From 1896 to 1926 – part 6

Back we go to Edward G. Turner‘s reminiscences, ‘From 1896 to 1926′. Here Turner describes how their exhibition distibution business grew in the early 1900s, and the formation of the company name Walturdaw.

When we moved to High Holborn, a schoolmaster by the name of G.H.J. Dawson, who used to hire films from us, purchased a third interest in our business, and henceforth we were known as Walker, Turner, and Dawson.

It was while we were at this address that one afternoon a Mr. R.W. Watson called to see me; he showed me a paper called the Optical Lantern Journal, just then acquired by E.T. Heron, of Tottenham Street, and told me that he had spent a weary day trying to get our competitors interested in advertising in same. He had been unsuccessful, but one or two had told him that if he succeeded in geting an advertisement from us, they would follow. So, as a bait, he offered us a whole page for £2.

I used his argument against himself, and finally agreed to take a page each month at 30s. a time (what a difference from the pirce to-day!). So we were the first firm to advertise in your paper, and for twenty-three years or so our advert. has never been missing.

The Optical Magic Lantern and Photographic Enlarger, formed around 1890, became The Optical Lantern and Cinematograph Journal in 1904 , then The Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly in 1907. It became simply The Kinematograph Weekly in 1919, the journal which published Turner’s articles, and continued until 1971. The title is now owned by Screen International.

By this time we employed about twenty men, who operated our machines at private parties and other engagements obtained from the bureaus above mentioned, and we, at times, had as many as forty shows going in one night. One one occasion, Walker, Dawson, and myself were engaged in giving three separate displays at the same time to one vast audience at Midsommer Common, Cambridge, for Mr. Haywood of that town.

This is the only instance I know in which three kinematographs have been going at the same time to the same crowd. I wonder if any of the old brigade can beat this?

In two years we had outgrown our offices at 77-78, High Holborn, and removed to 3, Dane Street, taking a seven years’ lease on a new, large building. Here we were joined by Ernest Howard, and as the name of Walker, Turner, Dawson, and Howard was cumbersome, we coined the word “Walturdaw“, taking the first three letters of the names of the first three members of the company. Up to August, 1904, we worked in partnership, but in this month, we formed into a limited liability company, each of the partners agreeing to serve the new company for ten years.

Hiring Developments

Our Hire Dept. had grown to very large proportions – our usual method being that each Monday morning our customers would call and take 1,000 or more feet of film, made up of various lengths and pay in cash, 50s, per 1,000 ft. for same. They did not know what they were getting and there was no picking or choosing – the only stipulation being that the films had not been shown before at the theatre, for which the operator was hiring his films. Those were fine times; cash over the counter, no bad debts, and always plenty of money in the bank.

I find that hard to believe. Were customers really content to buy films unseen and unidentified, obtaining purely on the strength of the fact that they hadn’t been shown at their theatre before? It’s no wonder that other businesses revolted, though it was not the exhibitors (they would not become dominant until the rise of cinemas, a few years ahead), but the manufacturers, who did not want to see any middle man eating into their profits.

Finally, our film hire had reached such proprtions that we became a menace (at least so the manufacturers of films thought) to their side of the business, and at a meeting convened by the K.M.A. [Kinematograph Manufacturers Association] , a decision was arrived at wherein the manufacturers decided that the action of renting films by the firm of Walker, Turner and Dawson was inimical to the interests of the manufacturers and therefore none of the products of such manufacturers would, in future, be supplied to us.

I am not sure as to whether this actually went on the books of the Association, but it was certainly brought into effect, and for a long time they refused to supply us, but the Industry was becoming world-wide, and we were able to get films from all parts of the world, and, in addition, were able to buy the English manufacturers’ products through other people, and eventually the ban was removed.

This is not the first time in history that men who have thought years in advance of their trade have been looked upon an enemies, instead of benefactors. Events have proved how right we were then.

Teaching the World

About this time Chas. Pathé and his Directors came over from Paris to study our system; they spent about a week with us, and a little later they came into the film renting business. After their conversion they ceased to sell us films, but we still put their subjects out, purchasing them through another source.

Before Pathé visited us, however, Miles Bros., of New York, came over and studied the subject pretty carefully; they went back to the States, and started, I believe, the first renting concern in America.

Directors from a concern in Germany also came, and after studying the system, came to the conclusion that they would go back and do likewise.

(To be continued.)

As can be seen, the early film business was a little on the anarchic side, as the emerging elements of the industry – production, distribution, exhibition – each struggled to establish a commercial identity, and control over the other sectors of the business. As Rachael Low explains it, in The History of British Film 1896-1906:

The impulse towards film hire came from the exhibiting side, and it was exhibitors [like Walturdaw] who became renters. They had no power to stop the free sale of films by the producers, in fact their own stocks were built up in the open market. Thus it came about that identical films were both for sale and for hire at the same time. The conception of exclusive entered the industry as exclusive selling rather than exclusive renting rights.

Turner was fighting against the control of the market held by the manufacturers (while at the same time holding absolute power over his exhibitor customers). As it is, in 1905 Walturdaw made the decision to become producers themselves – something to be described in the next installment.

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