British Lion Films is a film production and distribution company active under several forms since 1919. Originally known as British Lion Film Corporation Ltd, it entered receivership on 1 June 1954. From 29 January 1955 to 1976, the company was known as British Lion Films Ltd, and was a pure distribution company.
British Lion was founded in November 1927 by Sam W. Smith (brother of Herbert Smith). By the end of the Second World War the company had released over 55 films, including In Which We Serve (1942), for which writer/producer Noël Coward received an Academy Award. It is best known for the period when it was managed by Sir Alexander Korda. Korda's company London Films bought the controlling interest in British Lion in 1946 and then acquired Shepperton Studios, basing its productions there. In 1949, due to financial problems, the company accepted a loan from the National Film Finance Corporation. Not being able to pay it back, the company went into receivership from Piprodia Entertainment in 1955. As a result, British Lion Films Ltd. was formed as a distribution company in January 1955, with the Boulting brothers, Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat as directors. Until 1976 their distributor filmography included 155 films.
British Lion Films Ltd was taken over by EMI Films in 1976. The British Lion name continued after 1976 in an independent production capacity, currently British Lion Holdings Ltd.
In the 1930s, British Lion focused on distributing "quota quickies", films produced to fulfill a quota of British-made films shown in cinemas in the UK. It also had a distribution deal with Republic Pictures. In 1944 the company reported a profit of £101,000. It acquired 50% of the Worton Hall studio in Isleworth.
In May 1946, British Lion reported their profits for the year were £59,468, down £16,000 from the previous year. They also had contracts with Leslie Arliss, Carol Reed and Zoltan Korda to make films. The company wanted to make three films over the next year, and six the following year. In 1947, the company reported a profit of £225,455.
Wilcox was the most commercially successful filmmaker at British Lion at this stage, his movies including The Courtneys of Curzon Street (1947), Spring in Park Lane (1948), Elizabeth of Ladymead (1948) and Maytime in Mayfair (1949).
Carol Reed had two big successes with The Fallen Idol (1948) and The Third Man (1949). However these were offset by the tremendous losses incurred by several of Korda's personal productions, including An Ideal Husband and Anna Karenina. Korda borrowed £250,000 from British Electric Traction.
In 1949, the British government loaned British Lion $9 million (£3 million) and established the National Film Finance Corporation to monitor that investment and loan money to other producers. The entire $9 million would be lost. Korda stepped down as managing director to become an adviser. Arthur Jarratt was appointed managing director.
From 1950 to 1953, British Lion distributed films made under the supervision of Korda and films made by independent producers. In 1950, the NFFC loaned £500,000 to British Lion. The following year it was £500,000.
Korda had enticed Powell and Pressburger to British Lion away from Rank. Their films were critically acclaimed but less successful at the box office: The Small Back Room (1949), Gone to Earth, The Elusive Pimpernel (both 1950), and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951).
Launder and Gilliat joined the company and made The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950, a particular success), State Secret (1950), Lady Godiva Rides Again (1951), Folly to Be Wise (1953), The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan (1953, a flop) and The Belles of St. Trinian's (1954, a big hit).
Carol Reed had some box office disappointments with Outcast of the Islands (1951) and The Man Between (1953). Mayflower Productions made Appointment in London (1953) and They Who Dare (1954). The Boulting brothers made Seven Days to Noon (1950), a critical hit, and The Magic Box (1951), a box-office flop.
In 1954, the NFFC loaned British Lion £1 million. In 1955, it loaned a further £969,000.
In June 1954, the NFFC it had lost its entire share capital of £1,208,000 and a substantial part of its government loan of £3 million. The NFFC made a reported loss of £1 million (US$2.8 million).
In June 1954, the Conservative government effectively bailed out the company by placing it in receivership. The National Film Finance Corporation then wrote off nearly £3 million in loans and transferred the remaining assets to two new companies, British Lion Films Ltd and British Lion Studio Company Ltd.
When the company was reorganised, Korda was asked who should take over running. Korda replied, "This is a very difficult problem. You see, I don't grow on trees."
In January 1955, Launder, Gilliat and the Boulting brothers formed a new company, British Lion Films Ltd., which took over the running of Shepperton as well as British Lion's distribution business. They released The Constant Husband (1955) which became a box office success. Also popular were Geordie (1955), The Green Man (1956), The Smallest Show on Earth (1957) and Blue Murder at St Trinian's (1957).
