ABC Cinemas was established in 1927 by solicitor John Maxwell by merging three smaller Scottish cinema circuits. It became a wholly owned cinema subsidiary of British International Pictures when it was merged with the production arm of British National Studios, which had been formed by Maxwell in 1926.
Mention the name John Maxwell to most cinema enthusiasts and it would be doubtful if they could answer who he was, yet his contribution to British cinema exhibition was immense. Without doubt he was the most powerful cinema mogul of the formative years of cinema in the UK. Like most of the men behind the large cinema circuits of the 20s & 30s he was a financier. Originally Maxwell had built up a thriving solicitor practice in his home town of Glasgow. It was through his legal expertise that his attention was drawn to the potential of cinemas as he arranged legal contracts for some local cinemas deals. In 1912 he made his first move into cinema exhibition when he acquired his first cinema. Within two years he had added ten existing or new sites into his portfolio. By forming partnerships he was able to increase further his modest chain of cinemas to 20 and brought them under the heading of Scottish Cinema and Variety Theatres Ltd. In the early 1920s John Maxwell co-founded Waverley Films which was a regional film distributor for Wardour Films in London. Waverley Film Distributors quickly became the largest distributor in Scotland and was destined to take control of Wardour Films.
After this success Maxwell moved to London in the mid-20s with a view to expand his interest in the film business. He was aware that he needed to move into film production itself and this he did within just two years of moving to the south. In 1927 he took control of the newly built British National Studios at Elstree when its founders ran into money troubles.
Within months of the acquisition he and his fellow directors had formed a new company from British National, rebranding it as British International Pictures. He took an active interest in recruiting many of the talents that would be required in making the studio a success. John Maxwell had now completed his plan of producing films, distributing, and showing them in his own cinemas. The financial reward was substantial, and unlike his competitors, Maxwell relied less on assistance from the banks. He was driven by numbers, and so it was important to him that his cinema exhibition was to continue to expand further. A pain in his side was the GB circuit that was operated by the cunning Ostrer brothers. They had built up an impressive lineup of large quality cinemas around the country and too were involved in film production and distribution. The three brothers were active in running the company that controlled Gaumont cinemas. They had other business activities and distractions that left them often struggling financially. John Maxwell was well aware of this weakness. He wanted above all to outwit the Ostrers and take control of their company which would give him a giant share of UK cinema exhibition. Both ABC & Gaumont had complex sections of their businesses that had involved take overs and deals forged with other companies.
During 1936 Maxwell paid 600.000 for a large shareholding in GB (250.000 non-voting shares), with an understanding to buy in during a five year period to purchase 5.100 voting shares for a further 900.000. He was soon to realize that he had been outsmarted by the Ostrers as the shares in question were held by 20th Century Fox who would not sell. Furious, Maxwell dragged the case before the courts and lost. In retreat, his attention was now to build up the numbers of screens and overtake the struggling Ostrers. He was well aware of others, like Oscar Deutsch, who through clever local financing was able to rapidly open purpose built Odeon cinemas. Maxwell tended to follow Odeon new builds in towns and delighted in giving Odeon completion with his large, opulent new cinemas that his leading architect Willam R. Glen had designed. Unlike Deutsch, John Maxwell did not have a brand name that he could place on individual cinemas. He favoured names such as –Regal, Ritz, or Savoy followed by ABC. The sleek, but plain interiors of Odeons were not to Maxwell’s taste. The interiors of his new cinemas were lavish, which reflected the wealth of the ABC and its owner. As he acquired more screens through take overs and his aggressive cinema building he was now on his way to being able to boast the largest cinema organization in the UK.
Although extremely interested in securing the best sites in a town and micro managing the budget for that particular cinema, John Maxwell tended to shun the opening day, delegating the honour to a regional manager and a local civic dignitary. He could see no advantage in extravagant and expensive openings, opting for a normal business day. Economically secure, Maxwell sat back and waited for lots of his competitors to run into money troubles while building cinemas that they were over committed to. His offer to buy them out of their financial plight was often accepted.
During the thirties it grew rapidly by acquisitions and an ambitious building programme under the direction of chief architect W.R.Glen, who had been appointed in about 1929 and maintained a distinct house style. Existing cinemas which could not be re-modelled were usually operated as separate circuits. In 1937, the parent company, BIP was renamed Associated British Picture Corporation (ABPC).
Following his death in 1940, his widow Catherine sold a large number of shares to Warner Brothers, who eventually became the largest shareholders and able to exercise control, though ABPC was separately quoted on the London Stock Exchange. By 1945 it operated over 400 cinemas (usually called the ABC Savoy, ABC Ritz or ABC Regal) and was second only to Rank’s Odeon and Gaumont chains. By the close of the 1950s ABC had started re-branding most cinemas as simply ABC and dropped the linked names. It began an aggressive programme of cinema closures.
John Maxwell was a very successful Scottish lawyer, who became as successful cinema owner and studio proprietor of British International Pictures, which later became Associated British Picture Corporation Ltd based at Elstree. This studio I am told was nick named the porridge factory because of its Scottish connections. Maxwell was born in1879 and passed away in 1940, just a year before Deustch.
He became involved in the film business in 1912. He is quoted as saying that he only had a slight interest in the film world, which grew. He goes on to say that law didn’t interest him as he had originally thought. At one point he intended to become a journalist. This he says did not call for enough of the organising abilities, which he wanted to use.
In 1918 he was interested in film renting for Waverley Films Ltd, which eventually merged with Wardour Films Ltd. They later merged with British International Pictures Ltd. Maxwell said that Waverley Films was the nucleus from which British International Pictures had grown. Maxwell formed a chain of cinemas called Associated British Cinemas Ltd, showing apart from American product the films made at their studios in Elstree, which Maxwell had acquired in 1927 at cost price from British National Pictures and it became British International Pictures (BIP).
Associated British Cinemas was formed in January 1928 as a private company with a share capital of fifty thousand pounds. In 1928 they took over Savoy cinemas Ltd, Favourite cinemas Ltd and Scottish Cinema and Variety Theatres Ltd. Also at that time building work work commenced on four valuable sites in Birmingham, Brighton, Dublin and Edinburgh. Directors of ABC were John Maxwell, Sir Clement Kinloch-Cooke, Jerome Denny Bright and John Edward Pearce.