The Motion Picture Distributors Association of Australia and the conversion of Sir Victor Wilson

Australian cinema industries have always looked to the United States for the innovation of products and practices which can be put into place in Australia once they have been trialled upstream in the marketing process. Just as the US serves as a first market for international film releases in which an unstable commodity is given a more or less reliable value, Hollywood’s business practices have also served as a guide to the Australian industry.

The Motion Picture Distributors Association (MPDA) was formed in Australia in 1924, within two years of the formation of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA) in the US. The bulk of the membership in both countries was constituted by the same companies – or more precisely, by Hollywood majors and their Australian subsidiaries. Both bodies were initiated by industries under significant political pressure at the time, and both responded by appointing as president an ex-cabinet member who went on to serve for a significant period. The appointment of Sir Victor Wilson to head the MPDA in September, 1926 was predictably greeted with comparisons to ex-Postmaster General, Will Hays. [1] Wilson had been elected as a Nationalist Party senator for South Australia in 1919 and had been appointed as an honorary Minister in the Bruce-Page government in 1922, a position confirmed when he became Minister of Markets and Migration in 1924. [2]

I begin by citing these similarities between the two organisations as a point of departure rather than a point of conclusion. The questions I wish to pose, through an analysis of the formation of the MPDA, have to do with the extent to which Australian cultural institutions simply follow models established elsewhere. The motion picture industry in Australia has always stood at the centre of arguments such as these; specifically in the charge that films have “Americanized” Australian culture. An introduction to the priorities which guided the formation of the MPDA and an analysis of the tactics pursued by its leaders, lead to a more nuanced reformulation of these debates.

The idea for the Australian cinema industry to form an association led by a notable figure, or industry czar, predates the appointment of Hays in the US. During 1921 Everyones contains much discussion on the need for a Grand Council under an industry leader (“a big man for a big job”, “a field marshal and commander in chief”). [3]  The discussion alternated between the need for a trade body and the need to elect members of the film industry directly into parliaments. This latter strategy was based not on a model drawn from the US, but on the British situation, where A.E. Newbould, the president of the Cinematograph Exhibitors Association, had been elected to Britain’s House of Commons in March, 1919. [4]

This example is instructive for two reasons. The first is to remind us that the Australian cinema industries looked to Britain as well as the US for their industrial strategies. Indeed, the domination of Australian screens by the US can be seen as an echo of the British situation at the time. The second is that Newbould’s position as head of an exhibitors’ association showed that if the cinema industries wanted to speak with a united voice, they first had to overcome internal divisions. The most significant of these in Australia, as in Britain, was that between the exhibition and distribution sectors.

The need to overcome these divisions and to initiate an engagement with the institutions of political power would have been clear to those in the cinema industries. Agitation against the cinema was endemic across the political spectrum within Australia throughout the 1920s. To the right, the cinema was a challenge to the traditional bases of social authority, and to the left, the cinema was yet another tool of exploitative foreign capitalists. It is worth noting that prominent critics of the motion picture industry in federal parliament, were calling for a Royal Commission into its operations as early as 1921. [5]  The prominence of Hollywood films in Australia in the years following World War 1 brought into play a wider set of trade considerations beyond those simply concerned with film. As Britain attempted to hold its ground against the rising tide of U.S. trade following the war, it tried to consolidate its international trade position by using its Empire as a trade bloc. Australia, thus, became an important arena in this international trade battle, and Hollywood films were the most visible commodities in this struggle.

The political pressures produced by the rise of Hollywood films operated in a significantly different context in Australia than in the US, and this ensured that the Australian MPDA operated in a different way to the American MPPDA. Part of the impetus for the formation of the MPPDA was the need to contain political pressures through a self-regulatory body in order to avoid government intervention. Government intervention in Australia was unavoidable simply because the vast majority of films originated overseas. The moment films crossed borders into Australia, they came into the orbit of the Customs Department, which was the primary institution regulating Australia’s trade and tariff policies as well as its censorship. Prior to major enquiries such as the Senate Select Committee in 1926 and the Royal Commission in 1927, regular Tariff Board inquiries had provided the main political forums for discussion of film policy.