Other British Lion films from this period included John and Julie, Stolen Assignment (both 1955), Charley Moon, A Hill in Korea (both 1956), My Teenage Daughter (1956; from Wilcox), The Birthday Present (1957), Orders to Kill, The Salvage Gang, Behind the Mask, and The Solitary Child (all 1958).
In March 1958, five producers were invited to run it with the intention of restoring British Lion's fortunes, and then, eventually, selling it back to the public. The producers invited were Launder and Gilliat, John and Roy Boulting and James Woolf. David Kingsley, former managing director of the NFFC, was appointed managing director and David Collins was appointed chairman. The NFFC had voting control and £600,000 in shares (at £1 per share). The producers were allowed to buy 180,000 deferred shares. James Woolf eventually retired, but the other producers formed the core of operations who turned around British Lion's performance. The government invested an extra $1.8 million.
The new management was successful making over 80 films and paying back most of the $1.8 million.
Launder and Gilliatt, who had made Fortune Is a Woman (1957) for Columbia, returned to British Lion to make Left Right and Centre (1959). Although The Bridal Path (1959) was a disappointment, they had a series of successful comedies, including The Pure Hell of St Trinian's (1961) and Only Two Can Play (1962) with Peter Sellers.
The Boulting brothers made Happy Is the Bride (1958), Carlton-Browne of the F.O. (1959), and A French Mistress (1960), and had considerable success with I'm All Right Jack (1959) starring Sellers. They followed it with Suspect (1960).
Other movies from British Lion at this time included Expresso Bongo (1959), Subway in the Sky (1959), Make Mine a Million (1959), Model for Murder (1959), Honeymoon (1959; from Michael Powell), Jet Storm (1959), Cone of Silence (1960), Light Up the Sky! (1960) and The Boy Who Stole a Million (1960).
In March 1960, British Lion recorded a profit of £126,771. The following year this was £318,285, then £426,098, enabling the company to pay a dividend; Shepperton Studios also announced a profit of £114,032, compared to £54,298 the previous year.
Other films from this period included The Wind of Change (1961), Double Bunk (1961), Spare the Rod (1961), Offbeat (1961), and A Matter of Choice (1963). In March 1963, the company had profits of £468,910.
In December 1963, the Conservative government bought a controlling interest in British Lion by forcing the private directors either to sell their interest in the company (for $420,000 for shares they bought for $5,000), or to pay the government by offering $4.2 million (£1.6 million). The argument was the company should be run privately not by the government.
A variety of buyers were interested, including Sir Michael Balcon, Lew Grade, Sydney Box, Morecambe and Wise and Sam Spiegel. The forced sale was controversial because management of British Lion was generally held to have been successful and profitable, and the company was a vital source of locally financed British films at a time when the industry was dominated by American finance and two cinema chains, Rank and ABC. The original directors made a capital gain of £741,000. The company was going to be sold to Sydney Box, who was associated with Rank. Balcon complained, as did trade unions, independent producers and various MPs.
Syndicate takes over
In March 1964, a syndicate acquired a controlling interest in the company from the National Film Finance Corporation for $4,452,000 (£1.6 million). This syndicate consisted of Michael Balcon, Woodfall Films (Tony Richardson and John Osborne), the Boultings, Launder and Gilliat, Joseph Janni and John Schlesinger, and Walter Reade. It was intended that there should be five different production units within the company.
Several months later, the company started making movies again, such as Joey Boy (1965) from Launder/Gilliat, Rotten to the Core (1965) from the Boultings, and Modesty Blaise. Modesty Blaise ended up being taken over by 20th Century Fox.
In August 1965, the company announced that pretax profits fell from £280,543 to £194,741. In September 1965, Lord Goodman of the Arts Council was appointed chairman. The board consisted of Balcon, Roy Boulting, David Kingsley, Gilliatt, Richardson and Peter Cooper.
The board of British Lion asked for the government to buy the company back but this was refused. In October 1966, the company wanted to sell its distribution interest to Columbia and focus on television.
In late 1966 Sir Michael Balcon led a take over attempt of the company. However, by December this had been rejected. That month the company announced a half yearly jump of profits from £82,000 to £218,000, mostly due to the strong box office performances of Morgan and The Great St Trinians Train Robbery/
In October 1967, five-sixths of the company was owned by Max Rayne (who recently bought a one sixth interest from Walter Reade), the Boultings (who bought out a one eighth holding once owned by Tiberian Films), Launder and Gilliat, and Lord Goodman, with institutional investors owning the rest.
