- The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 26 Nov 1953, p. 92-107
- Davis, John, Speaker
- Media Type
- Item Type
- What has helped to determine the overall policy of the Rank Group—to help create a British film production industry operating world-wide and which at the same time would help to strengthen the ties between the Commonwealth of Nations and Britain. The speaker's belief that the motion picture industry is one of the most important industries in the world, and that its stature and importance will continue to grow. A digression to make some remarks about the speaker's visits to Canada. The Rank Group's investment in Canada. Some history of the film industry; both in Britain and the United States. Some background on Mr. J. Arthur Rank, Chairman of the speaker's organization. Some statistics as to the film industry in Britain. Markets in Britain and the U.S. Competition. The distinct flavour of films coming out of each country. An explanation of the different attitude to colour in Hollywood and Britain. A look back into cultural history. The important part that British Films have to play; worthy of export as British social and cultural values and backgrounds. Some details of the Rank Organisation. Paying tribute to the Bank of Montreal which supported the company. Partnerships in various countries. The state of the industry in the United States. The effect upon the type of film product made in every country in the world, by British Films. What the speaker's company has done in terms of the British Commonwealth of Nations. An example of the effect of the film of the Coronation. The serious competitor that is television. The speaker's belief that television will not destroy the film industry. The film industry subject to violent fluctuations because of economic conditions. The film industry remembering that they are in show business. The various roles of motion pictures.
- Date of Original
- 26 Nov 1953
- Language of Item
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- Full Text
- "BRITISH FILMS"
An Address by JOHN DAVIS, Managing Director, J. Arthur Rank Organization London, England
Thursday, November 26th, 1953
CHAIRMAN: The President, Mr. A. E. M. Inwood.
MR. INWOOD: On this day, the Empire Club is paying a tribute to the moving picture industry. You will have noticed that our head table is graced by the presence of many gentlemen who play an important part in that great enterprise. In our audience in this crowded hall we are happy to see many gentlemen who add so notably to the entertainment and pleasure of us all. They have joined us to welcome to Canada and to Toronto and to this club the leading personality in the British Film World, Mr. John Davis, Managing Director of the famous J. Arthur Rank Organization, which owns and operates our well-known Odeon Theatres of Canada.
Under Mr. Davis' inspired direction his company has played a unique part in improving the quality of film productions and has contributed to audiences throughout the world many new forms of the art of the cinema which have influenced production not only in Britain but also in Hollywood. I need only mention the screening of some of the great stories of Charles Dickens, 'Great Expectations' and 'Oliver Twist', the pioneering filming of Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' and 'Henry the Fifth', the making of the greatest of the ballet films 'Red Shoes', those unique merry comedies, 'Tight Little Island', 'Kind 92 Hearts and Coronets' and 'The Lavender Hill Mob', the magnificient war pictures, 'The Cruel Sea', and 'The Malta Story', and that amazing documentary which did more than any other to draw closer together the brotherhood of the English-speaking peoples--'A Queen is Crowned.'
I hope, sir, that you will continue to send across the seas such outstanding films of British life in the future as you have in the past, for they serve as a very real link of inspiration between the countries of the Commonwealth and contribute to the enlightenment, the understanding, and the peace of the whole world.
We have among the archives of this club the record of a meeting held in May, 1947, when your associate, Mr. J. Arthur Rank, was our guest speaker. Amongst the words spoken on that occasion were some by that distinguished Canadian, Mr. L. W. Brockington, C.M.G., Q.C., president of Odeon Theatres (Canada) Limited. I quote one of his sentences:
"We are all marching together into the future. I can assure you that the men and women of Canada will march all the more gladly and all the more hopefully because they know that their aged yet their young partner, Britain, will be marching at their side".
That thought is truer today, Mr. Davis, than ever before.