The Motion Picture Distributors Association met for the first time on August 25, 1924. The formation of the Association came in response to the significant transformation the cinema business was undergoing. There was significant upward pressure on distribution rentals during the preceding year as American distributors continued to establish their own direct distribution operations in Australia and used special long-run attractions as a means of shifting the entire industry to a higher-paying basis. Here I want to dispute the common idea that Americans cemented their international position by dumping films cheaply and undercutting local production. [6]  The Americans entered the Australian market to charge more, but they offered local exhibitors chances to make more, by standardising high class supplies which encouraged more efficient investment in higher-paying exhibition venues.

Right from the start of the MPDA in 1924, some members saw that they were to be engaged in highly political struggles and needed a recognised figure to lead them. They cast around around for prominent figures from the non-Labor side of federal parliament who might have suffered political reverses under the Bruce-Page government. The second meeting of the Association minuted suggestions that ex-Prime Minister Billy Hughes be approached, or failing that, Sir Walter Massy-Greene, the Minister for Trade and Customs from 1919 to 1922. [7]

These approaches yielded nothing, perhaps because they offered little. The ambitions of the MPDA members were clearly in advance of the financial commitment they were prepared to make in order to ensure the political power of their association. The entire budget for the MPDA was only £3000 per year at this time. [8] Given these circumstances, the Association finally settled on Voltaire Molesworth as its head. Molesworth was a journalist who, as a child, had been taken to Paraguay as part of William Lane’s attempt to establish a utopian socialist colony in the wake of the failed shearers’ strikes of the 1890s. Molesworth was elected as a state Labor parliamentarian in 1920 though he split from the Party after controversial Premier Jack Lang’s ascension to power in 1925, and he was later to act as publicity director for the conservative Nationalist Party. [9]  Molesworth continued to edit the Daily Guardian during his time with the MPDA and the Association paid him only £10 per week and expenses. [10]  The early urgency that saw some MPDA members envisage an ex-Prime Minister as their leader seems to have been set aside as the distributors’ need for economy held the upper hand over their need for strong political leadership. The MPDA remained a trade association not yet ready to transform itself into a powerful political lobby group.

Molesworth’s appointment quickly ran into political trouble as Herbert Pratten, the Minister of Customs, sent word that Molesworth was “not acceptable to him as a delegate” in discussions with the government. [11]  With the enforced absence of Molesworth, the MPDA’s initial delegation to Pratten had been led by Australasian’s distribution representative, Joe Lipman, whose appointment immediately split the two arms of the cinema industry. William Howe, the president of the Federated Picture Showman’s Association, disputed Lipman’s credentials and insisted that exhibitors be represented at future meetings. [12] (Lipman had previously incensed exhibitors by floating the idea of a dual censorship standard which would see children excluded from some screenings. [13] )

For all the talk of combines within the film industry, serious tensions were endemic. Broadly speaking, the distribution and exhibition sectors had common political interests in protecting themselves against government regulation and increased taxation. On a day to day basis, however, the two sectors had an adversarial relation, when it came to vital issues such as theatre bookings, the negotiation of rentals, and payment of outstanding accounts. Distributors and exhibitors maintained their communication over these everyday matters through a parallel body, the Film Renters Association of Australia, to which all members of the MPDA belonged and which dealt with the maintenance of smooth financial relations between distribution and exhibition. Company secretaries sat on the Film Renters Association, while General Managers made political policy at MPDA meetings.

If the MPDA wanted to maintain its position as a unified lobby group to represent the industry, it would need leadership acceptable to different sectors within the industry as well as to the government. That leadership would have to come from outside the current distribution sector. Throughout December 1924, William Howe, the most prominent leader of exhibition interests, maintained his pressure over this issue, publicly welcoming the formation of the MPDA, but warning that it needed “a Big Man to fight our battles.” [14]

Where did production stand in all this? The US MPPDA operated as an industry body for a broadly vertically integrated industry intent on managing its political problems, some of which stemmed from production. The production sector in Australia was much more isolated with its political lobby group, the Australian Picture Producers Association, led by Franklyn Barrett adopting an antagonistic stance to the distribution and exhibition sectors, alleging a conspiracy against Australian production. [15] At other times, Barrett and Arthur Shirley tried to conciliate exhibitors by calling for production subsidies from tariff increases or general revenue rather than for measures directed specifically against the exhibitor, such as a ticket tax. [16]

