The Film Rights War

“Those Awful Hats”, a 1909 short film.

In the very early days of cinema there was nothing in the way of regulations to protect the interests of the film-makers. As cinema became more and more popular, this became an increasing problem. Films were sold to theatres to be shown, and from that point onwards the film-makers had lost control of their work altogether. The theatres effectively had ownership, and could show the films for as long as they liked, for any price they wished to set, and even rent the films out to another exhibitor. In Britain, cinema was fast becoming a flooded market, with popular older films never leaving circulation, creating a lack of opportunity for newer films and lowering prices. In 1909 the European Convention of Film Makers and Publishers was held in Paris, and these problems were addressed. The resulting regulations were not well-received. The following quote is from the 4th March 1909 issue of The Bioscope:

The making of history in the film trade has proceeded a merry pace during the past week. The “Great” Paris Convention, so long in labour, has at last delivered itself of a monstrosity in the shape of a document of doubtful parentage and awesome shape. It appears to be an attempt to formulate the conditions which the “combined” film-makers would wish to impose upon their customers. A more puerile effort at framing a legal document it would be difficult to conceive, and it is safe to say that the hirers and exhibitors of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales will oppose it, to a man…

Its provisions are couched in such muddle-headed jargon that they require to be codified and translated into English before they can be readily understood. Summarised, they seem to be somewhat as follows. First, the good, kind film manufacturer, conscious of the fact that money is the root of all evil, desires to protect his poor, wayward customer from being too heavily weighted with the said filthy lucre. Therefore, he will not sell you his beloved film. You might make such a lot of money out of it, if he let you keep it, for your very own, so he will not really sell it to you at all. He will only lend it to you! But in order to convince you that his intentions are strictly honourable, he obligingly charges you the same price for lending it to you as he formerly charged for selling it outright. Not content with safeguarding your interests in this way, and protecting you from a life of extravagance, he makes several other fantastic conditions – probably with a view to supplying you with harmless amusement for the winter evenings. Having hired you the film for four months, he says that you must not hire it to anyone else, except at such prices as he, the good, kind manufacturer, fixes for you beforehand. He says you must get at least fifty shillings a week per thousand for the first six weeks from the date of publication, but the seventh week, by his kind permission, you may make a sweeping reduction, and come down, in one fell swoop, to thirty shillings! Not desiring to bore you with unnecessary details, he does not explain what action you are expected to take when you have an exceptionally good subject seven weeks old alongside an exceptionally bad one six weeks old. The superior subject you will be permitted to hire at the thirty-shilling rate, while the waster, that nobody wants, you will be compelled to charge nearly double for. This is only one example of the drivelling ineptitude which characterises the whole of the conditions laid down by the signatories to the Paris Convention. The attempt to boycott all manufacturers who are not in the combine is doomed to dismal failure.

…and that was exactly right. It was doomed to failure. There was robust resistance to the new rules, and not all the film-makers had agreed to the Convention, with the most notable missing link in the chain being the biggest of them all: Pathé, who refused to sign up to it. There were alternative sources of films, most significantly the rapid rise in the popularity of American films, and in fact this moment in history could arguably be viewed as a flashpoint that accelerated the eventual domination of the USA in the film market. Perhaps even more significantly, one of the first attempts to take Britain into a controlled European market of a major product had failed. The film-makers had not achieved their desired protection of their work after it had physically left their possession… for now.   RP

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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