Foreign Office: Distribution of Films

BW 4/26

British Council and Travel Association, Joint Committee on Films Distribution outline (THIS PARTICULAR DOCUMENT HAS BEEN PHOTOGRAPHED):

This is an outline of the methods of distribution by the Joint Films Committee and a summary of the difficulties they face when distributing over seas.
  1. The Joint Committee on Films of the British Council and the Travel Association was set up in 1936. The Foreign Office, Department of Overseas Trade, GPO and the BFI were all represented on the Committee, for which the Travel Association provided secretarial and executive machinery.
  2. In 1937 and 1938 two lists of British Documentary Films suitable for overseas circulation was sent to H.M Missions, H.M Consular Officers and H.M Trade Commissioners abroad, as well as Colonial Governments. A report in August 1937 referenced the first list, confirming that many replies and applications for films were being received from many parts of the world.
  3. The Committee sends its appreciation to H.M Diplomatic representatives, Consular Officers and Trade Commissioners in their supply of valuable information in regards to the distribution of the films.
  4. After considering the possibility, the Committee declined circulating a detailed report regarding cinema and non-theatrical distribution of individual films when in a number of countries local conditions varied widely. However, the Committee did consider that general report would be useful so that H.M Representatives may be made aware of the various existing channels for film distribution.
  5. The general difficulties of distributing film abroad vary considerably in different countries. Language difficulty is a common problem. In some countries and for some purposes films with English commentaries are required, whilst elsewhere films with commentaries in the language of the country are essential or films with English commentaries and subtitles in the language of that country. Also what might be considered a successful film in one country might not be considered a success in another. The length of film can be problematic too. The usual length of British documentary films is 1500 to 1700 feet, but in some countries, particularly in South America and in Turkey, this type of film must not be longer than 800 to 850 feet, and any cutting down gives rise to difficulties of its own, particularly with commentary and sound accompaniment. Finally, some distributors who buy the theatrical rights of the films also buy the non-theatrical rights in order to prevent the film being released non-theatrically.
  6. Theatrical Distribution- this was mainly arranged through trade channels and was undertaken through trade distributors – although H.M Representatives were most helpful ascertaining and reporting the names of chief distributors or distributors of standing who operated in specific territories with whom the Committee could contact. In some countries, cinemas were prepared to pay a small royalty in addition to the cost of the copies, in others copies were supplied for free.
  7. Non-Theatrical Distribution- the chief categories under which distribution has been found possible in various parts of the world have been as follows: -
a) Special Displays. Arranged by or in collaboration with H.M Representatives; the audience assembled by invitation, including usually members of the Government, the British colony, distinguished residents of the country, press representatives and film distributors. These programmes were made as varied as possible, and contained a newsreel, a Gaumont-British Instructional film, one or more documentary films and a feature, altogether lasting between two and two and a half hours.
b) Educational Film Libraries. A method that has been found of value in a number of countries has been the presentation of films on permanent loan to Educational Libraries, mostly state educational libraries. These libraries in general obtain wide distribution for their films among schools and colleges. Supplying libraries with these films is often free although some libraries are willing to pay the cost price of the films. It should be noted that the films supplied were supplied on ‘permanent loan’ and not ‘presented’. This was done to protect the rights of British producers against films being reproduced or sold.
c) Loans of Films to Foreign-British Societies, Clubs, or for Lectures, etc. The determining factor for this method of distribution is often dependent on the extent of distribution that can be obtained. The Committee would be more inclined to accept requests if the films could be subsequently shown at other centres.
  1. The Committee are continuing their study of films available. Several new documentary films are in production and a new list will be issued in 1939. In the meantime a revised copy of the 1938 film list will be sent to H.M representatives on request.
  2. The Committee asks any H.M Representatives that wish to put an application forward for the presentation of films overseas to bear in mind the following:
a) The format for projection – whether 35mm or 16mm films, whether sound or silent films.
b) That the Committee acknowledges the difficulty of selecting films from a list with only a short synopsis attached. The Committee, therefore, hopes that whenever possible representatives from the organisations making the request can come to London to inspect the films.
  1. The Committee again thanks the H.M Representatives for their assistance in the distribution of films. The Committee advises that it is trying to process viewing applications as quickly as possible but confesses that funds to supply copies of films is still very small and hopes that they will be substantially increased in the future.
7th September 1938 – Letter from unknown source to Rowland Kenney:

