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Pathé, Gaumont and Seydoux: Pathe

Pathé

This page considers the Pathé group.


It covers -

  • introduction
  • Pathé
  • Natan and the Societe Nouvelle
  • Rivaud and Parretti
  • Seydoux
  • studies

The Gaumont group is profiled on the following page.

Introduction

The trajectory of the Pathé group is similar to that of the major Hollywood studios, albeit with a distinctly gallic flavour.

At the turn of last century Pathé was a major force in international cinema, with a sizable production arm in France and the US and exhibition-distribution operations on most continents. Prior to the outbreak of war in 1914 Pathé dominated the European market for motion picture cameras and projectors. That domination reflected its origins as an equipment manufacturer and its subsequent integration downstream into exhibition and production, alongside competitor Gaumont. Pathé also had a significant presence in music recording based on its early manufacture of gramophones.

The 'crisis of new technology' in the late-1920s - exacerbated by poor management and weak investor support - saw the two groups pass through a variety of hands, often in controversial circumstances, before coming under control of the extended Schlumberger-Seydoux family.

Along the way Pathé has been associated with asset strippers, media visionaries, the birth of French television, over-reaching entrepreneurs, satellite broadcasting and diverse conglomerates.

A chronology is here.

Pathé

Charles Pathé (1862-1957), a butcher's son who began his career as a travelling entertainer with the newfangled gramophone, subsequently moving into gramophone production and establishment of the Pathé record label.

He followed Melies and Lumiere into film exhibition and production. In 1896 with brothers Emile, Théophile and Jacques he formed the Pathé Freres company, concerned with films, gramophone manufacture and sound recordings. That year had seen the Lumieres' Cinematographe projector used for exhibitions in London, Vienna, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Malmo, Bucharest, Turin, Copenhagen, Rome, Belgrade, Lwow, St Petersburg, Mumbai and Helsinki. The first public motion picture projection in Australia had taken place at the Melbourne Opera House.

Demand for capital saw Pathé Freres go public as La Compagnie générale des phonographes, cinématographes et pellicules Pathé Frères in 1897. In 1902 - amid the 'patent wars' that bedevilled early growth of the film industry - Pathé acquired the Lumiere patents and greatly expanded its film processing facility at Vincennes, also experimenting with hand-coloured film - Pathécolor - and synchronisation of film and gramophone recordings.

Two years later it claimed a 12,000 title catalogue and opened distribution offices in Brussels, New York and Moscow. Pathé's overseas operations involved a network of separate distribution/manufacturing companies in most national markets, often involving local investors (particularly as the group moved from distribution to exhibition). These included Hispano Film (1906), Pathé-Russe (1907), Film d'Arte Italiano and Pathé-Britannia (1909), and Pathé-America (1910).

Attention has centred on Pathé's claims in 1908 to have made the first aerial film but the year was more important for foundation by Charles Pathé & Edmond Benoit-Levy of the upmarket Omnia cinema chain, since in the absence of vertical integration the big money was increasingly exhibition rather than production. At that time there were 100 cinemas in Paris, of which 25 (accounting for a higher percentage of ticket sales) were owned by Pathé.

By the end of 1909 Pathé controlled some 200 cinemas in France and Belgium, a base for international operations. It launched the Australian Animated Gazette newsreel in 1910 (West's Pictures bought out Pathé's Australian offshoot a year later) and in 1911 Pathé Weekly was promoted as the first US-wide newsreel. In 1912 Pathé released La Femme Fatale.

The War saw reduction of the group's manufacturing interests. It ceased production in the US in 1915 (with the US arm becoming Pathé Exchange) and accelerated sell-off of stakes in companies outside France. Kashii Film for example bought the Pathé interests in Japan in 1915. In 1918 the group was split into two parts: Pathé-Frères (gramophones and recordings) managed by Emile and Pathé-Cinéma (exhibition, distribution, production) managed by Charles.

Natan and the Societe Nouvelle

Pathé-Cinéma transferred its production and distribution operations to a new Pathé-Consortium-Cinéma company in 1920, with Charles Pathé reportedly declaring that film "wasn't profitable" and starting to liquidate his holdings. Pathé Exchange was sold in 1921 to a group led by broker Charles Merrill for 26 million francs. Control was acquired by plunger Joseph Kennedy in 1926 for US$2.9m after the Merrill group decided that building a large-scale exhibition arm would be too expensive. Kennedy subsequently merged his film interests with those of RCA to form RKO.

