The business of cinema

The earliest film shows in Scotland were mounted in established venues: the Empire Palace Theatre in Edinburgh; the Real Ice Skating Palace on Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street; the Music Hall in Aberdeen. As a result the costs associated with the screening of motion pictures were largely confined to the equipment used to project the images and the acquisition of the films themselves. Over time, as film moved from being one item in a varied entertainment bill to being the main attraction, shows took place in buildings adapted for the purposes of exhibition. One of the most extensive exhibition businesses of cinema’s early years, New Century Pictures, operated from a variety of venues across Britain, including, first as The Thomas Edison Animated Photo Co,. and then as the National Pioneer Animated Photo Co., the Operetta House on Edinburgh’s Chambers Street. The lease of this and similar buildings enabled the company to invest in acquiring the large number of subjects required to sustain audience interest, so that it could show films almost all year round by 1903. The emergence of dedicated, purpose-built cinemas would only commence towards the end of the first decade of the new century, with ventures such as the Ayr Picture Palace, built in 1909. From that point to the outbreak of war in 1914, the number of picture houses proliferated, persuading even those who had previously concentrated largely on travelling shows, such as George Green in Glasgow and ‘President’ Kemp in Johnstone and Saltcoats, to invest in fixed sites. A measure of the change can be found in the number of picture theatre companies created over the period. Across Britain as a whole these rose from 103 in 1909 to 464 in 1912 and Scotland, where the taste for picture-going was as strongly developed as elsewhere, shared fully in this boom. Glasgow claimed 85 licensed cinemas in 1913, almost half of which were new creations dating from 1910 onwards. If war would interrupt the expansion of the exhibition business, growth was resumed following the Armistice and proceeded at such a rate that politicians in Glasgow, Greenock and Dundee, fearing for the viability of what were seen as more socially useful initiatives, such as the housing programme, moved to impose a freeze on cinema building.

The cinemas constructed in the building booms either side of the Great War were often private ventures, reflecting the limited capital needed to sustain the business. The largest outlay involved the acquisition of the site, the cost of which in prime city-centre locations could be high. In 1913, the Palace at the east end of Edinburgh’s Princes Street was floated on a capital of £30,000, with £29,000 going to the purchase of existing premises. In most cases, funding requirements were more modest and the £4,000 raised to establish the Clydebank Picture House Ltd. in April 1914 was not untypical. Money was forthcoming from a variety of sources, but not in most cases from those who would patronise the new cinema buildings. Growth in the exhibition sector was based on expectations of a large working-class demand for entertainment at affordable prices. In 1910, the Scottish Electric Picture Palaces Ltd. was floated with the intention of constructing eight halls across west-central Scotland. The company’s prospectus set out the advantages of the selected locations, most which were centred in densely-populated working-class districts: ‘The inhabitants of these centres are composed mostly of the classes which, experience shows, will liberally patronise Cinematograph Theatres, and for which at present no such popular form of entertainment has been provided’. The tone suggests a distance, social, economic and geographical, between company promoters and cinema-goers. The company’s board of directors comprised a solicitor, a staple presence in most boardrooms given the property transactions involved, a wholesale stationer from Glasgow, a jeweller from Ayr, and a theatrical manager from London. If the presence of a figure associated with the entertainment business would seem predictable, it more often proved the exception than the rule. For example, the Greenock Picture Palace Co. Ltd., incorporated in 1912, was overseen by a Partick commission agent, a draper and clothier from Glasgow, two merchants, one from Greenock, the other from Glasgow, and a Greenock dental operator, giving rise perhaps to the suspicion that the entertainment on offer could be likened to the drawing of teeth.

The great majority of exhibition businesses were private companies, combining the security that, in the case of losses, liability would be limited to the amount of money invested, while allowing directors to retain ownership. Shares in such concerns were largely taken up by associates of the directors and so not surprisingly were also drawn overwhelmingly from the commercial middle class. Prominent in most shareholders’ lists were women not in gainful employment, seeking an outlet for their small savings in a form of investment whose popularity appeared to guarantee some certainty of return. Cinema investors were made up of people who in previous generations had invested in residential property. A collapse in private house building either side of the Great War diverted money into alternative forms of property. To that extent, the rise of cinema could not have been better timed.

Ownership was and remained intensely local. This was sustained in a period of rising costs as the films and the people employed to show them became more expensive, by the sharing of booking arrangements, so that films were secured on the most advantageous terms. An estimated one-third of all Scottish cinemas were said to be part of booking circuits by 1924, giving rise to figures such as Thomas Ormiston and Alexander B. King, who would exercise a profound influence on the development of the Scottish cinema trade through and beyond the period. Towards the end of the silent era, challenges to local control were envisaged through the advent of sound technology, the cost of which threatened the viability of many small exhibitors, and the growing influence of London-based combines which integrated all aspects of the business from production through to exhibition. That one of these combines, the Association British Picture Corporation was headed by a Scot, John Maxwell, offered little comfort to many. The lure of London money was occasionally resisted, so that the decision of the board of the Regent Cinema in Glasgow to sell out to a London syndicate in 1928 was reversed by a shareholders’ vote and the board replaced. Significantly, the proportion of cinemas bought up in this way remained lower in Scotland than elsewhere, confirming the view of many surveys of the time that, in exhibition terms at least, Scotland was the land of independents.

By Trevor Griffiths