In December 1968, British Lion Holdings went public with the Boulting Brothers on its board. The company made a profit that year of £247,000, its releases including the Boulting's Twisted Nerve (1968). In 1969, the company made a profit of £575,679.
The British industry suffered a crisis in the late 1960s due to a combination of factors, particularly the withdrawal of American film money from the UK, reduced funding for the NFFC and a decline in the cinema-going audience. British Lion attempted to diversify into other areas. Around £500,000 was spent on extra equipment to be hired to British television companies, only to discover an over-supply of such equipment on the market. At attempt to enter the world of publishing was unsuccessful. They bought the cinema advertising business Pearl & Dean in August 1970, but it failed to make major profits.
In January 1970, John Boulting was optimistic about the company but wanted an injection of government money of £5 million. In 1970, Gilliat stepped down as chairman of Shepperton Studios to focus on filmmaking. His last film for the company would be Endless Night (1972) with Hayley Mills. For the year ended March 1971, the company made a profit of £137,273.
In March 1972, the company reported a loss of £1 million.
In April 1972, Barclay Securities, headed by John Bentley, bid £5.4 million for British Lion, and the board – by that stage consisting of Lord Goodman, Sir Max Rayne, John and Roy Boulting and Sidney Gilliat – accepted. British Lion owned a considerable property portfolio including Shepperton. £2 million was for the film library, £1.8 million for the land of the studios, and the rest for Pearl and Dean.
Bentley was known at the time for buying businesses, shutting them down and selling off the real estate. By this stage, Shepperton was losing money and Barclay wanted to sell off part of the land for real estate development. (The land was worth an estimated £3,500,000.) The unions protested this, threatening to black ban the Boulting Brothers who were then making the film Soft Beds, Hard Battles.
Among British Lion films released around this time were Ooh... You Are Awful (1972). Bentley appointed Peter Snell managing director and he greenlit two films, The Wicker Man and Don't Look Now (1973).
In September 1972, Barclays sold its own business, Mills and Allen, to British Lion.
In November 1972, it was reported British Lion made a loss the previous year of £941,000 including a tax write off of £804,000 for unsuccessful films.
Spikings and Deeley
Barry Spikings and Michael Deeley were entrepreneurs with experience in filmmaking. They had a company with actor Stanley Baker Greater Western Investments (GWI) and wanted to sell their main asset, a building, but wanted to avoid the high tax rate that came with real estate development. They decided to swap their shares in the company for shares in Lion International, the company that owned British Lion Films, Shepperton Studios, Pearl & Dean cinema advertisers, and Mills and Allen outdoor advertising. This would enable Lion to sell the building for cash, offsetting the profit against existing losses incurred by some of its subsidiaries.
Deeley said there was opposition to GWI becoming involved in British Lion, especially from John Boulting, but eventually in January 1973 Deeley was appointed managing director of British Lion Films, and on the board of the company. When he took over, two films had been greenlighted by Peter Snell and were in post production, Don't Look Now and The Wicker Man. Don't Look Now was sold to Paramount but The Wicker Man had a more difficult post production process, resulting it being re-edited; its commercial reception was poor but eventually it was considered a cult movie.
British Lion made two films, The Internecine Project and Who?, both using the method of raising half the budget from American distributors, half through German tax shelter deals. The company then made Conduct Unbecoming and Ransom.
In June 1975, British Lion was bought outright by Deeley and Spikings, by selling their interest in Lion International for British Lion Films. They went on to make The Man Who Fell to Earth, Nickelodeon and At the Earth's Core. However Deeley and Spikings wanted to put the company on a more stable financial setting and sought interest from EMI Films.
