HC Deb 03 February 1948 vol 446 cc1742-55

8.45 p.m.

Mr. Dumpleton

I beg to move, in page 5, line 30, at the end, to insert: and in the case of all British films registered as exhibitors' quota films, with the exception of those films exhibited as first feature films, the exhibitor shall pay to the renter in respect of each reel of film shown on any one day in any one theatre a sum of money equal to not less than a percentage of the net daily box office takings, such percentage to be fixed by the Board of Trade from time to time after consultation with the Cinematograph Films Council. My hon. Friend the Member for Aston (Mr. Wyatt) claimed that his Amendment was the most important of those on the Order Paper. I do not wish to vie with him in arguing the relative importance of our Amendments, but I think that this one is very important indeed from the point of view of the producers of specialised and documentary films in the supporting programme. A good deal was said during the Second Reading Debate about this Bill, which was otherwise an excellent Measure, being weak in that it did not sufficiently strengthen the position of specialised and documentary film producers. I would like to call in aid the words of my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer when, as Minister for Economic Affairs, he gave an address to the Association of Specialised Film Producers. He said: Sooner or later we must somehow or other give the public an opportunity of seeing the output of these units "— He was speaking of the specialised film units— an output which I am convinced the ordinary person would enjoy more than many of the second features which now disgrace our screen…this is a matter upon which I have been very keen for a long time. Later he said: There must be enough of the receipts left over after paying for the first feature to allow a reasonable sum to pay for the shorts. We do not want quickies or bad shorts, nor do we need short films on which extravagant sums have been spent. We do need, however, to recognise that good shorts must cost a certain amount and that they cannot be made unless a reasonable return can be obtained by the producers. That is the object of this Amendment. I am informed that the present practice of the trade is that a large percentage of the box office takings is paid over by the exhibitor to the renter as rental for first features. In many cases, this leaves very little for films for the supporting programme. That is one reason why the films of the supporting programme have not been of such a high standard as might have been the case. It is also a reason why some of the better-known producers who have specialised in short films do not make their films for showing in cinemas, but confine their activities to sponsored productions. That is a loss to the public cinema.

There seems to be no reason why a greater percentage should not be paid as rental for first features. It is essential that the amount left over for the supporting programme should provide adequate return to the producers of the films in that programme. Unless this is done, the present uneconomic market for long and short supporting films will not be satisfactorily adjusted. Earlier in our discussions it was said that the essential consideration is the interest of the consumer and the public, though a lot was said about the different sections of the trade. I submit that the present practice does not give the public a well-balanced programme, and does not utilise to the full the resources of the British film producing industry, and I believe that this Amendment would remedy that situation.

Mr. Scott-Elliot

In supporting this Amendment, I should like to give various reasons in favour of it. In the first place, it seems to me that the British short film has an importance equal to that of feature films in the past. It is important because the documentary film in particular is essentially representative of British film making. Indeed, in the days when British film-making, as regards features, was a little low, the documentaries always maintained their high standard. In addition, a good documentary should have both entertainment and educational value, and this value bears little or no relation to the actual cost.

Let me give an example. Suppose it cost £5,000 to make one of these films. It may very well be that that film goes round, perhaps, 1,000 cinemas, and yet only succeeds in earning £1,500, which is a mere fraction of its total cost. There is another point. Short films are particularly suitable for the small type of cinema, and this basis of booking which we recommend is particularly suitable for small cinemas. What we ask is that the type of booking should be on just the same basis as the first feature film. Indeed, I think it would be very difficult for my right hon. Friend to say why he favours one type of booking for one kind of film and a different type of booking in respect of the short or documentary film.

Let me give further examples, and here I come to the point of dollar earnings. There will be older films being released now, in view of what has happened recently, and these films will be taking high percentages at the expense of British short films and documentary films, which will be earning practically nothing. In other words, there will be more dollars going out of the country as a result of this method of booking, and we feel that it is necessary to put the British short film on the same basis as that enjoyed by first feature films.

Finally, it may be said that, if American films are going to be hired, the position will solve itself, but I am not at all sure that that is the case. That is not the point, however. The point is that the Minister is introducing this Bill on a 10-year programme and is looking 10 years ahead. It is necessary now to put this into the Bill, in view of the fact that it may well be that the position with the United States will be cleared up, as I hope it will be, and then there will be no necessity whatever to take these short films.

