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Jean Desmet and the Early Dutch Film Trade

Jean Desmet and the Early Dutch Film Trade

Ivo Blom
Copyright Date: 2003
Pages: 480
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  • Book Info
    Jean Desmet and the Early Dutch Film Trade
    Book Description:

    Since 1957 the Film Museum in Amsterdam has been in possession of the Desmet Collection which contains the estate of the Dutch cinema owner and film distributor Jean Desmet (1875-1956). The collection comprises almost nine hundred European and American films in all genres, a collection of publicity material and a dauntingly large business archive. These three sources form the basis of this first comprehensive reconstruction of Desmet's career: from his nomadic beginnings as a traveling showman, working the seasonal fairgrounds of the Netherlands and Belgium, to his successful switch to permanent cinema operation and film distribution. The history of Desmet's career offers not simply an abstract of an individual character and his personal ambitions and motivations, but also epitomizes transformations in the world of cinema as an industry. Between 1907 and 1916 the world of cinema experienced radical structural change which Desmet not only witnessed but also helped to bring about. Given the insufficiencies of Dutch film production, Desmet became a link between film production abroad and film exhibition in the Netherlands. Desmet is not merely representative of the rise of the permanent movie house and the coming of the film distributor. This book shows how his fortunes also encapsulate a series of structural changes within the new culture of permanent cinema and film distribution. In film distribution these changes embraced the introduction of film rental, the advent of the long feature film, the introduction of the monopoly distribution system and the periodic transformation of the products on offer. In the business of cinema operation change involved specialization, the creation of fixed theater venues, the development of a theater hierarchy, expansions of scale, the introduction of trade journals and the gradual legitimization of cinema as a popular cultural institution. These transformations were not confined to the Netherlands but were also taking place in the rest of Europe. Indeed, they were first set in motion by other European countries, and in order fully to understand Desmet it is necessary to situate him in his larger European context. In this original and wide-ranging study Ivo Blom uses the career of Jean Desmet as a means of exploring the history of cinema from the ground-level position of film distribution and exhibition. His copiously illustrated and scrupulously documented exposition swells into an epic narrative that offers a richer, more rounded -indeed 'truer' - account of early urban cinema culture than is possible from the confined perspective of production-based film histories. This title is available in the OAPEN Library -

    eISBN: 978-90-485-0509-8
    Subjects: Sociology, Film Studies, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. 1-6)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. 7-10)
  3. Preface
    (pp. 11-15)
  4. Abbreviations, Unidentified Films and Historical Currencies
    (pp. 16-18)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 19-36)

    In 1986, the Italian diva film entitled fior di male (flower of evil*, Cines 1915) was shown at the Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone. It was a revelation. Paolo Cherchi Usai, the festival’s organiser and head curator of film at George Eastman House in Rochester, recalls the event:

    It was a declaration of war against the assumption that Italian cinema of the silent period was a known entity. It was the proof that much, much more could be seen and told about it. It was an indictment of the false representation and false consciousness of film history as a...

  6. I. La Comète Belge Jean Desmet’s Travelling Cinema, The Imperial Bio (1907-1910)
    (pp. 37-76)

    Desmet’s period as a travelling showman was a transitional phase of just two years. When compared with the twelve years he spent working on the fairgrounds, this is not very long. Compared with his period in film distribution and his time as an operator of permanent cinemas, it is a mere interlude in his career. On the other hand, these are the years that were decisive for Desmet’s move to the Dutch film world. They were essential to the rapid development of his career at the beginning of the twentieth century and led directly to his establishment as a permanent...

  7. II. In the Beginning... Film Distribution in the Netherlands Before Desmet
    (pp. 77-88)

    What was the situation of film distribution in the Netherlands before Desmet arrived on the scene? How did he acquire his films between 1907 and 1910? Unfortunately, the Desmet Archive does not offer much help on these questions. Sources not directly concerned with Desmet offer more information. The Dutch fairground trade journalDe Komeet, of which only a few odd copies have survived from Desmet’s fairground years between 1900 and 1910, contains advertisements from distributors and production companies. Trade journals specific to film did not exist at the time. Another source is the film programmes of the period, notably the...

  8. III. Gold Rush In the Throes of Cinema Mania (1909-1914)
    (pp. 89-132)

    In 1909, Jean Desmet transferred from the fairground to permanent cinema. It was a move that was typical of the times, not just in the Netherlands, but also in the world at large. Permanent cinemas reached countries such as France, Germany and Great Britain earlier than the Netherlands and developed on a larger scale. The Netherlands caught ‘cinema fever’ from abroad, but the bug did not spread wholesale, and Amsterdam was not infected immediately. Together with members of his family, Desmet began in 1909 to create one of the first (if notthefirst) cinema chains. In both Rotterdam and...

