British cinema celebrated its centenary in 1996--but it would be difficult to see that date as the centenary of a film industry in Britain. While films have certainly been produced and exhibited in this country for more than a hundred years, there was no film industry as such in the 1890s. Or if there was, it was a very small, fragmented cottage-style industry. It was only over the next decade that an identifiable economy organized around the relatively systematic and large-scale production, marketing, and consumption of films emerged in Britain.
Film production initially was the activity of inventors, entrepreneurs and amateurs, and showmen who saw in moving pictures a new gimmick to attract audiences. These pioneers were among the most dynamic and creative filmmakers in the world in the years up to about 1905, but few of them had the business skills of an Edison or a Lumière. In this same period, films were shown widely, but generally in the context of other entertainment--at fairgrounds, in music halls, at scientific or educational demonstrations, by magic lanternists, and so on. It was not until the late 1900s that the first dedicated cinemas appeared, and some time after that before they were organized into chains. By the early 1910s, it is certainly meaningful to talk of a film industry in Britain, by which stage economic activity had begun to separate into distinct production, distribution, and exhibition sectors. But where the latter two sectors were relatively well organized and adequately financed, production remained piecemeal and underfunded.1
If we jump ahead a hundred years, we find a similar set of circumstances prevailing. On the one hand, we can note similarly well-organized and amply funded distribution and exhibition sectors, and a weak, fragmentary production sector constantly seeking sufficient finances. On the other hand, it is actually quite difficult to identify these activities as comprising a distinctively British film industry. For a start, the most powerful distributors and the majority of films showing on British screens are American--as they have