Ladies and gentlemen, our Guest of Honour Mr. John Davis, was born in London in 1906. He was educated at the City of London School and subsequently became a member of the Chartered Institute of Secretaries. He entered the motion picture industry as secretary to the Odeon Theatres Limited in 1938. His career since that day has been one of miraculous advancement and great achievement. He became joint managing director of Odeon Theatres Limited in 1941, sole managing Director in 1948, and deputy chairman in 1951. He is now chief executive of the J. Arthur Rank Organization Limited, the company which produces most memorable pictures, and, in addition, administers the successful Odeon and Gaumont circuits, comprising 550 theatres in the United Kingdom. He is also a director of many companies embracing film production, distribution and exhibition, both in the United Kingdom and overseas countries;' The importance of Mr. John Davis has increased steadily with the years. He seems to be the only man who knew all the answers and had the ability to make them. It was his vision and industry and courage which carried out the tremendous deal whereby Odeon took over the General Cinema Finance Corporation. It was he who put through the merger of Odeon and Gaumont under the Circuits Management Association. In dark days he never lost heart and everyone admits that he, above all, was responsible for the wonderful recovery of his companies notwithstanding the unprecedented burden of taxation and the other tremendous difficulties which have faced the industry in Great Britain. He is known for his courage, his quiet thinking, his ability to get things done. He has always had a tremendous capacity for hard work never sparing himself and is ready to talk business at any time of the day and night. He is, in short, a brilliant administrator with a complete grasp of a most complicated world-wide organization.
He has one hobby. He is a practical farmer in what he is pleased to call his spare time. Unlike most so-called gentlemen farmers he has characteristically made his farm pay. He is a foremost breeder of Friesian cattle and once remarked shrewdly that "whatever happens to postwar argiculture in this country one thing is certain' we cannot get our fresh milk from overseas."
Mr. Davis, I welcome you to this meeting, and I hope that you will find this audience as stimulating and interesting as we shall find your topic today "British Films".
MR. DAVIS: I received an invitation some months ago from your Chairman to attend this gathering. I felt so honoured that I could not do otherwise than come, even though it involved flying over four thousand miles to do so.
Looking round this room and seeing the gentlemen who are present, and knowing something of their background, I am overawed to feel that I have to talk to you, and at the same time, I repeat, highly honoured.
Mr. Chairman, may I first of all thank you for the very generous remarks which you made about me and which I greatly appreciate, but I would like to add this, that an organization is as good as its executives as a whole, and anything which I achieved could not have been done without the great help of my colleagues.
I understand from your Chairman that the aim and primary object of The Empire Club of Canada is the advancement of the interests of Canada and the United Commonwealth of Nations.
This object particularly appeals to me, as it is very close to the objects which have directed the overall policy of the Rank Group--to help to create a British film production industry operating world-wide and which at the same time would help to strengthen the ties between the Commonwealth of Nations and Britain.
I think it is only fair to you that before I say any more I should declare my hand. I believe the motion picture industry to be one of the most important industries in the world, and that its stature and importance will continue to grow. I am proud that I work in that industry, and more than proud that I represent an important part of the British industry.
May I, I hope with your permission, digress for a moment. I first visited Canada in 1944 and at that time made a tour of your country and saw most of the cities and towns with a population of 5,000 and over which, I expect, owing to the vastness of your country, is more than many of you here today can say.
I am a frequent visitor to Canada and watch with interest your affairs through the press and regular letters which I receive.
It is clear that films must play an increasingly important part in your growing and virile country.
I was pleased also that the Shakespeare Festival at Stratford, Ontario, was a great success, as it indicates that your cultural development is progressing along with your great material development. It was also good news to our Organization as we helped to finance it and encourage British artists to visit and take part in the festival.
There is, of course, no better basis for friendship between peoples than sharing common interests and common enthusiasms, which is in evidence in your reception of the film version of one of Shakespeare's greatest plays as interpreted by some of the best actors in Britain.
I am very pleased to tell you that when the Rank Group started to develop as an international organisation, the first overseas investment which we made was made in this country.
I am afraid that during the course of what I say, I shall make continual references to our Organisation; it is inevitable as we are the largest single unit in our industry in Britain, and are by far the largest and most consistent picture maker-turning out some twenty films per year.
May I for a moment go back a little in history: in 1914 there was a film industry--a small and unshaped one--and in England they were as far ahead as any other country, if not further. It was a live and virile operation. As the 1914-18 war progressed, the English industry had to close down, and by 1916 had ceased to operate.