Mr. E. P. Smith

I should like to support the Amendment. I must confess that I thought the Chair must have had considerable difficulty in selecting this Amendment instead of the similar one in the name of the hon. Member for West Wolverhampton (Mr. H. D. Hughes). As far as I can see, they are almost identical, except that the first refers to "a percentage" of the net daily box office takings, and the second refers to "a given percentage" of the net box office takings. I am rather surprised that, somehow or other, the supporters of these Amendments were not able to get together and decide on one formula. I believe that it is always desirable that the essential purveyors of

entertainment, that is, the creators, should be paid by means of a royalty basis on the actual takings of the entertainment. That is a principle which I do not think is departed from, generally speaking, in the case of any creative purveyors of entertainment, and, for that reason, I support the Amendment.

Lieut.-Colonel Lipton

I do not believe that there is an hon. Member in any part of the Committee who would be prepared at this time to defend the pernicious practice which has been followed in the past of allowing exhibitors to buy the rest of their programmes, in addition to the first feature, in the cheapest possible market. That practice has had the unfortunate result in the past of encouraging cheap, poor quality productions, and, in this connection, I find myself in very considerable agreement with the hon. Member who has just spoken. It is, I submit, right and proper that we should do whatever we can to ensure that a fair share of the money that is paid by the public when it goes to the cinema should go to the producers of the supporting programmes. For this reason, I associate myself with the Amendment, which I hope the President of the Board of Trade will accept. It will be noticed that we have not had the temerity to suggest what the percentage shall be. That is a matter on which the Board of Trade and the Cinematograph Films Council would no doubt come to a satisfactory arrangement.

Mr. H. D. Hughes

As the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. E. P. Smith) has pointed out, there is only one slight difference between myself and the hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. Dumpleton), and I would gladly sacrifice the word "given" if the Minister could accept this Amendment, which is of great importance to the specialised and documentary film industry. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that it provides for the economic life-blood of that industry. I have before me a letter from one of the leading producers of this type of film, and I would like to quote from it. He says: If this change is not brought about, many documentary producers must inevitably close down, for the business of making sponsored films for the Government and industry is shrinking rapidly. A considerable number of technicians will have to be laid off as a result, and their specialised contribution to film making is being lost at a time when, due to the embargo on American films, everything must be done by stimulating all forms of British film production. It is becoming a common practice in Ministerial circles to pay lip service to the merits of the short and documentary film producers, but, in spite of the speeches made by right hon. Gentlemen on every possible occasion laying down the world-renowned merits of British short and documentary production, we are still allowing this section of the industry to collapse into economic decay.

9.0 p.m.

We have here at the present time some 40 short film companies employing 1,000 technicians and with a number of studios at their disposal. Much of their work is on location. Their present output is about five hundred reels a year. The chairman of the biggest group of these companies has confidently asserted that if they are given the economic possibilities and the economic market that is required this section of the industry could make no less than 50 long and 200 short films for supporting programmes annually. It would be an invaluable contribution at the present time to the British film industry and to the needs of the exhibitors. We have got to do something to enable this section of the industry to get a market and to get a showing.

As other hon. Members have said, the present division of takings between first features and supporting programmes in the exhibition side of the industry is completely arbitrary and completely unjust. The first feature on a percentage basis gets 45 per cent. to 50 per cent. A hard bargain is struck between the renter and the exhibitor, and when the renter has struck his bargain the exhibitor says to him, "As you have taken so much of my earnings on the first feature you will have to throw in the supporting programme." And the supporting programme is thrown in. The result is that the producer gets a mere pittance, which cannot compensate him for his necessary outlay. This Amendment simply offers a minimum percentage which will enable the supporting programme producer to have some remuneration which makes economic sense. We do not put in a figure. We do not attempt to destroy the natural operation of the market level between a good supporting film, a popular supporting film, and a bad or unpopular supporting film. It is merely a question of providing a floor.