Under the increasing pressures of another federal Tariff Board enquiry, the NSW tax increases initiated by the Lang government, and mounting calls for a Royal Commission, the MPDA began searching for what its records refer to as an “All-Australian Leader” in July, 1926. This was no small decision, as it necessitated a 100% increase in affiliation fees. The Association declared itself willing “to meet this obligation, providing a gentleman with the necessary qualifications and status could be obtained.” [17]   The MPDA had, in effect, recognised the need to transform itself from a relatively small trade body into a major national lobby group. Five names were mentioned as candidates for the leadership position, although the only one minuted was war hero, Sir John Monash. [18] By August it was clear that the ex-Minister for Markets and Migration, Sir Victor Wilson, was frontrunner for the job. [19]  The appointment was immediately touted as a prestigious one. All trade ads were henceforth required to carry the label “Member of the MPDA, Sir Victor Wilson, President.” [20] Wilson’s starting salary was £2500 per year rising to £3000 per year – a huge leap from Voltaire Molesworth’s tenner each week. [21]

The appointment necessitated no less remarkable a transformation on Wilson’s part. In September 1922, when the Bruce Government attempted to exempt tickets under one shilling from the Entertainments Tax – a move strongly lobbied for by the cinema industry – opposition in the Senate had been led by none other than Wilson, arguing that “Picture shows have in many instances become a curse to this country….They are a form of entertainment which has been shockingly abused….Picture shows are positively luxuries.” [22]

While Wilson’s position and background were compared to those of Hays in the US, significantly different characteristics were attributed to him. Where Hays had to publicly personify a system of self-censorship, Wilson had to represent a much smaller constituency, which would defend against the censors. Rather than painting Wilson as a stern moralist in the line of Hays, trade paper Everyones‘ sketch of him stressed that he “drinks his whisky, swears when he has to, smokes his pipe, looms cheerfully across a table and speaks our language.” [23] Wilson’s steak and whisky consumption were considered so significant by editor Gayne Dexter that he repeated this information the following week. [24] The Australian Dictionary of Biography makes similar reference to Wilson’s “bluff and breezy personality” and even cites the Prime Minister, Stanley Bruce’s description of him as “a typical Australian.” [25] Wilson is connoted in Dexter’s promotional pieces by his excessively male qualities. His common sense and his maleness went together. One produces the other, and together, they represented a reproof to the feminine agitation against the cinema represented by many organisations such as the National Council of Women, and by those who were pushing for a woman on the Censorship Board. Wilson was promoted as the voice of male common sense, relegating criticisms of the industry to the margins of political and industrial discourse where women’s voices existed.

In its dealings with the US, the MPDA was inevitably a contradictory beast. One of its earliest directives was: “the exchanges should rephrase any line [in inter-titles] containing objectionable American phrasing, and also themselves cut any action that might lead itself to the interpretation that it was Americanising Australia.” [26] Within two weeks of this directive, however, John W. Hicks, the American manager of Paramount’s Australian subsidiary, was suggesting that the MPDA formally affiliate with the MPPDA. [27] Hicks was particularly insensitive to the political need for distributors to downplay the American connection. In June 1926, he was trying to arrange local publication of Calvin Coolidge’s comments on film censorship. [28] In February, 1927 he was still stressing in the MPDA Minutes, the need for direct lines of communication with Hays. [29] While there was some justification for this, as the MPDA communicated reports on Australian censorship standards to Hollywood producers via the Hays Office, it was a highly sensitive relation given the growing charges of a local cartel directed from the United States.

The MPDA existed in the space between a cultural Americanisation, which was politically contentious and was to be disavowed at all times, and an industrial Americanisation, seen as common sense within business. The distinction was a difficult one to maintain. Wilson’s value included his non-American-ness, and what the Prime Minister described as his Australian typicality – the typicality of the male power elite of his day. Tactically, Wilson’s role was to present this “typical” Australian face for the organisation, which involved maintaining a degree of distance from the organisation he was paid so well to represent.