In the United States of America, fortunately for them, the same conditions did not apply and they were able to go on with the development of their motion picture industry during the whole of the war period. Naturally when the war was over, England in the course of her recovery had to consider first things first, and at that time films were not regarded as being of great importance--a grave mistake. By the time the British could get into operation again, Hollywood had achieved a dominating position in the motion picture industry.
Now I must, before I go further, make this point: my talk today is not in any way an attack on Hollywood. I am not complaining, I am dealing with facts at the moment, but it is necessary to refer to the position of Hollywood when discussing British Films, as obviously one cannot ignore such an important section when telling of the British effort in the world market of films.
British films went through many vicissitudes between the two wars, but by 1939 were again slowly becoming an important force.
AGAIN war came, and AGAIN the British industry rapidly contracted because of conditions, the threat of bombing, and so on.
But on this occasion there was one man with an ideal who entered the scene--Mr. J. Arthur Rank, my Chairman. He had up to then had little to do with the commercial film industry, but had seen the effect of religious films on churchgoers and young people.
He had realized the power the film had to do good or to do evil. He believed that it was his duty to tackle the problem, and during the early years of the war it was largely through his efforts that the British production industry kept rolling and did not close down.
When Mr. Rank entered the British industry it was dominated by Hollywood. He had no bias against Hollywood, but he did consider it tragic that the production of such a powerful medium as films should be so greatly restricted in Britain.
I will now give you a few statistics as to the business in our country merely as a background to my story: There are some four-and-a-half thousand theatres in the British Isles and forty-two main sound producing stages plus a number of small ones. There are I understand, two hundred and thirty-six sound stages in Hollywood. We have three main theatre circuits-Associated British Cinemas, Odeon, and Gaumont.
There are large manufacturing companies dealing with all the ancillary requirements of the industry, and who market their goods on a world basis. Each of the major American distribution companies is represented in Britain--one of them, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, has control of M.G.M. Studios at Elstree.
The A.B.C. cinema circuit is largely controlled by an American company, Warner Brothers of Hollywood. The other two circuits, Odeon and Gaumont, are controlled by Mr. Rank and his associates, and that control will always remain in British hands.
I have just one other point. I have told you that our Organisation is the biggest film organisation in Britain. We are capitalised at over sixty million pounds. I think you will agree that is a lot of money in anybody's language, but you should know that this capitalization is only about equal to any one of the seven or eight major film companies of the United States. Moreover, our capitalisation includes many interests having no connection with the Film Industry. You will therefore see the measure of our problem in the terms of world affairs. I have heard it said-and there is no truth in it--that we were trying to oust Hollywood in the world markets. We were not. We were, and are, only striving to secure our fair share of the world market including an income which should be available to us from the United States of America.
You may hear from some people, and strangely enough it is usually the experts outside of the industry, that it is possible to make films for a national market and to forget the foreign market. Well, gentlemen, from my experience I can assure you that if you are a serious picture-maker, and wish to be so year in, and year out, you have to gear your output and your product to sell in the international market.
I talk about "markets". What do I mean in respect of our industry? I mean that if we assume that the world market available to the industry today is 100%, Britain is worth 15%, the United States is worth 60%, and your great country--owing to its sparcity of population--about 5%.
Those of you sitting here today who represent manufacturing interests, know that by and large to be successful, unless you are dealing with a specialised product, it is necessary to have a domestic market which will basically enable your factory to operate at a profit if you want to be successful year in, and year out. This healthy domestic market usually forms the basis for the successful development of an overseas market.
I repeat that Hollywood has a domestic market of 60% and Britain a domestic market of 15%. Hollywood at this point starts with a great advantage. Her films are able to recover a much greater proportion of their cost in the home market. Their producers, to live, do not have to rely to such an extent on the foreign market as the British producer has to. British producers, with a much smaller domestic market, to survive and compete with Hollywood must have a substantial overseas market. To achieve comparable results with those of Hollywood, they also have to use to a greater extent creative ideas and ingenuity. In addition, Hollywood with its wealth and the natural resources of the United States, has built up a huge production organisation, particularly of manpower--a most important factor in our business, and in my view the most important factor in any business.
