution of films and machinery

A Kinematograph Manufacturers- Association (KMA), dating back to 1909, represented both the makers and suppliers of the new-fangled cine equipment. Since the 1890s, the hardware suppliers had also sold the films - and often produced and acted in them too, primarily as a way of demonstrating the projectors. The hardware was considered the most saleable item, but audiences would have other ideas.

Distributors provided packages of films - exotic travelogues, comedy sketches, fantasies, quick cartoons and 'trick' films (stop-motion animation). The range and diversity of a presentation was emphasised as a selling point, as on a vaudeville or circus bill. As with today's advertising reels, the sequence of shorts was usually supplied already made up, which made economic sense and saved on transport costs.

Exhibitors would purchase outright a copy of a programme or title, and perhaps play it at several venues in one night. The new 'animated photography', 'picture plays' or 'motion picture film attractions' were frequently screened on the same bill as live performances. At first, distributors would charge according to length, rather than any estimated market potential.

Taking account of audiences

By 1915, a need to satisfy rising audience demand was leading to greater business sophistication. Film shows became less peripatetic and more of a fixed theatrical attraction, while live-action fiction began to emerge as the principal draw, topping the bill.

At a time when many branches of business were becoming increasingly professional, film distribution matured quickly into a specialised discipline. Renting, rather than selling, titles on behalf of the producers became standard practice. As the number of companies handling only films and not the equipment grew, so the need for a dedicated licensors' or renters' organisation crystallised.

The commercial renters' national trade body was born into a swirling, unstructured environment. On Friday 10 December 1915, the Kinematograph Renters' Society of Great Britain and Ireland (KRS) was registered as a company limited by guarantee. Its stated aims were to watch, protect and represent its members' interests, including by co-operating with government and other trade bodies, and obtaining legal advice, railway concessions and other generic assistance which could be negotiated more effectively by consolidated action.

There were ten founding member companies of KRS - Advance Film Service, Butcher's Film Service, Gaumont Film Hire Service, Globe Film Co, Green & Co, Ideal Film Renting Co, International Cine, Jury's Imperial Pictures, Pioneer Film Agency and Ruffell's Imperial Bioscope - but the member list expanded rapidly.

At an initial general meeting, held in Covent Garden's Connaught Rooms on 14 December, AC Lovesy of Ruffell's was elected the first KRS President. He resigned the chair after two years because of military duties.

His successor, Edward Turner, had co-founded one of the first British companies to rent films at the start of the century. He built up a catalogue of short pieces by the Lumiè re brothers, Birt Acres, Robert Paul and others, and enjoyed a 30-year career in distribution. He also served as chairman of the KMA, with which KRS retained close links, and Cinema Veterans' Society, and he wrote articles about the development of the business. Turner died aged 90 in 1962.

The trade association's early influence

Surviving records show that early KRS board meetings were concerned with thrashing out a viable mechanism for renting film prints and collecting payments - a generic boiler-plate defining the bases of the new trade sector and establishing professional standards for film presentation.

Some commentators expressed the view that KRS members did more to structure and shape the British film industry - bringing order and the essential elements of stability on which its progress depended - than any other group. Committed to building public audiences, distributors spent hours around the KRS table deliberating 'the long-term development and well-being of the industry'. This was the one place where competitors could meet as a group and discuss the needs of their evolving sector.

By the 50 th anniversary of KRS in 1965, when its office was in Dean Street, all the US studios had well-established British off-shoots or joint-ventures based in Soho. KRS membership then numbered a broad church of familiar names: Warner-Pathé Distributors, Twentieth Century Fox Film Co., Walt Disney Productions, MGM Pictures, United Artists Corporation and Paramount Film Service, plus local firms including the Rank Organisation, BLC Films, Panton Film Distributors, Compton-Cameo Pictures and Romulus Films.

Many distributors ran regional branch offices to service key conurbations, but as business and communications patterns developed, the branches were consolidated into the London offices. The name KRS was updated in the 1980s to Society of Film Distributors (SFD), and again in 2001 to Film Distributors' Association (FDA).

Fan magazines eagerly followed the stars' rise to fame. The long-running Photoplay pressed its first edition in 1912. Film Flashes and Pictures and the Picturegoer were among the periodicals published in Britain, while for the trade, Bioscope and Kinematograph & Lantern Weekly flourished, with the latter's successor, Kine Weekly, continuing until the early 1970s.