The group's UK presence was also rationalised. In 1927 the Pathé studios were sold to Eastman Kodak. The cinema and distribution arm remained independent - and arguably more profitable, despite intense competition from Gaumont and other groups and pressure to invest in sound systems or more broadly upgrade facilities. Exhibition operations were under the Paris-Consortium-Cinéma banner from 1928.

Controversial producer, financier and television pioneer Bernard Natan (1886-1942) gained control of the production and exhibition arm in 1929, merging Pathé Cinéma with his Rapid Film studio and processing operations to form Pathé-Natan. The new company subsequently acquired the Sociètè des Cinéromans from Jean Sapène, expanded into projector and electronics manufacturing, bought the Fornier cinema chain and built a number of theatres.

Disintegration of the group during the 1930s has variously been attributed to malfeasance by Natan, the Depression-era weakness of the French film industry after the introduction of talkies or manipulation by sharemarket speculators in conjunction with over-expansion by Natan.

Pathé was reorganised in 1943 as the Societe Nouvelle Pathé Cinema after acquisition by Adrien Ramauge, with studio operations responsible for works such as Les Enfants du Paradis. France's model of 'cultural exceptionalism' militated against the US split of production and exhibition operations.

Pathé survived the advent of television by emphasising distribution and production for television, although its exhibition and property interests were responsible for most revenue by the mid-1970s.

In 1970 Pathé joined Gaumont in a government-endorsed Groupement d'Intérêt Économique (GIE) for distribution to their exhibition chains and associates. The Pathé GIE competed with L'Union Générale de Cinématographie (UCG) - privatised 1971 - that centred on nationalised production houses and their cinemas. The Pathé-Gaumont GIE was dissolved in 1982 as part of changed cultural protection and competition policies.

Rivaud and Parretti

Pathé had by then come under control of the Rivaud Group conglomerate, subsequently acquired and dismantled by Bolloré. In 1989 Italian financier Giancarlo Parretti acquired 46.5% of Pathé as the springboard for his US$1.3 billion takeover of MGM/UA. He had earlier acquired the Cannon Group, which he confusingly rebadged as Pathe Communications Corporation.

The MGM/UA takeover dissolved, with the group subsequently being sold by Credit Lyonnais (his primary creditor) to Kirk Kerkorian and Australia's Seven Network.

The French government had restricted sale of Rivaud's remaining interests in Pathé, arguing that Pathé must remain French. Control passed to the Schlumberger dynasty's Chargeurs group.

Schlumberger

Schlumberger was founded as the Société de Prospection Electrique (SPE) by industrialist Paul Schlumberger and sons Conrad and Marcel in 1919. The family formed part of France's protestant business aristocracy, with major textile manufacturing and investment interests (eg in the Suez Canal through the Compagnie du canal de Suez). Members included author and Prime Minister François Guizot.

SPE commercialised insights that the electrical conductivity of subsurface rock formations would enable accurate mapping and thereby identification of oil, gas and ore deposits, with the first successful wireline log being developed in 1927. Marcel moved Schlumberger's headquarters to Houston in 1940, with its Americas and Middle East operations being managed by John de Menil, husband of Conrad's daughter Dominique and co-founder of the noted de Menil art collection. European operations were managed by René Seydoux, Marcel's son-in-law.

Acquisitions included 1959 with Forages et Exploitations Pétrolières (Forex) in 1959, Daystrom in 1961, electrical meter manufacturer Compagnie des Compteurs in 1971, Fairchild Camera & Instrument Corporation in 1979 and SEDCO in 1985. Schlumberger reportedly logged over 70% of the world's oil wells in 1981. As of 2003 it had sales of around US$13 billion. The extended family had a stake of around 15%.

The family's textile interests formed the heart of the Chargeurs conglomerate, which by the late 1960s encompassed wool treatment and spinning operations, shipping (Cie Maritime des Chargeurs Reunis, founded 1872), road freight, truck manufacturing, airlines (eg UTA and Aéromaritime), investments and property. Chargeurs had absorbed the Prouvost family's textile interests.