We, in Britain, have to compete under these conditions and this is no easy task.
I said earlier, and I reiterate, that films, in my view, have an important part to play in world affairs. I have heard it said by many people that films and "culture" portray the way of life of the people. To my way of thinking, the term "the way of life" is often loosely and unnecessarily used today. I do know, however, that films cannot avoid catching something of the feel of the people of the country in which they are made.
Films coming from different countries have a distinct flavour of their own and this applies even when a great director makes a film in another country. He is still affected by the national characteristics of the people of the country in which the film is made. In my view that flavour has importance in world affairs, as I do not believe--and I am sure you do not believe-that it is right for any one country to dominate one particular form of entertainment which is consumed by the mass of the public at large in large quantities.
Perhaps I have not made myself clear in regard to absorbing the feel of a country. May I try to do so by an example. We have colour films. When I have been travelling, I have often heard it said that the British treatment Of colour is very different from that of Hollywood. Quite true, but what is the reason? It comes back to my point that it is a reflection of the people who make the picture and their experience of life.
The explanation of this different attitude to colour in Hollywood and Britain is much more simple than many people would have us believe. It is, in my view, the fact that colour in America--the geographical colours, strong sunlight, and the colours of the clothes used by the people--are on the whole violent and strongly contrasting, and it is this that is reflected in the natural outlook of the men who make films. Whereas in England we are used-again largely because of geographical conditions--to softer colours which blend more easily one with the other, with less violent contrasts, and this again is reflected by the film-makers in British Films.
If we go back into cultural history, my point is emphasized still more by the very different styles of the great world artists who have obviously been influenced by the natural characteristics of the country in which they have lived and worked.
I wish I had the time to develop this idea upon which I have touched. I hope I have been able to make my point clear, as I believe it is very important.
To sum up, the virility, culture and outlook of all peoples are important. The greater the extent to which such outlooks are exchanged between the nations, the greater will be their understanding.
In this connection, I believe that British Films have an important part to play, as British social and cultural values and backgrounds are worthy of export. We embody these values in our films coupled with high entertainment value.
When the Rank Organisation tackled the world market, we were faced with the situation that the screens of the world were to a considerable extent directly or indirectly under the influence of Hollywood. They controlled many of the most important theatres either directly or had long term franchises and so forth, to secure playing time for their films. Again, this is not a critical statement but one of fact.
We started less than ten years ago to sell a different product with unknown artists, unknown writers, unknown directors--a product in which we had great faith. We met great difficulty. We found we could not secure playing time for our films, so our problem was not lack of public interest or public appreciation, but lack of public opportunity to see our films on local screens.
The Rank Organisation, for that reason, built up a series of theatre chains in different countries to compete with those already existing, making those screens available for all types of product. We have, as you know, the Odeon chain in Canada which was built up from zero in some seven years to one hundred and twenty-one theatres. It is financed by Canadian and British money.
I would like here to pay a particular tribute to the Bank of Montreal which stood by us without a qualm during our difficult development period, and helped us through until we were on a sound economic basis.
Even now in this country, a problem still exists which may have to be tackled-the free interchange of films between the theatre interests to allow of fair competition.
In Australia we became partners with the second most important theatre chain in that country, and today it is of equal importance with the American controlled one.
In New Zealand the same thing applies.
We have partnerships in South Africa, Jamaica, Malaya, and other countries.
In other words, we have set a pattern for film exhibition throughout the Commonwealth of Nations of which we are very proud.
These outlets for British films have been created on what some people term a "loose" basis. We have no overriding contract which provides that British Films will be played in these theatres regardless of their public appeal. We do not do this even where we own the theatre outright. The nationals of the countries concerned have the ultimate say as to what films will be played in the theatres which they operate.
We have proved one thing: that although our product may be different, nevertheless if it is regularly presented to the people of any country in the world, they not only accept it--they welcome it, enjoy it, and in the process give a profit to the theatre owner.
Broadly speaking, this is what is happening in every market in the world with the exception of the biggest.