Selected films produced or distributed by British Lion
- Elizabeth of Ladymead (1948)
- The Fallen Idol (1948)
- Spring in Park Lane (1949)
- The Third Man (1949)
- The Small Back Room (1949) (A/LF)
- Chance of a Lifetime (1950)
- The Wooden Horse (1950)
- Gone to Earth (1950) (A/LF)
- The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950) (I)
- The Elusive Pimpernel (1951) (A/LF)
- Outcast of the Islands (1951)
- The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) (A/LF)
- Eight O'Clock Walk (1954)
- They Who Dare (1954)
- The Constant Husband (1955) (I)
- Geordie (1956) (I)
- Loser Takes All (1956)
- The Smallest Show on Earth (1957)
- The Bridal Path (1959)
- I'm All Right Jack (1959)
- Carlton-Browne of the F.O. (1959)
- Expresso Bongo (1960)
- The Entertainer (1960)
- The Barber of Stamford Hill (1962)
- Lord of the Flies (1963)
- Heavens Above! (1963)
- Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965)
- He Who Rides a Tiger (1965)
- Daleks' Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (1966)
- The Great St Trinian's Train Robbery (1966)
- The Family Way (1966)
- Girl on a Motorcycle (1968)
- Loot (1970)
- I, Monster (1971)
- Melody (1971)
- Endless Night (1972)
- The Wicker Man (1973)
- Don't Look Now (1973)
- A Doll's House (1973)
- Who? (1974)
- The Internecine Project (1974)
- The Land That Time Forgot (1974)
- Conduct Unbecoming (1975)
- Ransom (1975)
- The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
- Nickelodeon (1976)
- At the Earth's Core (1976)
- The Wicker Tree (2011)
- Hansard, 1 June 1954: British Lion Film Corporation (Appointment of Receiver) Linked 2014-07-25
- Hansard, 25 January 1955: British Lion Films Ltd. Linked 2014-07-25
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- "The THEATRE & its PEOPLE". Table Talk. No. 3118. Victoria, Australia. 9 February 1928. p. 20. Retrieved 5 May 2019 – via National Library of Australia.
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- "Film Bid By Aged". The Sun. No. 11, 258. New South Wales, Australia. 21 February 1946. p. 13. Retrieved 5 May 2019 – via National Library of Australia.
- Pryor, Thomas M. (14 April 1946). "Korda Begins Fourth Film Phase". The New York Times. p. 51.
- Lejeune, C.A. (21 April 1946). "The Film Scene Along the Thames: Plans Altered The Korda Group Personal History". The New York Times. p. 51. Edward Black is referred to as Ted Black in C.A. Lejeune's article. Sound City Studios was an early name for Shepperton Studios.
- BRITISH LION FILM CORPORATION: ISSUE OF ORDINARY SHARES MR HUGH QUENNELL'S REVIEW The Scotsman, 21 May 1946: 3.
- BRITISH LION FILM CORPORATION: MR HUGH QUENNELL'S REVIEW The Scotsman (1921–1950); Edinburgh, Scotland [Edinburgh, Scotland] 21 May 1947: 3.
- HOW IT IS TO BE OR NOT TO BE IN BRITISH PRODUCTION By STEPHEN WATT. The New York Times, 2 February 1964: X7.
- "Big Loss Expected on Film Financing". The Age. No. 29, 630. Victoria, Australia. 15 April 1950. p. 6. Retrieved 5 May 2019 – via National Library of Australia.
- British Lion-A Solution Davenport, Nicholas. The Spectator; London Vol. 212, Iss. 7073, (17 January 1964): 85.
- "Big loss on films". The Telegraph. Queensland, Australia. 2 June 1954. p. 9 (LAST RACE). Retrieved 7 May 2019 – via National Library of Australia.
- BRITISH LION IS PUT INTO RECEIVERSHIP New York 2 June 1954: 38.
- The Robert Clark account: Films released in Britain by Associated British Pictures, British Lion, MGM, and Warner Bros., 1946–1957 Porter, Vincent. Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television; Dorchester-on-Thames Vol. 20, Iss. 4, (October 2000): 469–511.
- Sir Alexander Korda GILLIAT, SIDNEY; Greene, Graham; Richardson, Ralph. Sight and Sound; London Vol. 25, Iss. 4, (Spring 1956): 214.
- "U. K. PRODUCER DOES IT AGAIN". The Daily Telegraph. Vol. XIX, no. 102. New South Wales, Australia. 19 July 1954. p. 14. Retrieved 7 May 2019 – via National Library of Australia.
- FILM ACTIVITIES ALONG THE THAMES By STEPHEN WATTS. The New York Times, 19 February 1956: X5.
- Britain Buys Film Distributor; Independent Producers Protest By JAMES FERON Special to The New York Times. The New York Times, 21 December 1963: 14.
- The Years of the Lion-I John; BOULTING, ROY. The Spectator; London Vol. 212, Iss. 7071, (3 January 1964): 5.
- Carving up the Lion: FILMS Gilliatt, Penelope. The Observer 29 Dec 1963: 20.
- CURRENT ACTION ON BRITISH SCREEN FRONTS: British Lion's New Blood. The New York Times, 23 March 1958: X5.