Short-lived European success

In the first two decades of the 20 th century, European film companies - especially the major concerns based in France, Italy and Denmark - made most of the films screened in Europe. They exported worldwide, too, in some years supplying more than half of the films shown in the US. But the First World War changed all that, and European output would never recapture its lead.

After the war, political bitterness and increased entertainment taxes restricted the circulation of European national films within the continent, while sound and dialogue, available from the following decade, limited export potential further still.

The decline of European films coincided with the rise of a small town in southern California, rich in sunshine and orange groves, that was fast making its name as a hub of movie production. From the outset, Hollywood was a melting pot of creative and entrepreneurial talents from around the globe. In March 1915, Carl Laemmle, German-born President of Universal Manufacturing Corporation, opened a studio complex on a great ranch (later Universal City), while the Warner Bros. - Harry, Albert, Sam and Jack - were already in business.

The rise and rise of Hollywood

Also founded in the US in 1915 were Technicolor ® , which began experimenting with colour processing, Metro Pictures and Fox Film Corporation. William Fox, originally a penny arcade owner from New York, diversified to produce a slew of successful movies. Integrating distribution and exhibition with production, Fox Film Corp merged twenty years later with Twentieth Century Pictures.

Several wealthy entrepreneurs - would-be moguls - identified opportunities in the new film industry and invested heavily. But it has forever been an unpredictable, risky business, and by the end of the decade, few substantial entities other than the emerging majors remained.

In April 1915, Charlie Chaplin's iconic two-reeler, The Tramp, made at the Essanay Studios, was released in the US, one of fifteen pictures in which he appeared that year. Through his films, 26 year-old Chaplin became the world's best known, highest paid star and practically defined modern celebrity. Like most movie stars from this time onwards, he worked in Hollywood.

British cinemas organised competitions for customers to impersonate Chaplin on stage. In summer 1915, Essanay's London office devised a commercial distribution plan to ride the crest of their star's unprecedented popularity. It offered to supply packages of films including the latest Chaplin comedies direct to exhibitors, rather than using the services of local or regional intermediaries. This gave Essanay greater say over their product and potentially a larger slice of the film rentals.

The birth of epic cinema

When, at the end of the 20 th century, the American Film Institute unveiled its selection of America's finest movies - the AFI 100 - the only entry from 1915, at no. 44 in the list, was DW Griffith's TheBirth of a Nation. A three-hour silent spectacular, this was undoubtedly the film of the year. It starred Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh and George Siegmann, although a mass of extras was assembled for the Civil War battle scenes. Drawn from a notoriously racist play, the film's caricature heroes are Ku Klux Klan members, its villains Southern blacks.

Nevertheless, The Birth of a Nation was influential in its use of amazing technical effects. 41 year-old Griffith and his cinematographer, Billy Bitzer, were innovators. They pioneered camera iris effects; tracking, panning, high-angle and long shots; night shoots; subtitles; fade-outs; and the use of parallel actions edited within a single sequence.

This costly, sentimental 12-reeler helped so-called features - feature-length narratives - to cement their place at the heart of the cinema programme, succeeding strips of shorts. The cinema began to flex its muscles as a sophisticated storytelling medium in its own right, capable of gripping a mass audience like the novel or the theatre.

Marketing sophistication

The lasting influence that Griffith and Chaplin exerted on filmmaking may be traced back to 1915. The Birth of a Nation's British premiere at London's Scala theatre was billed as the event of the year. This and Quo Vadis (1913) were two of the first releases to receive a big publicity build-up in the UK, initiating what became an enduring professional pattern for marketing and launching films.

The key selling point was no longer the variety of the bill, but the wonder and excitement of the main feature. As movies grew in sophistication and running time, greater resources were ploughed into their production, and ever more stars emerged. While supporting short elements remained in the programme, they largely disappeared from the advertising. Movies advanced very rapidly after the first flickering projections, and soon came to reflect and affect lives and cultures - the ways people walked, talked, dressed, socialised and told stories.

As distribution strategies evolved, big films would be booked first into larger-capacity theatres, where people could book seats in advance, after which the prints toured smaller halls interested in playing them. 'First run' bookings naturally commanded a premium rental.

Cheaper than live entertainment, the cinema became a favourite out-of-home pastime. Today, distributors remain the linchpin of the whole enterprise, and no other UK film industry trade body represents a greater share of its constituency than FDA.