In the United States the large majority of cinema-goers do not have the opportunity which is given in Britain, Canada, Australia and elsewhere, to see the BEST films of any country outside their own.
I will give you one example. It was quite apparent from the interest shown in the United States previous to the Coronation and in the television programmes on the day of the Coronation, that a great number of American citizens were genuinely interested in the crowning of our beloved Queen.
In spite of this, a very large majority of cinemas in the United States have never shown their patrons either of the two Coronation films. Thus the American cinemagoers did not have an opportunity of seeing these two great Coronation films which were made and in which it was known they were interested. This at a time when their industry is going through a difficult period.
I wonder to what extent this lack of appreciation of the change of public demand and taste by the people in the industry in that country has affected cinema attendances, and has encouraged television as a competitor.
I should mention that as far as our own Organisation is concerned, in the short space of ten years we have built up a world distribution organisation and now secure fifty per cent of our net revenue from overseas.
We believe that British Films have had an effect upon the type of product made in every country in the world. We made "HENRY", "HAMLET", "RED SHOES", "BRIEF ENCOUNTER", all films which, at the time they were produced, made an impact upon the public and the motion picture industry of the world. Each one of them was slightly before its time in concept, each one of them had a sticky wicket when it started its earning life but developed into a financial success as well as being an artistic success. From this effort of ours we have seen the development of similar ideas in Hollywood, France, Italy, and other countries, and the making of more mature pictures.
Now, gentlemen, let us understand each other: I am not saying that part of our policy is to educate the peoples of the world. It is not.
We do believe that film-makers have a grave responsibility to ensure that the product which they make will do good and will not harm the people who see it. Further, over a period of time, we must help to increase the demand for better films of better quality.
We believe such a result can only be achieved as a very gradual process. We go further. We believe that the providing of entertainment which plays down to public taste will in the long run destroy itself. We do not intend to be destroyed.
We feel proud, in our own Organisation, if each year we make one or two films which are perhaps just a little bit before their time. For example, we have just finished shooting "ROMEO AND JULIET" in colour, in the natural background scenes where the original story was laid. Its conception is original, and I hope when you have had an opportunity of seeing it that you will be as thrilled with it as I have been.
In the terms of the British Commonwealth of Nations, what have we done?
We have helped to pass information between the countries which are now sovereign states, so that the existing loose ties, which so many people do not understand, will remain.
You and I know that some people think only in terms of firm contracts with penalty clauses, forgetting that men's loyalty can best be secured by mutual respect and understanding rather than by a signed contract.
We have made fine films ourselves, or in association with Ealing Studios, in most of the Commonwealth countries. In Australia we made "THE OVERLANDERS", "BUSH CHRISTMAS", and "EUREKA STOCKADE"; in South Africa, "WHERE NO VULTURES FLY", and have just finished "WEST OF ZANZIBAR". We are at this moment making in New Zealand a story entitled "THE SEEKERS", dealing with the early development of that country; in Ceylon, a story dealing with the background of that country entitled "THE PURPLE PLAIN".
Now you gentlemen may well ask, and with justification, "Where is the story on Canada?"
We were, of course, associated with that slightly controversial film made in 1941-"49th PARALLEL". I regret to say that so far we have not made a big film with the background of Canada, although we have just made a smaller one entitled "THE SINNERS". Why?
Unfortunately, Britain is short of dollars. Our Exchange Control will not make available to us dollars for financing dollar expenditure for film production. However, I can assure you that as soon as that problem is solved, we shall make a big film based on Canadian life. In fact, we have more than one or two stories available.
Our Organisation had the privilege of distributing in most countries of the world outside of the Western Hemisphere, the film made by your National Film Board entitled "ROYAL JOURNEY", covering the visit of Princess Elizabeth as she then was, now our Queen, and her husband Prince Phillip to your country in October and November 1951. This film was made in colour, and as you know, was a factual record of that historic visit. The film was received, and rightly so, in Britain with great enthusiasm.
Now, may I tell you a story about something materially affecting your country, and which affected me very much when I saw it happen.