Wilson’s testimony to the Royal Commission into the motion picture industry is a significant example of these tactics in action. [30] As the most public defender of the status quo (most of the other distribution executives who sat on the board of the MPDA gave their initial evidence in camera), Wilson’s primary job was to make himself a hard target, to represent the industry in his impeccably establishment personality, but to know nothing of its detail when confronted with specifics. (“Members of the association take care that they do not tell one another too much about their business.”) [31]  His testimony is worth investigating for its contradictions, which reverberate through Australian cinema to the present day. Wilson was among the first witnesses to give evidence to the Royal Commission, one of whose terms of reference was to report on accusations of a combine dominating the Australian cinema and directing a conspiracy against Australian and, perhaps more importantly, British film. Belief in such a combine existed for many years, with Australasian Films providing the first model of such villainy. With the decline of Australasian as the site of monopsony power in distribution and exhibition, the MPDA – the trade association of the (mostly) American distributors – became the best candidate to take over this mantle. Wilson used all his prestige and stature to make his association appear to be very small and modest: “All we can do is to exercise moral suasion. That is my job.” [32]

Wilson repeatedly stated that he wanted to encourage Australian film production:

Question 672 (Senator Grant): And you would welcome the production of more pictures of a suitable character in Australia?

Answer (Wilson): Certainly. I would do everything I possibly could to help it. [33]

He began his evidence by proudly claiming a clause inserted into his contract with the MPDA aimed at “fostering the production of Australian-made pictures of a high-class standard.” [34] However he also maintained that he knew nothing about production and that, furthermore, it wasn’t his business to know anything about it:

Question 794 (Senator Forde): Therefore really nothing has been done by your association, or by you as president of it, to encourage…the production of films in Australia?

Answer (Wilson): Not in a practical form, I do not see how we could do anything. [35]

The continued efforts of the Commissioners to draw out his views on the prospects for Australian production were part of a longstanding tradition in the regulation of Australian cinema industries where all issues have to be related to a primary question: how can we get Australian films made? The enduring contradiction is that the most commercially central segments of the industry (distribution and exhibition) have no direct interest in this question.

When pressed on this issue, Wilson moved between two widely different notions of the role of cinema. When discussing the activities of the MPDA, he continually stressed that the social function of film was entertainment. However when he discussed Australian film production, his main emphasis was on film’s potentially positive role in social education and propaganda. Wilson’s professed moment of conversion from his 1922 denunciation of film as luxury was his involvement in the Australian pavilion at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1923 when films from the Know Your Own Country series were screened. [36]  In his testimony to the Royal Commission, Wilson made much of films like this, in order to move debate about Australian production away from feature-length fiction films. Australian film production was thus tacitly relegated to an economically marginal role as educator.

In Australia, as in the Britain, the long history of government-sponsored documentary production can be seen as a compromise formation capable of reconciling this contradiction. On one hand, it served the economic interests of the dominant distribution and exhibition sectors in maintaining a continuity of foreign supply within the mainstreams of entertainment cinema. At the same time it provided a place in the margins where Australian production could exist, and even be praised, by those people who had an interest in ensuring that it didn’t interfere with the viability of that entertainment cinema.

The political utility of documentary was that it could also be used as a defence against those who criticised entertainment cinema as a luxury. Cultural nationalist demands for local production could thus be reconciled with the kind of anti-cinema positions which Wilson had displayed in 1922 and which were still prevalent within both the right and the left of Australian politics. Wilson’s anti-cinema position in 1922, that the cinema was a luxury, remained a widespread one. The Prime Minister Stanley Bruce resurrected it during the 1929 federal elections, citing his shame at seeing people queuing outside picture palaces in times of economic depression. [37] In political contexts in which the cinema was a potential site of government revenue, it was commonly deprecated as a luxury (like alcohol and tobacco) to which sin taxes should properly be applied.

The educational function of cinema was a handy defence for Wilson against this type of logic. He could make out the case that films were not like other industries because of their potential to influence people towards nationally-defined ends:

Question 897 (Senator Duncan): Other industries are helped straight out by protective duties?

