Hollywood films dominate the cinema schedules, even here in the UK. In fact, American films are so common here that many UK cinema-goers don’t even think of them as “foreign films”.
Before WW1, that wasn’t necessarily the case. British films dominated the cinema, with a majority of them filmed in London.
Then WW1 happened, and our filmmaking industry was decimated almost to the point of no return. In 1927, the British government bought in the Cinematograph Films Act, and with it came “Quota Quickies”.
The Cinematograph Films Act of 1927
In January 1927, two cinemas in Birmingham were bought out by Paramount. UK branches of American Studios already dominated Britain’s film distribution industry. Many feared this purchase was the start of a larger movement.
A few weeks later, Sir Philip Cunliffe-Lister, President of the Board of Trade, presented a bill to parliament. The bill outlined ways to help boost the industry. The legislation wiggled it’s way through the British parliament, and a close eye was kept on the financial state of the film industry.
By December, The Cinematograph Films Act received the Royal Assent. The Bill focused mainly on the following:
- Any film theatrically released had to be registered with the Board of Trade.
- Both distributors and exhibitors were required to show a proportion of British films (7.5% and 5% respectively)
- By 1936, 20% of all films shown in any cinema had to be British.
The board defined a British film as having the following qualities:
- Has a British person or company as the producer
- Studio sequences had to be shot in a British Studio
- A high majority of cast and crew had to be British or from the British Empire (75% of wages paid)
The bill came into effect in April 1928.
The Beginning of Quota Quickies
The British film industry suddenly found themselves with an issue. With American films ramping up production, as well as films coming from Europe, hitting the quota was going to prove tricky. There were not enough studios and filming space in the UK to create the level of high quality of films needed.
So in came the Quota Quickies.
These were films that raced through production in order to hit the quota.
Films were churned out in a matter of days. Budgets were tiny.
And… most of them weren’t that great. Surprisingly.
In fact, many of them were screened to empty cinemas while the cleaners cleaned up.
Did It Work?
To everyone’s surprise, it did. Sort of.
The Quota put a lot of money into the film industry. Directors like Alexander Korda came to the UK because of the stability the quota offered. Films needed making, and they needed staff to do it.
Out of the production machine came Gracie Fields, Errol Flynn and Vivien Leigh.
While many of the films were shockingly made, there was something uniquely British about them. Many of the films featured stage shows that were quickly rearranged for film.
Except, Britain is REALLY good at theatre. We have incredible writers, and the actors did their best to carry over the same feelings onto the big screen. What came out is a typically British view of middle-class British culture at the time.
When the bill came up for renewal in the 1930s, it was extended. This time, though, with the rule that films with bigger budgets counted as double or triple towards the quota.
It paved the way for some classic films such as The 39 Steps and The Private Life of Henry VIII, two of the greatest British films ever made.
What happened next?
While the Quota Quickie seemed like a quick fix to a big problem, it actually saved the industry. It gave a huge injection into an industry that would have died. It meant that by the time World War II rolled around, Britain had a stable industry. The UK’s movie production went on to become a defining part of WWII, with propaganda films keeping heads up and spirits lifted when bombings got worse and worse.
The quota quicky maybe dismissed by many as a crude way of making films, but it gave us the industry we have today.