Let me give one or two examples of the kind of thing that happens at the moment. I quote one outstanding documentary film of great technical merit. It cost £10,000 to produce. Its length was just under 2,000 feet. It was shown in 700 cinemas out of the 4,700 in the country. The gross takings were £1,100, but the takings of the producer, who had an outlay of £10,000, were between £700 and £800. That is typical of the problem that the small supporting film producer has to face every day. Another example is provided by a very well known series of high class films which earned an average rental of between 10s. and 15s. for a whole week's booking in a cinema, a figure which is quite fantastic. It is a common practice at the present time for a renter to pay £200 for the complete distribution rights in the whole of the United Kingdom of a film which has cost about £6,000 to make. These are the economics of "Alice in Wonderland." If we are honest and sincere in saying that we believe the small film producer is trying to do a good job, and that we want to encourage him, obviously some drastic action has to be taken. At the present time, the total value of the second features in American renting houses in this country is less than 10 per cent. of the turnover. It is quite outstanding for a long feature film to earn more than £15,000 in the United Kingdom.

This case has been argued in the industry time and time again. It is not really a question of asking for it to be referred to another committee to argue about it again. The facts are known and the facts are clear. This section of the industry is driven to rely on Government or industrial sponsorship because at present the economics of the industry make it impossible for the best producers to earn a decent living. I would suggest to the President that if he feels, in spite of everything that has been urged tonight from both sides of the Committee, that this Amendment as phrased is too dogmatic, he should see if it is possible to put into the Bill some reserve powers which would enable him, after further consideration if that should still be needed, to implement some proposal on the lines of that which we suggest, without having to wait for further legislation.

It is an urgent matter. This section of the industry is in economic difficulties now. Its people are unemployed; its technicians are being dispersed. It is a choice of giving it a chance now to get on to its feet or of breaking up a producing organisation which, as we all know, did a wonderful job of work for this country throughout the war years. It may be argued that there is no money in the industry out of which these people can be given a decent remuneration. It may be argued, perhaps, that the feature film at the moment cannot get the necessary remuneration.

The Chairman

This Debate is straying over a very wide area. I do not see how the last point the hon. Gentleman has raised is related to the Amendment. The Committee stage is very different from a Debate on Second Reading.

Mr. Hughes

I shall only take another minute, but this is a matter of tremendous importance, and it is very relevant, because if this percentage minimum is put into the Bill it might affect the earnings of the feature films section of the industry. Most feature film producers in this country are linked with the exhibiting and renting side. Though there may not be profits in feature film production there are considerable profits at the other ends of the industry out of which something could be allotted to help the supporting film producers. The case has been argued from both sides of the Committee. I do once again appeal to the Minister, who, I know, is sympathetic, to do what he can to meet this very urgent case.

Mr. Levy

I should like to make one comment very briefly which, I am afraid, reluctant as I am to do so, will break the complete harmony which seems to have existed so far in the consideration of this Amendment. I am in complete sympathy with the purpose of the Amendment. I agree that the short film makers are the Cinderellas of the film industry and urgently need some sort of help. The caveat I should like to enter, however, is that this Amendment is not the way to give it. It is not the way to do it for this reason. What happens under this Amendment is that what is added to the pockets of the short film makers would in practice come out of the pockets of the feature film makers. It is perfectly true that there is a great deal more money in the pockets of the feature film makers than there is in those of the short film makers, but their costs are enormously more. One of the purposes and virtues of the Bill is that it is attempting to make first feature film production in this country profitable. It is no good doing a good thing with one hand and sapping it with the other.

Mr. E. P. Smith

Is it not perfectly clear from the Amendment that the percentage is to be fixed by the Board of Trade, which would give every latitude to the considerations the hon. Member has in mind?

Mr. Levy

That percentage is to be fixed by the Board of Trade, but the overall percentage payable by the exhibitors or by distributors is not fixed by the Board of Trade. Any sum subtracted to improve the position of the short film maker would correspondingly depress the position of the feature film maker.

Mr. Scott-Elliot

So small is the amount needed for the short film maker, could it possibly make any real difference to the expenses of the first feature film?

Mr. Levy

It is a matter of degree, but as we are not discussing specific figures, it is impossible for me to answer that question.

Now let me say I do not dispute that it is possible to pay proper sums to short film makers, but they would have to come not out of the feature film producers' share, but out of the exhibitors' and distributors' profits. There is no way of ensuring that under this Amendment. If my hon. Friend the Member for West Wolverhampton (Mr. H. D. Hughes) succeeds in getting his next Amendment accepted—which he will not, much as I would like him to—there would then be a very good case for accepting this Amendment. My hon. Friend's next Amendment would afford the protection which I am seeking. However I ask the President not to dismiss this Amendment simply because it is impracticable, but to sympathise with its purpose and objective and either to submit the matter to the Commission of Inquiry, when it comes, or, alternatively, devise an Amendment himself which can be put forward at the Report stage. If he can do that, he is a better man than I am, but I wish him well.