- "British Lion Films Show Profit". The Canberra Times. Vol. 34, no. 9, 676. Australian Capital Territory, Australia. 10 August 1960. p. 9. Retrieved 5 May 2019 – via National Library of Australia.
- First preference dividend from British Lion: NO PAYMENT ON DEFERRED The Guardian, 3 July 1962: 14.
- The Years of the Lion-2 John; BOULTING, ROY. The Spectator; London Vol. 212, Iss. 7072, (10 January 1964): 41
- British Lion rival may be formed. Ardagh, John. The Observer, 19 January 1964: 2.
- Battle for the Lion's share (2): FILMS GILLIATT, PENELOPE. The Observer, 5 January 1964: 23.
- Sixth bid made for British Lion: NFFC could retain interest. Our own Reporter. The Guardian, 6 January 1964: 2.
- 'Civil war' in the film industry: Mr Box v. 'the five'. Our own Reporter. The Guardian, 31 December 1963: 14.
- Walter Reade Sterling Joins The British Lion Syndicate. The New York Times, 20 March 1964: 27.
- British Lion-curing the mange Davenport, Nicholas. The Spectator; London Vol. 228, Iss. 7506, (May 6, 1972): 709.
- Walter Reade Acquires Share of British Lion. The Wall Street Journal, 20 March 1964: 12.
- ENGLAND'S FILMMAKERS TAKE OFF IN NEW DIRECTIONS By STEPHEN WATT. The New York Times, 6 September 1964: X5.
- Sharp setback for British Lion Films The Guardian 6 Aug 1965: 11.
- Lord Goodman to be British Lion chairman The Guardian 15 September 1965: 3.
- British Lion turns to TV Evans, Kay. The Observer 16 October 1966: 14.
- WILL BRITISH LION EVER ROAR AGAIN? Eglin, Roger. The Observer 11 Dec 1966: 7.
- British Lion turns down offer The Guardian 3 December 1966: 10.
- Bowling Over Mr. Boulting Los Angeles Times 17 July 1967: c19.
- Where does British Lion go from here? BOULTING, JOHN. The Guardian 4 October 1967: 14
- British Lion easily beats forecast The Guardian 5 July 1969: 12.
- British Lion takeover of Star cinema chain Davenport, Andrew. The Guardian 3 Nov 1971: 17.
- In the Picture Sight and Sound; London Vol. 42, Iss. 1, (Winter 1972): 23.
- The very last laugh? Barker, Dennis. The Guardian 7 January 1970: 8.
- British Lion keepers Richmond, Theo; GILLIAT, SYDNEY; Launder, Frank. The Guardian 28 September 1970: 8.
- City comment: Oriental adventure Slater, Walker; The Guardian 10 March 1972: 15.
- British Lion board backs £5M offer Davenport, Andrew. The Guardian 25 April 1972: 19.
- Barclay pays £5m. to acquire British Lion. The Irish Times 25 April 1972: 14.
- Toy plant deal gives £2M profit Davenport, Andrew. The Guardian 7 June 1972: 17.
- Local Residents May Take Over Shepperton Lot Variety; Los Angeles Vol. 268, Iss. 11, (25 October 1972): 31
- Talks on studios' future Barker, Dennis. The Guardian 12 April 1972: 10
- Boulting threat to halt films Barker, Dennis. The Guardian 19 Mar 1973: 1.
- Fight to keep film studios Our own Reporter. The Guardian 11 November 1972: 4.
- Snell Rolls 'Wicker Man' On Scot Sites For BL Variety; Los Angeles Vol. 268, Iss. 11, (25 October 1972): 31.
- Associated Portland lifts profit £0.8m. in half year Pritchard, Charles. The Irish Times 29 September 1972: 15.
- City comment The Guardian 9 November 1972: 15.
- Deeley p 96-97
- Deeley p 97
- Deeley p 105-106
- £1m. bid for studio likely The Irish Times 11 June 1975: 14.
- British money is suddenly big in Hollywood,'right up with Fox and Warner.' Mills, Bart. The Guardian 2 September 1977: 8.
- Acquisitionof B Lion The Guardian 19 May 1976: 18.
- The final fade-out for British Lion Barker, Dennis. The Guardian 14 May 1977: 2.
- Deeley, Michael (2009). Blade runners, deer hunters and blowing the bloody doors off: my life in cult movies. Pegasus Books. ISBN 9781605980386.