Answer (Wilson): That is true, but other industries do not affect the general progress of a country from a propaganda point of view as films do. [38]

At other times, however, he was at pains to maintain the analogy between cinema industries and other forms of production, criticising his chief antagonist, Senator Guthrie for demanding restriction on the business activities of cinemas that he wouldn’t dare call for in relation to the car industry. [39]

The Motion Picture Distributors Association of Australia was broadly modelled on the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association of America just as the Australian cinema industries were, and still are, based on exploiting products and ideas from the American “first market.” This is not, however, an adequate description as the Australian organisation had to function with a different internal constituency and in a different political context.

Everything changes and nothing changes, and we can also see many continuities stemming from Sir Victor Wilson’s testimony to the Royal Commission. Recent debates over the place of film and television in the negotiation of a free trade treaty with the United States have highlighted the continuing gap between views of the cinema as an economic institution based on local exploitation of high value foreign production, the cinema as a luxury with relatively little local utility as a productive sphere, and the cinema as a cultural institution which is ascribed all kinds of educative and nationalist functions. We might still read Australian film production as the search for niches which can function to reconcile these contradictory positions.


[1] Everyones, September 8, 1926, 4.
[2] Malcolm Saunders, “Sir Reginald Victor Wilson” Australian Dictionary of Biography, (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 19901) Volume 12, 530-531.
[3] Everyones, March 2, 1921, 11; June 29, 1921, 3.
[4] The Bioscope, March 20, 1919, 4.
[5] Everyones, August 3, 1921, 11.
[6] An example of this is John Tulloch’s claim that “the huge size of the US market allowed for economies of scale so that Australian exhibitors in the 1920s (and Australian television companies today) have been able to get films and television programmes at costs far below equivalent Australian-produced material.” John Tulloch, Australian Cinema: Industry, Narrative and Meaning (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1982) 16.
[7] Motion Picture Distributors Association of Australia minutes of meetings September 1924 – May 31, Document Collection, File Number 484350, ScreenSound Australia (hereafter MPDA Minutes) September 30, 1924.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Peter Spearitt, “Voltaire Molesworth” Australian Dictionary of Biography (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1990) Volume 10, 539.
[10] MPDA Minutes, October 29, 1924.
[11] MPDA Minutes, December 9, 1924.
[12] Everyones, November 5, 1924, 23.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Everyones, December 31, 1924, 3.
[15] Everyones, February 18, 1925, 5.
[16] Everyones, February 25, 1925, 16.
[17] MPDA Minutes, July 7, 1926.
[18] MPDA Minutes, July 21, 1926.
[19] MPDA Minutes, August 25, 1926. This meeting unanimously approved a motion to offer the position to Wilson.
[20] MPDA Minutes, September 29, 1926.
[21] MPDA Minutes, August 3, 1926
[22] Hansard, Second Session of the Eighth Parliament, Volume C (September 21, 1922) 2500.
[23] Everyones, September 15, 1926, 23.
[24] Everyones, September 22, 1926, 5.
[25] Saunders, 530.
[26] MPDA Minutes, November 25, 1924.
[27] MPDA Minutes, December 9, 1924.
[28] MPDA Minutes, June 2, 1926.
[29] MPDA Minutes, February 9, 1927.
[30] Royal Commission into the Moving Picture Industry in Australia, minutes of evidence (hereafter R.C. Minutes) 3 – 21. The Commission began taking evidence on June 2, 1927. Wilson was the tenth witness to give evidence from June 7 to June 8 in Melbourne.
[31] R.C. Minutes, 18.
[32] R.C. Minutes, 11.
[33] R.C. Minutes
, 12.
[34] R.C. Minutes, 3.
[35] R.C. Minutes, 16.
[36] R.C. Minutes, 13 – 14.
[37] Everyones, July 3, 1929, 4.
[38] R.C. Minutes, 19.
[39] R.C. Minutes, 6 – 7 & 15.

Created on: Friday, 30 April 2004 | Last Updated: 30-Apr-04.

About the Author

Mike Walsh

About the Author

Mike Walsh

Mike Walsh is Senior Lecturer in Screen and Media at Flinders University. He holds a PhD from the Communication Arts Department of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a contributing editor to national arts magazine RealTime and Metro.View all posts by Mike Walsh →