  9. IV. Film Market Europe Buying Films Abroad (1910-1914)
    (pp. 133-186)

    Early in 1910, Jean Desmet began to diversify his activities in the film world. He now became a distributor as well as a cinema exhibitor. The story of the rise and flourishing of his distribution business provides an insight into the growth of Dutch and foreign film culture between 1910 and 1914. In this short period the Dutch film world underwent rapid and sweeping changes, which were partly determined by events abroad. In the years 1910-12, Desmet imported second-hand films from Germany which were delivered in readymade programmes. From 1912 to 1914, he purchased directly from production companies, or from...

  10. V. White Slave Girls and German Kultur Film Rental and Distribution Strategies in the Netherlands (1910-1914)
    (pp. 187-216)

    From November 1910, Desmet began to present himself to the world as a film distributor. Up to that point, he had been showing films in his two Parisiens and occasionally renting to third parties, but his film distribution only took on real shape when he began to buy programmes from Westdeutsche Film-Börse. From that month on, he was advertising regularly in the fairground trade journalDe Komeet, which, in the absence of a proper professional journal for cinema operators and distributors, was the organ that had to cater for both the itinerant and the fixed versions of cinema. His clientele...

  11. VI. Onésime et Son Collègue Competition (1910-1914)
    (pp. 217-242)

    In 1910, Jean Desmet faced competition from three other large distributors who had all become professionals and who, like himself, owned release cinemas in Amsterdam. Pathé had first claim on their own productions, and after 1910-12, when he was buying his programmes in Germany, Desmet was able to obtain only their newsreels, the Pathé-Journals, which were available on the open market. Nöggerath specialised in Italian epics such as quo vadis? and the last days of pompeii but also offered a bit of everything. Gildemeijer became the main importer and distributor of German films and secured exclusive rights on all Asta...

  12. VII. Das Ende vom Lied The Impact of the First World War (1914-1916)
    (pp. 243-276)

    ‘Owing to the European war of the last years, business in Holland was in a bad condition, so that for a long time we could not release the film and then we could rent it only a few times. We were even unable to sell it to the Colonies on account of the problems with shipping in the present time,’ wrote Desmet to the Cines head office in Rome.¹ The First World War had far-reaching consequences for the Dutch film world. The pre-war international network was disrupted, which led to shortages of films and changes in the international films on...

  13. VIII. Quo Vadis? Desmet’s Film Rental and Cinema Operation During the Great War (1914-1916)
    (pp. 277-304)

    ‘In answer to your letter of 26 Sept, I can tell you that “The Battle of the Somme” has not yet been shown at the Cinema Palace. As far as my own films are concerned, it’s no longer worth the trouble. You’ll receive “The Vagabond” (die landstrasse) for 6 to 10 October, but then that’s it for me,’ wrote Jean Desmet to his brother Theo, manager of the Bellamy Bioscoop in Flushing, on 1 October 1916.¹ Desmet’s film distribution and cinema exhibition businesses collapsed during the First World War. It was not the end of Desmet’s career. In 1916, he...

  14. IX. Afterlife A New Career and the Beginning of a Collection
    (pp. 305-336)

    From 1916 onwards, the Dutch cinema world was caught up in a process of change. The increasing dominance of American and German production companies, the German influence in Dutch exhibition, the arrival of the first real cinema palaces and the growing professional organisation among Dutch exhibitors and renters altered the Dutch situation for good. Desmet’s own abandonment of cinema exhibition and the film trade around 1916 was but the first symptomatic moment of a general development.

    Jean Desmet did not abandon the film trade completely when he moved over to property development. The winding down of his buying and selling...

  15. X. In Retrospect Jean Desmet’s Place in Film History
    (pp. 337-360)

    Within the historical retrospect of Desmet’s business, there are six key themes. Allowing for certain significant differences, the Dutch situation resembles the open models of Britain and Germany cited in the Introduction. Desmet’s development forms part of the institutionalisation of cinema at a critical moment in time. By following his development, we are able to trace not only changing exhibition practices but also shifts within the power structures of film distribution, both in the travelling cinema period and afterwards. His story shows how he was at various times a ‘winner’ or a ‘loser’, a modern or a conservative businessman; how...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 361-436)
  17. Bibliography
    (pp. 437-452)
  18. Photo credits
    (pp. 453-454)
  19. Index of Film Titles
    (pp. 455-462)
  20. General Index
    (pp. 463-472)
  21. Back Matter
    (pp. 473-474)