Earl Winterton

We are all indebted to the hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Levy) for being first to attempt to make clear the difficulties which surround this Amendment. The Committee is addressing itself to these matters in a nonparty way, and it may be that I shall have to disagree with some of my hon. Friends on this side when I say that nothing is more difficulty than to put into an Act of Parliament the exact proportion of profit which should go to different sections of any industry—

Mr. E. P. Smith

There is nothing whatever in either of these Amendments, which are so closely related, which suggests any particular percentage whatever; it is left entirely vague, to be filled in by the President of the Board of Trade.

Earl Winterton

I have seldom heard a more insufficient answer to a point. If, in a future Bill, which I hope will not be brought in, the President of the Board of Trade laid down the exact percentage which everyone connected with the theatrical industry should receive from any profits which were made there would be natural objections. Everyone is sympathetic to the point made by the mover of the Amendment, that everything should be done to make possible the chances of success of the films which we all have at heart. But I feel bound to disabuse the minds of the Committee of one idea, the suggestion that there is some feeling in the minds of exhibitors against the good short feature film. That is not the point at all; the point at issue here, unfortunately, is that to date the public have not been educated, perhaps through the fault of the exhibitor, to appreciate many of these short feature films. I agree that we ought to find a common denominator to improve these short feature films, but for the reasons mentioned by the hon. Member for Eton and Slough I do not believe that that can be brought about by this proposal.

Mr. H. Wilson

As one of the "babies" of the House, I find it difficult to add much to what has just been said by our "Father" across the way. This question of statutory minimum rentals for the short documentary film producers has been very much in my mind during the last two or three days, during which I have tried to find a way round this very difficult problem. I would like to repeat, once again, what I have said about the importance of the short and documentary film producing industry. Anything we can do to give practical help to this industry we shall be only too glad to do, not only because of the entertainment and educational value of these films but because they are important dollar savers.

9.15 p.m.

Last night, I spent an hour and a half with the representatives of these two sections of the industry, and some Members who came with them, when I heard the case which has been repeated tonight. No one can deny that a very striking case has been made out. I asked for figures of actual rentals last night, and I was astonished at some of the figures which were produced. Many will agree that a case has been fully established, and that something should be done about it, but I do not think that this Committee can say how we should solve the problem. I only wish we could. The matter has been examined by various committees and Film Councils over a number of years, but no solution which is in any sense agreed, or capable of being commended to this Committee, has so far been produced.

I must therefore recommend tonight that we leave this matter to the committee of inquiry. Bearing in mind what the noble Lord said, we shall not expect that committee to be influenced by anything which has been said today, whether by me or any one else, but I am sure that any body of reasonable men and women —and the committee will consist of such reasonable people—could hardly fail to be impressed by the kind of figures which have been put forward in this Debate. I ask the industry to make their case afresh to the committee of inquiry. If they do I am sure they will get a fair and sympathetic hearing, especially if they make their case as well as they did to me last night. What that committee will recommend as a method of dealing with this matter it would be improper for me to attempt to say, but I am sure that this Committee cannot tonight put forward an agreed solution.

The question of a reserve power which we might take in this Bill is one to which I have given a lot of thought since I met the documentary and short film producers last night. I considered whether it might be possible to recommend to this Committee that we should take general powers, so that if the committee of inquiry reported in favour of something special being done we should be able to carry it out without having to propose further legislation. I found, however, that it was absolutely impossible. I had some first-class legal advisers on the job, and I found it impossible to produce a phrase which would be capable of being swung into effective action after we have had the report of the committee, and which would not, at the same time, prejudge the case which that committee has to consider.

I very much regret that I do not think I can tell the Committee anything about the method of dealing with the problem which was raised by my hon. Friends. If we tried to do anything about the matter we should probably prejudge the independent investigation which we all want to see. My hon. Friends have made out a very strong case, but I am sure that the Committee will be prepared to leave this matter in the hands of the committee of investigation.