I was in Australia in February 1952 when I saw this film playing in the biggest theatres to capacity audiences with five shows a day and nothing else but this film in the programme. The people there were either listening in rapt silence or applauding, depending on the incident being shown--to me a most moving event--and they were of course unconsciously learning a great deal about Canada. I saw the film receive a similar reception in New Zealand a few weeks later.
That was the use to which film should be put on the right occasion and where it is the responsibility of the motion picture industry to do so.
We made what we believe to be a historic record of the crowning of her Majesty the Queen in London on June 2nd last, entitled "A QUEEN IS CROWNED". That film was shown in technicolor in every country of the world outside the Curtain Countries within fourteen days of the Coronation. So far as Canada is concerned, you know while the Coronation took place on a Tuesday it was showing in Montreal on the Saturday following. British Overseas Airways Corporation co-operated with us in its distribution. Their aircraft flew some twenty-three thousand miles carrying copies for us. We worked with nine hundred copies of the film as against our normal requirement of two hundred.
To give you just one example of the effect of the film, over one million people in Berlin saw it within three weeks of the Coronation. We were helping, in other words, to show to the people of the world that the British Commonwealth of Nations was, is, and always will be, a force in world affairs because of the solidarity of its people and their love of a stable regime.
Frankly, I do not like public speaking, but when I am on the subject of British Films, which is my whole life, my enthusiasm runs away with me and I must admit there is much to tell in the story of British Films of which we are justly proud.
It has been my privilege to carry successfully into practical effect throughout the world, the ideal which was so largely conceived by Mr. Rank. Do not think from what I have said that we are satisfied as we are not. We have made progress, we are making progress, and we shall continue to make progress. The Organisation which works with me has a belief in our job, and I know that if you have faith in what you are doing you cannot fail.
I do not know to what extent the press of Canada is flooded with success stories about television and the suggestion that it is the entertainment medium of the future. I know this has happened in many countries, but their view of the future of television in my opinion is wrong.
Television is a serious competitor--after all, it is another important form of entertainment. In most countries it is free, but, gentlemen, it is a different form of entertainment and in my view, will fit into the pattern of modern life but will not cause the destruction of the film industry. I personally am not afraid of television. I believe in films, and, needless to say, British Films.
I must say this: I believe many people in the film industry lost faith in their own industry a few years ago as a result of the competition of television. There was another reason however. The industry, like so many others, had been, during the war years, through a period of abnormal prosperity. Members of the industry had come to accept the abnormal conditions as normal. They had grown mentally fat, lazy and unimaginative. They were horrified when business retracted, lost confidence and did not think clearly. That period of prosperity caused many people to make pictures which were not as good as they should have been, and audiences fell away because of the quality of the entertainment offered and often because of the way in which it was offered.
Our business, more than most, is subject to violent fluctuations because of economic conditions.
Too many picture-makers have tried to be--shall I say--motor car makers. In other words, they tried to turn out a mass-produced product without individuality or true creative talent. Some people even thought in the terms of making pictures to absorb overhead. All these troubles were blamed upon television, in my view without justification. In other words, two opposing conditions created wrong thinking and a loss of confidence. That era is passing. Men with initiative and foresight are again coming into their own.
The film industry is again thinking and remembering that they are in show business, that the product has to have entertainment and creative values of high quality. The industry has to sell its product to the public in new ways. The introduction of wide screens, better lenses, better stories, better filming and better workmanship is beginning to have its effect, and the industry is again moving forward, in my view, on a healthier basis than it has been for many years.
I therefore finish, Gentlemen, where I began. I believe that the motion picture industry is an important one with an important part to play in world affairs. There is nothing to take the place of motion pictures in the entertainment of the people. Motion pictures involve entertainment, enthusiasm and showmanship. We sell fun and must therefore get fun out of our work. I know that there are good days ahead of us if we use originality, drive and vision.
I believe that the British film industry has a particularly important part to play not only in world affairs, but in the affairs of the British Commonwealth of Nations.
THANKS OF THE MEETING were expressed by Mr. J. J. Fitzgibbons, President of Famous Players Canadian Corporation, Limited.