Film renters and distribution

Cinema as a cultural form depends on film supply. Therefore, in order to understand Scotland's relationship with cinema we need to understand how films were traded, how they circulated, and how these networks connected Scottish audiences to a global industry.

In the very first years of the film trade, anyone could buy a print of a film from the manufacturers, who would simply keep making as many copies as needed. London was a major hub of the world film trade, so the fairground caterers and town hall lecturers entering the business could visit the offices and showrooms of companies like Pathé, Gaumont, Edison, and Vitagraph. Agents of these companies also visited the big fairs to sell their wares to the showpeople. The price was usually calculated by the foot and whether the film was coloured or not. The buyer then owned the film and they could show it wherever they wanted for as long as they wanted, or re-sell it to another exhibitor. The second-hand market offered bundles of older films and pirate copies were also an option for the budget-conscious exhibitor. The circulation of films during those first years was thus attached to the routes of fairground travellers and lantern lecturers. They could keep the same set of films to show in one place today and another place tomorrow — there was no need for a constant change of programme because the audience was always different. Although films of recent events were popular, the pressure to have the newest films was weak. Companies like the Modern Marvel company and Walker's would invest in new films for their more prestigious city venues, and then tour smaller towns with a mix of newer and older films on the programme. Local topicals were a useful way to freshen up an older programme.

If cinema was to become a permanent fixture in the life of cities and small towns, exhibitors would have to attract the same audience repeatedly, and this required more frequent changes of programme. This was impossible if they had to buy the films outright, as the cost would be too high. At the same time, film producers were trying to ensure that there was a market for their new films, by discouraging the circulation of older titles. In these circumstances, film renting started to displace outright sales in the UK just as the first fixed-site cinemas were established.

When JJ Bennell opened the Wellington Palace in Glasgow, for instance, he hired the films from Jury's in London. Jury's agent was William 'Prince' Bendon, who had been dealing in projectors, accessories and films from as early as 1900, and was thus the first independent renter in Scotland. Bendon’s clients included several music halls, most notably the Britannia Panopticon. From 1908 there were Glasgow branches of Pathé and Gaumont, with screening rooms where pioneer exhibitors from the surrounding towns could preview and book a programme. Travelling salesmen also visited cinema managers on behalf of London-based companies.

As the first cinema owners started to flourish and expand their circuits, some of them realised that they could go back to buying films outright because they could spread the cost across more venues. This created a new opportunity: As they were able to cover the cost of the films by showing them in their venues, they could then rent them out to make a clean profit. The main two examples of this interrelationship of distribution and exhibition are the B. B. Pictures, which started trading as such in 1910, and Green's Film Service, launched in February 1912. Therefore, in Scotland the two leading distributors during the early period emerged from the exhibition trade — one coming from a lecturing tradition, the other from the fairground.

The role of a film renter in those days was far from simple. There were many different companies, and the number of films released in a week often surpassed one hundred. In order to see them, Bennell and his wife had to travel to London every other week and spend days cooped up in the manufacturers’ preview rooms. Greens appointed a London agent entrusted with this work. The films were then delivered by train to warehouses in Glasgow, from where they would be dispatched to their first booking, with instructions to the cinema manager to forward each film to their next destination. Most cinemas in cities and large towns showed two programmes a week, and each programme was composed of six or seven short films, often from different renters. The potential for delays, errors, and damaged prints was high. But the greatest challenge for regional renters came from the vertical integration of the industry. The spiralling cost of making longer, more lavish films was used by film producers to justify the need for a change in the market. In the United States, distribution had been consolidated through the exchange system, in which regional agents working for specific studios controlled the programme of a circuit of cinemas. In the UK, however, exhibitors had defended the 'open market' system which allowed them to hire from any renter, and the renters to buy from any manufacturer.

Prestigious feature films marketed as 'exclusives' were the first step in undermining that system. Exclusives were controlled by a regional agent, who could prevent anyone else from renting or showing the film in their area. Since this form of trade did not require a large stock of films, many new renters entered the business around 1915. Soon afterwards, a local branch of Film Booking Offices (representing Hollywood majors) and other direct agency deals resulted in a further squeeze on independent renters. 'Open market' product became scarce, and regional renters were reduced to dealing with the 'filler' in the programme, and supplying the least profitable cinemas in smaller or poorer communities. The B. B. Pictures abandoned renting in 1917, and Green's held on for a few years longer. After that, film supply was mainly in the hands of Hollywood booking agents.

For cinema as popular entertainment to become a viable business, it had to develop ways to organise the actual circulation of reels of film, as well as models that enabled both producers and exhibitors to make money. The balance of forces was never even, especially as audiences became attached to Hollywood stars and demanded that their local cinema showed the latest releases. While film distribution is often forgotten as a less heroic or less picturesque part of cinema history, it is fundamental to each transformation in the industry, from the serial to the feature film. Furthermore, the renters’ work of selecting, packaging, dispatching, and marketing defined the boundaries of what people across Scotland got to see. They mediated between the global forces of the film industry and the local needs of a cinema manager and his or her audience.