Mr. W. Fletcher

I would draw attention to the danger of one phrase used by the hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Levy), because it has a very considerable bearing on this question. He gave the idea—I hope I do not misrepresent him—that the main purpose of the Bill was the production of first-feature films. I do not believe that to be the case. From every point of view the short and documentary film has a much better prestige than the big, feature film. That is a very important point for the President of the Board of Trade to bear in mind when he is considering the matter. The idea that a lot of money has to be spent in making long, first-feature films may do a great deal of harm. The genius of the film production of this country has been shown very largely in the production of short and documentary films. I believe the consensus of opinion in this country would be very much in favour of seeing that a fair deal is given in that direction. At the present moment no fair deal is given in any sort of way to those who are concerned in making those types of film.

If we push the thesis regarding the big, first-feature film too far we shall be doing a great deal of harm throughout the world to the British film industry. The documentary and short films have been of higher quality, by and large, in this country for the last few years than any other form of film production. It is, I believe, the general consensus of opinion that a fair balance must be struck in future between them. Any idea that the Bill should be tipped over in favour of the first-feature film should not be allowed to go out of this Committee tonight.

Mr. Collins

I am sure that the Committee has welcomed the very generous way in which my right hon. Friend has dealt with this matter and the way he has, in effect, conceded the case, although he has said it has been impossible to find a form of words to satisfy it. He has suggested that the matter should be referred to a committee of inquiry. To the specialist film industry this is a matter of extreme urgency. These producers are almost out of business now. They cannot go on and make short films at all unless there is some machinery to provide them with a market. That is what the Amendment proposed to do. It is the way we thought a market could be guaranteed. I ask my right hon. Friend whether he would consider accepting a new Clause, if it can be produced by the Report stage, rather than leave the matter to go to the committee of inquiry?

Earl Winterton

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not accept the last suggestion—although I quite see the point of view of the hon. Member. Surely, the argument used by the President of the Board of Trade was conclusive. He said what everyone connected with the film industry knows to be true about the efforts that have been made to find a solution. The argument that he addressed to the Committee that this matter must be the subject of investigation was also conclusive. I am not entitled to speak on behalf of the industry, but I am sure that those responsible for exhibition will regard with respect the views that have ben put forward, with obvious sincerity, by hon. Gentlemen who have knowledge of these matters that, through ordinary trade channels and ordinary discussions, no doubt with the benevolent help of the President of the Board of Trade, some temporary solution could be found.

Mr. H. Wilson

I am sure that the Committee will be grateful to the noble Lord for what he has just said. I cannot hold out any hope that we can find a form of words by the Report stage which will solve this problem. The very important discussion I had this morning and the thought which I have given to the matter assure me that we cannot find any form of words that will not prejudge the issue before the committee of inquiry can look into the whole case. I was going to suggest, and am grateful to the noble Lord for anticipating me, that although what has been said in this Committee may, or may not, be taken into consideration by the committee of inquiry, I hope that it will be studied and digested by the industry. I think that the exhibitors have not gone into the problem as they should have done. Some of the rentals of 10s. and 15s. a week for first-class films, to which reference has been made, are fantastic. I hope that the matter will be looked at sympathetically when the committee of inquiry is going into the matter.

Speaking as a consumer, and as one who consumes this product as often as he is able to, I believe that exhibitors have misjudged the feeling of the average citizen in this matter. The average cinema-goer would rather see a good English documentary film than much of the big feature stuff which he is now asked to look at. I hope that exhibitors will take notice of that point of view and will be able to do something to provide a temporary solution of this extremely urgent matter while the committee of inquiry are going into the more long-term policy. I hope that my hon. Friend will agree to withdraw his Amendment.

Mr. Scott-Elliot

If the committee, having considered the matter, recommends that something should be done, will it be possible to do what the committee suggests—if the President of the Board of Trade agrees with the recommendations—without fresh legislation?

Mr. Wilson

Obviously, I cannot answer that question until I have seen what the committee recommend. They may recommend something which will be acceptable to the ordinary trade. On the other hand, they may recommend things which will require legislation. If so, we shall have to look at them when they come up. The question is a much wider one than it seems.

Mr. Dumpleton

I thank my right hon. Friend for the very sympathetic hearing which he has given to this matter. I am a little disappointed that he has not been able to find words to meet the situation. I accept what the noble Lord has said as to the desirability of a full investigation of this problem. I wish the President could find some means of meeting the situation. If the committee recommends that something should be done to avoid the necessity of waiting for some possibility in the legislative programme, I would underline the urgency of meeting this need. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.