Jean Desmet and the Development of Film Distribution in Netherlands

Jean Desmet was one of the first Dutch film distributors. He initially earned his money as a fairground and travelling cinema operator, but that changed in 1909. The permanent cinema had cautiously made its entry into the Dutch film world, and Desmet was among the vanguard of a new professional group: the cinema owners.

In Rotterdam, he opened the Cinema Parisien in March 1909. The next year, he opened his second cinema in Amsterdam, also called Cinema Parisien. On the top floor of this building, he set up his company, Internationaal Filmverhuurkantoor Jean Desmet. Desmet then proceeded to open more cinemas in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and other cities in the Netherlands. Eventually, Jean Desmet as a cinema owner would manage more than ten cinemas. These were partly run by his brothers Theo and Mathijs, his sister Rosine, and other relatives.

the leasing of film programs

The arrival of the cinema as a permanent place for regular film screenings was accompanied by an almost equally important development: the emergence of independent brokers who leased or sold films. This practice had already existed – in the Netherlands, the father-and-son film company Nöggerath formed the centre of the film industry – but with the arrival of the cinema, the demand for films increased, and the film industry boomed.

Initially, films were mostly sold, but gradually lease agreements came to prevail. It was customary to lease entire film programs, which usually consisted of several short films.

In March 1910, Desmet for the first time leased a film program from the Westdeutsche Film-Börse in Krefeld, Germany. He then showed these films in his cinemas in Amsterdam and Rotterdam. In October, he began to purchase film programs like these, which he would screen in his own cinemas, but would also lease out to others. He soon built up a regular clientele of cinemas that he provided with new film programs every week.

He bought between 2.5 and three thousand meters of film every week (equivalent to 2 to 2.5 hours of film). He continued to do this even after switching from the Film-Börse to its competitor, the Deutsche Film-Gesellschaft in Cologne. Both markets were focused on resale: the so-called ‘Zweitverwertungsmarkt’.

These programs very much catered to Desmet’s customers, which were mostly new cinemas with little experience in programming films

Monopoly films

Desmet changed his strategy starting in 1912, and began to focus on purchasing individual films. Desmet was hereby following the international developments, particularly in Germany, which is where he initially bought his films. The emergence of the full-length feature film and the introduction of the monopoly system that came with it were the next major changes in how the films were screened.

In the monopoly system, it was not only the films that were sold, but also their screening rights. This made the screening of these films much more exclusive. The films were no longer acquired via intermediary brokers, but instead were purchased directly from the producers or official representatives. The prices of such films were high – in some cases more than ten thousand guilders for the sale and screening rights in the Netherlands – but the income from the box office was also correspondingly high.

the rise of the Elite Cinema

In the wake of this development, there was also a new kind of cinema: the so-called 'Elite Cinema’: luxurious, and often with its own orchestras for musical accompaniment, and with exclusive programming. One of the first elite cinemas was the Amsterdam Union Theater, where the films featuring the Danish actress Asta Nielsen were first shown.

With the Cinema Palace in Amsterdam and the Cinema Royal in Rotterdam, Desmet added two more luxury cinemas to his empire.

We can see these changes reflected in Desmet’s purchasing policy. Beginning in 1912, the focus shifted to the purchase of individual films, and Desmet no longer bought his films at the film fairs in western Germany, but instead from producers or agents in Brussels and Berlin.

Most of the films were still short comedies and melodramas, but much like his colleagues, Desmet also bought and leased long monopoly films such as Le rançon du bonheur (De Prijs van het Geluk) by the French company Gaumont, and Richard Wagner by Germany’s Messter.


The times soon changed. The first generation of distributors, whose chief proponents were Desmet, Gildemeijer, Nöggerath, and Pathé, faced new competitors and new strategies. A practice from the United States became increasingly popular, whereby distributors, in exchange for exclusive screening rights, were compelled to purchase certain films and to give up some of the profits. This style of working left no more room for the independent distributors, who got their films from multiple vendors. Newcomers like the wealthy Barnstijn and Tuschinski were willing to take much bigger financial risks, and they developed new and aggressive publicity campaigns.

Plus, the First World War had led to a major shakeup in the existing film-distribution infrastructure, where films had traditionally been sold via intermediary brokers. This was the reason given to explain why the first generation of distributors had to make way for their successors. Desmet withdrew from the film industry almost entirely. He quit the film trade, sold almost all of his cinemas, and went into the real estate business. Amsterdam’s Cinema Parisien was the only cinema that he still owned when he died.


The interior of Amsterdam’s Cinema Parisien, dating from 1924, was reinstalled in the former Filmmuseum in the Vondelpark Pavilion, after the original Parisien had been dismantled in 1987. In the new EYE film museum on the Amsterdam IJ, the smallest cinema has been designed based on motifs from the Parisien. And the original interior has been rebuilt into one of the cinemas in the Amsterdam cinema complex De Hallen, which opened in the fall of 2014.


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