Film Distributors and Exhibitors
When Hollywood Dominated Film Distribution
American control of the Quebec film distribution market goes back practically to the beginnings of cinema. As early as 1908, the distribution of popular Edison films was stolen from Léo-Ernest Ouimet by the Kinetograph Co. of New York. In the 1910s and 20s, when American films were practically the only ones seen on Quebec movie screens, local subsidiaries of distributors tied to the major Hollywood studios dominated the market. These distribution companies also established close ties with the large exhibition chains being formed at the time. Regal Films, for example, which distributed MGM films, was run by Henry Nathanson, the brother of Nathan L. Nathanson of Famous Players. The few independent distributors still active by the early 1930s, such as Télésphore Latourelle’s Film de Luxe, had a marginal place in the industry.
French Cinema Finds its Place
The arrival of the talkies initially contributed to reinforcing the American grip on the film market. Hollywood studios were the first to provide a steady supply of sound and talking films to movie theatres. French-speaking entrepreneurs, however, did not lose time taking advantage of the opportunities presented by this new technology. In fact, the arrival of talking films in Quebec increased demand for films in French, a market segment where American companies were far from being in a dominant position, despite the best efforts of some of them.
In July 1930, the Frenchman Robert Hurel arrived in Quebec to represent French producers. The following month he founded the Compagnie cinématographique canadienne, whose telegraph address, France-Film, became the company’s name. Hurel arrived in Quebec with thirty films, which were screened at the Théâtre Saint-Denis before touring the province.
In 1931, the publisher of popular novels Édouard Garand founded Les films des Éditions Édouard Garand. The firm prospered as a result of the growing demand for French films. Two years later, J.A. DeSève joined the company. He quickly took control of it and renamed it Franco-Canada Films. In September 1934, realising that entering into competition with France-Film would be suicide, DeSève initiated a merger. The foundations of an empire were cast. France-Film would dominate the distribution of French-language films in Quebec for the next thirty years.
Under DeSève’s management, France-Film succeeded in outwitting the powerful Famous Players when the latter tried to take over the French film market. Working with the distributor Regal Films, which had acquired the rights to several French films, in 1938 Famous Players tried to set up its own distribution company for French-language films. Regal pressured independent exhibitors by threatening to stop supplying them with films if they didn’t do business with the new supplier. The Nathanson brothers, however, came up against the harsh reality of the province when several of their top films, including Julien Divivier’s Pépé le Moko (1937) and Marc Allégret’s Orage (1938) were refused exhibition permits by the Bureau de censure. In the face of these difficulties, Famous Players and Regal retreated and conceded the French film market to France-Film, which was much more at ease with the province’s institutions and film market. After cutting them and getting them approved by the censors, France-Film successfully distributed the films Regal had acquired.
The conversion of Quebec movie theatres to sound film was facilitated by the Quebec market’s integration into the North American film industry. In Montreal, most movie theatres were equipped for sound between the summer of 1928 and the fall of 1929. By late 1931, when the Hollywood studios announced they would no longer produce silent versions of films, the vast majority of Quebec’s commercial movie theatres had been equipped for sound.
The arrival of the talkies worked to the large chains’ advantage, because it rendered independent movie theatres poorly suited for sound reproduction obsolete and made it more expensive to equip and operate a movie theatre. Competition was thus reduced.
Even before the arrival of sound the situation of independents at the conclusion of the silent era was far from bright. By the early 1930s the Famous Players chain, a subsidiary of Paramount in the U.S., operated nearly every movie palace in Canada’s major cities, which distributors could not do without when launching their films. The chain was thus able to dictate terms to distributors and make life difficult for its competitors.
Famous Players’ domination of the Canadian market was such that in 1931 a federal government commission enquired into the company’s activities. The commissioner, Peter White, concluded in his report that Famous Players’ activities truly were monopolistic. Nevertheless, Famous Players emerged from the affair unscathed: the following year, a court decided that its monopoly caused no prejudice to the Canadian public and refused to forbid its practices.
Large Quebec Theatre Chains
Despite all odds, a few Quebec movie theatre chains managed to fend off Famous Players. George Ganetakos’ United Amusement was a very important independent exhibitor in the Montreal region in the first few decades of the talkies, specialising in the presentation of second-run films in neighbourhood cinemas. In 1938 Ganetakos’ company also took control of Confederation Amusements, run by the Lawand and Tabah families, which had not turned their privileged access to American films to account. Finally, Ganetakos built several movie theatres in the late 1930s and after the war.
France-Film also became an important distributor. In the 1930s the company took over the Théâtre Saint-Denis, its most prestigious theatre, along with a few other cinemas in Montreal, Quebec City, Sherbrooke and Trois-Rivières.
Outside of Montreal, Quebec City and Sherbrooke, the majority of movie theatres belonged to independent entrepreneurs. Léo Choquette’s chain, which began to grow in the 1940s, is the best example of this kind.
A New Competitor for Famous Players
Beginning in 1941, Famous Players had to deal with a new competitor with nation-wide ambitions, Odeon Theatres of Canada, which was controlled by British interests, even though its head office, like that of Famous Players, was in Toronto. In 1945, Odeon made its entrance into the Quebec market with the purchase of several cinemas in Montreal and the province’s regions. Odeon’s Quebec cinemas targeted the French-language market in particular, especially through the presentation of American films dubbed into French.
A chapter in the history of movie theatres came to an end in 1938 with the construction of the last movie palace, in the strict sense of the term: the York in Montreal, an 1,100-seat cinema on St. Catherine St. Like most cinemas built in the initial decades of sound cinema, the architecture and decor of the York was unlike those of silent-era movie palaces. Its modern, “streamlined” style replaced the mixture of borrowings from classical, baroque and rococo architecture typical of cinemas of the 1910s and 20s.
The many cinemas built between the end of the Second World War and the arrival of television were generally more modest affairs, especially outside the major cities. Several cinemas built during this period were prefabricated “Quonset” structures, which had been developed during the war.
The number if cinemas in Quebec grew rapidly during the latter half of the 1940s, reaching 304 in 1949. Commercial film exhibition reached a peak, never to be surpassed, in 1952: that year, there were 60 million admissions, or an average of 14.3 per person. Admissions began to decline in 1953 and reached only 38 million by 1955. This was the beginning of the end for cinemas with a single screen, which in the 1960s began to be rapidly replaced by multiplexes.