This letter mainly concerns the distribution of Gaumont-British News reels. It advises that Mr Castleton Knight of GB News has ‘carried a considerable amount of news regarding the rearmament programme in their news reel, and have prepared one or two special films, such as recruiting for the RAF, also A.R.P (not sure what this stands for) items.’ The letter then goes on to say that Mr Knight has suggested that Gaumont-British prepare ‘items specially designed to enhance British prestige abroad. Such items will be slipped into the newsreel when it is sent overseas, with suitable commentary (this applies to English speaking countries only).’
The rest of the letter then describes the difficulties of achieving this without raising suspicion from foreign governments. ‘France, Belgium, Turkey, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Holland, Denmark, Russia and the Balkan States, it would be possible to supply them with these specially made items for inclusion in their newsreel at no charge, although of course they would no doubt realise it was propaganda, but they would be tempted to use the material to fill up their reel. Newsreels in these countries, other than Russia, are not under the control of, or subsidised by the Governments, and it is felt they would welcome the opportunity. […] To evade the possibility of their knowing that these films were subsidised by this country, Gaumont-British could ask to be supplied with an equal amount of material from the country concerned. The advantage of this scheme would be that Gaumont-British would be able to include a considerable amount of prestige films in the newsreels going abroad, while no one would know they were being subsidised for doing so, or who is putting up the finance.
March 1938 – Report on Film Work by the Travel and Industrial Association, The Joint Committee with the British Council (THIS DOCUMENT HAS BEEN PHOTOGRAPHED IN ITS ENTIRETY)
What follows are some key facts from the report….
· TIDA was formed in 1929. Upon its formation it became apparent that there was a large unsatisfied demand from abroad for films of UK, for films of general interest and educational character.
· Apart from the commercial distribution of fiction films, there was no organization to distribute documentary films of British life overseas.
· With the help of the Empire Marketing Board Film Unit a few silent films were made.

· As the opportunity arose to produce sound films suitable for both theatrical and non-theatrical distribution, the Travel Association established its own film unit in 1932 and produced a number of sound films from 1933.

· At the same time enquiries were made into marketing possibilities. Commercial agencies overseas were approached through trade distributors as agents for the Association.

· The demand for non-theatrical sound films has continued to expand due to the growing facilities to display 16mm.

· The British Council considered the use of films but decided in 1936 to utilise the experience and machinery of the Association rather than to establish a new film unit.

· A joint committee was set up with Mr Philip Guedalla, representing the Council, as Chairman, other members being representatives of the Association, the Foreign Office, the D.O.T, British Film Institute and the Council.

· The Association provides the secretariat and the executive machinery of the Joint Committee. It has its own Film Department with Mr A.F Primrose in full time charge and Mr John Grierson, formerly of EMB and GPO film units, as adviser. It also has its own film unit, with camera, cutting benches and vaults for storage. Several technical assistants are employed full time.

· For production purposes it is in touch with the best-recognised talent, and for distribution works through Mr Cecil Cattermoul, one of the largest distributors of British films in foreign countries.

· The Committee concluded that there were three classes of film activity considered for overseas distribution and display: British Newsreels, British documentary films and British Fiction films. The last of these, the committee decided against pursuing with any great detail due to the fact that Government policy was under review in connection with the Cinematograph Films Act.
· The Joint Committee proposed to strengthen the relations established with Newsreel companies.
· Before the formation of the Joint Committee the Association had arranged in 21 countries the cinema display of documentary films. In most cases theatres made small payments to acquire the films. However, with the assistance of the British Council these arrangements were extended and in many countries it was necessary to distribute films for free.
· In 1936/37 and 1937/38 the British Council contributed £400 and £1200 respectively for the necessary copies in 22 countries. Some of this was used of non-theatrical display.