In 1996 the communications and media interests - Pathé SA - were spun off from Chargeurs, at that time headed by Jérôme Seydoux.

Seydoux

Under Seydoux's control the Pathé group encompassed film and video production, film distribution, cinemas and stakes in Murdoch-controlled British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB) and CanalSatellite.

Pathé had established La Cinq as a new national television channel, in partnership with Berlusconi's Fininvest, in 1985 but lost control after the 1986 elections when the new government voided the channel's 18 year contract. Pathé's 40% stake passed to Hersant, with Pathé-controlled Societé des Etudes et Participations (SEPC) eventually receiving compensation. Hersant and Berlusconi were unable to make the venture pay; La Cinq closed in 1992, despite financial support from Hachette.

Pathé acquired a controlling stake SA Investissements Press (centred on ailing French newspaper Libération) and Renn Productions during 1996, buying the Voyage cable channel in 1997 before gaining a controlling interest in AB Sport in 1998 and a minority stake in French football club Olympique Lyonnais in 1999. In the following year it acquired the rest of AB Sport (renamed Pathé Sport).

Pathé SA was bought by Vivendi in 2000 for US$2.59 billion. (Vivendi, with Canal+, had acquired a 20% stake in 1999). Acquisition centred on the BSkyB and CanalSatellite stakes. Most of the Pathé operations, along with the Pathé name, were resold to Seydoux for around €521 million.

The new group encompasses -

  • film and video production in France and the UK (Pathé Renn Production in France, Pathé Pictures and Pathé Entertainment in UK), inc 60% of Monagesque des Ondes (MDO)
  • film and video distribution and financing
  • cinemas (EuroPalaces SA)
  • 64% of SAIP (Liberation)
  • 34% of Olympique Lyonnais
  • cable television and associated internet channels - TMC, Comedie! (66%), Cuisine.tv (51%), AB Sport, Télé Sport (40%), Kiosque (20%), Histoire (30%) and Voyage
  • 60% of broadcaster Télé Monte Carlo
  • 42.5% of Gaumont-Pathé Archives (57.5% held by Gaumont)

Jérôme's brother Nicolas acquired control of Pathé competitor Gaumont in the mid-1970s.

In 2001 the Gaumont and Pathé cinema chains were merged as EuroPalaces SA: some 86 theatres (with 633 screens in France, 96 in the Netherlands, 13 in Switzerland). Competitor UGC has around 830 screens in France, the UK, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain.

Studies

There is no major English-language study of Chargeurs or the modern Pathé. Insights into the BSBH/BSkyB deals are provided by Matthew Horsman's Sky High (London: Orion 1998), Dished! The Rise and Fall of the British Satellite Broadcasting (London: Simon & Schuster 1991) by Peter Chippindale & Suzanne Franks and studies cited in the Murdoch and Pearson profiles.

For the early history of Pathé see Richard Abel's The Red Rooster Scare: Making Cinema American, 1900-1910 (Berkeley: Uni of California Press 1999), The Ciné Goes to Town: French Cinema 1896-1914 (Berkeley: Uni of California Press 1994) and French Cinema: The First Wave 1915-1929 (Princeton: Princeton Uni Press 1984). A perspective is provided by Wall Street to Main Street: Charles Merrill and Middle Class Investors (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 1999) by Edwin Perkins and Movies & Money: Financing the American Film Industry (Norwood: Ablex 1982) by Janet Wasko.

Histoire de la politique du cinéma français: La Troisième République, 1895-1940 (Paris: Pierre Lherminier 1969) and Histoire de la politique du cinéma français: Entre deux Républiques, 1940-1946 (Paris: Pierre Lherminier 1977) by Paul Leglise are of particular value in understanding state intervention. Hollywood & Europe: Economics, Culture, National Identity 1945-1995 (London: BFI 1998) edited by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith & Steven Ricci is of interest for subsequent years.

A revisionist view of Natan is provided by Gilles Willems's 1999 paper The origins of Pathé-Natan.

For Schlumberger see Ken Auletta's upbeat The Art of Corporate Success: The Story of Schlumberger (New York: Putnam 1984), written before large-scale deacquisitions such as disposal of Fairchild Semiconductor.