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In Praise of the Quota

The Myth

Quota-quickie. It’s a term of abuse applied to any low-budget, low-quality film of the thirties. Conventional film histories would have you believe that these films sullied the good name of British cinema and stifled artistic expression. If only we hadn’t had the quota, they say, the Golden Age of British Cinema would have started in the thirties instead of the forties.

Exhibitors were forced to show appalling movies, indeed several apologised to patrons for what they offered. Audiences were forced to watch amateurish rubbish instead of the quality Hollywood productions they craved. Good film makers were driven out of the business while bad ones thrived. British cinema was a laughing stock.

The truth is somewhat different.

The problem and the solution

The 1927 Cinematograph Films Act was designed to stop the decline of the British film industry. By the mid-twenties our screens were dominated by foreign (mainly American) films. Despite the fact that film-going was the main mass entertainment, in 1925 Britain only produced 33 films, and many of these were Anglo-German co-productions.

American films had already made a profit at home. Therefore they could be dumped on foreign markets cheaply. For any distributor or exhibitor they were a bargain – great production values and loads of star power. Indigenous productions found it hard to compete.

American film companies dominated distribution and (despite public denials) operated a block booking system. If exhibitors wanted the latest Chaplin or Garbo film, they had to take several lesser films sight-unseen. In 1926 over 600 American features were shown in Britain. Something needed to be done.

The Act specified a quota of British films for distributors and exhibitors. This was placed at 7.5% for distributors and 5% for exhibitors gradually rising to 20% for both by the end of the Act’s 10 year duration. A British film was defined as one in which 75% of salaries went to British Subjects including a British writer, and covered production throughout the British Empire. There was no definition of quality.

The result

On paper, the Act was an unqualified success. Distributors and exhibitors easily met their quotas. By the time the Act expired 25% of films shown were British. Audiences, far from staying away from British pictures, went to see them in a greater proportion than the quota. But it wasn’t popular with many distributors.

When the act came up for renewal, distributors made a concerted effort to have it amended. They sited the lack of quality of much of the production. The new Act in 1938 specified a minimum cost per foot of film, and allowed more expensive films to count double or even treble.

The American studios announced ambitious plans to film in Britain. Super productions such as A Yank at Oxford and Goodbye Mr Chips were made. Minor British companies found themselves unable to compete. Many went bust, or merged into J. Arthur Rank’s growing film empire.

What is a quota film?

It’s difficult to say which films wouldn’t have been made without the quota. The big budget Things To Come, for example, can’t be regarded as a quota-quickie yet producer Alexander Korda came to Britain because of the protection the quota offered.

Mancunian Films’ output – as low-budget as you can get – is naturally regarded as quota. But their production continued long after the quota went. The budgets were low enough for the films to make a profit in the regions. The same goes for George King’s output.

Certainly the UK productions of American companies count as quota. Many of these are terrible – static, talky, stage transfers done as cheaply as possible. These are the films most critics of the time saw. The cheap and cheerful comedies of production companies such as Mancunian were rarely shown to the critics.

The Americans had the power of block booking behind them, but if they were going to show a B-picture it might as well be a British one. It’s thanks to this block booking that the myth of the apologising exhibitor grew up. There were plenty of decent films to choose from, why show a crap one unless you’re forced by the distributor.

Take 1936, for example, the height of the quota. As well as Things to Come, an exhibitor could have chosen As You Like It, Cheer Up!, The Crimes of Stephen Hawke, Dusty Ermine, Educated Evans, Fire Over England, Forget-me-not, It’s Love Again, Keep Your Seats Please, Love from a Stranger, The Man Who Could Work Miracles, OHMS, Queen of Hearts, Rembrandt, Rhodes of Africa, Sabotage, Secret Agent, Song of Freedom, Where There’s a Will, Windbag the Sailor. These aren’t all classics but there’s plenty to please all tastes. In 1926 the only decent film was The Lodger.

The benefits

Given the state of the industry in 1926, it’s hard to see how it could have survived the coming of sound. The costs involved in building soundproof facilities and hiring new equipment would have been prohibitive without the protection of the quota.

American companies such as Warner Brothers built new studio complexes to make their own quota-quickies, while British companies also had the confidence to build for the future.

Actors and technicians gained valuable experience thanks to the quantity of films produced. Michael Powell directed over twenty quota films before he made a decent picture. That’s an extreme example perhaps, but the protection of the quota gave people the chance to fail and learn from their mistakes.

The critics, who constantly called for a National Cinema Culture, failed to notice that it was happening under their noses. Cheap thrillers and cheaper comedies were forging the nation’s cinematic consciousness.

When war broke out, and the supply of films from America dried up, there was a whole generation of film makers ready to take over. The Golden Age of British Cinema may have occurred during the war years, but it wouldn’t have happened at all without the quota.

Roll Call

To finish off here’s a partial list of people who started their careers, or worked extensively, in quota pictures:

Felix Aylmer, John Baxter, Chili Bouchier, Madeleine Carroll, Errol Flynn, George Formby, Guy Green, Rex Harrison, Jack Hawkins, Valerie Hobson, Jean Kent, Frank Launder, David Lean, Vivien Leigh, Margaret Lockwood, Ida Lupino, Miles Malleson, James Mason, Ray Milland, John Mills, Anna Neagle, Ronald Neame, Cecil Parker, Eric Portman, Michael Powell, Margaret Rutherford, Alastair Sim, Tod Slaughter, Ann Todd, Bernard Vorhaus, Googie Withers, Freddie Young