The British film industry and the market for feature films in Britain 1932-37

Sedgwick, John (1995) The British film industry and the market for feature films in Britain 1932-37. Doctoral thesis, London Guildhall University.


The regeneration of the British Film Industry after the Cinematograph Act of 1927 was remarkable. On the production side, the industry was transformed from a very low base in the mid-twenties to one which seriously challenged the domestic market share of the Hollywood product a decade later: a process which Jarvie (1992) has recently termed "pushing back". Yet this apparent business success has not been acknowledged by film historians whose foremost conception of film-making in Britain during the Thirties is that of low budget, low quality production, forced on domestic audiences as a consequence of the provisions of the 1927 legislation.

This work tests this orthodoxy and finds it needs revising. In the absence of accounting information concerning box-office grosses, film budgets and rates of return, an Index of Film Popularity (POPSTAT) has been constructed from the exhibition records of approximately 90 leading London West End and provincial city cinemas for the period 1 January 1932 to 31 March 1938. This demonstrates that a body of domestic production - perhaps as many as 60 films a year - was genuinely popular with British audiences. It also draws attention to the high level of popularity associated with films from the Gaumont British-Gainsborough, British and Dominions and London Films studios, at times or throughout, the period of the investigation.

The justification for drawing inferences from a selected and highly unrepresentative sample of cinemas is founded upon the cascade pattern of film diffusion. It is clear from mapping this diffusion amongst cinemas in the sample that films are distributed outwards in time and space from higher to lower order cinemas. Films which appear in higher level cinemas continue to be popular and filter down through a succession of levels, whilst films which first appear in lower level cinemas do not receive exhibition at the higher level. The cascade system is explained in terms of intertemporal and geographical price discrimination practices. These conclusions are confirmed by three additional case studies based upon cinemas outside the sample set; located in Bolton, Dover, and the Chelsea, Kensington, Hammersmith area of West London.

The growing confidence and ambition amongst the leading domestic film-makers resulted in the growth of production facilities and human capital formation. Although there was no shortage of capital available for financing the activities of the industry, much was of a speculative nature, and not tied to corporate financial performance. Further, the difficulty of obtaining widespread distribution on a systematic basis in the American market increased the risks associated with big budget domestic production. The resulting financial crisis in 1936-1937, coupled with changes to the protection afforded the industry through the 1938 legislation, seriously damaged the corporate structure of the industry and ultimately its configuration. Nevertheless, the period was one of substantial achievement, and provided the basis for sustained film production during and immediately after the war.

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