Although exhibition was Thompson’s main area of involvement in the film industry he was also involved in the rental business and even film production. Around 1913 he set himself up as a film renter as well as exhibitor. Given that he had, by then, ten cinemas and would have doubled that in another couple of years, being a renter had obvious advantages. Not only would it reduce the cost of procuring some films for his own venues, by cutting out the independent renter’s profit, he could also make money from renting to other exhibitors in the region. By 1914 he was running his rental business from offices in Middlesbrough and Newcastle,1 and by the following year he had also established offices. in Manchester and Leeds. This separate business grew quickly. Also as a renter he was better able to secure the best films for his venues as against his large venue competitors and these films could also set his venues apart from the smaller exhibitors who tried to cling to the continuous shows which had enabled them to make a profit in the early days but who were less profitable showing the new longer features.
In January 1916 Thompson merged his rental business with that of Thanhouser Limited, established film agents, to form the new rental company of Thompson-Thanhouser Films Company, with offices in Middlesbrough, Manchester, Leeds2, Newcastle and Shaftesbury Avenue, London. The benefit to Thompson was to have a greatly increased rental business that was now truly national. He did now have even more of an opportunity to exclude films he was offering for rent from his exhibitor competitors. For Thanhouser they got instant expansion in the North-East and the background information from a major exhibitor. Thompson disposed of his rental business in 1917.
Thompson also had an attraction to public office. As well as being a local Councillor and Alderman between 1912 and 1918 he became an officer of the Incorporated Association of Film Renters Limited in 1914 3. In 1914 Thompson was one of the vice-presidents of the CEA, which he had helped to set up in 1912 4. He remained on the Council as the northern delegate until 1927, when he resigned on a point of principle involving issues relating to the proposed boycott of renting from combined production, rental and exhibition companies. While he must have taken on these positions partly for the benefit of his business he does genuinely seem to have been regarded as having an altruistic streak and a wish to contribute to debate on the industry to which he had devoted the second half of his life.
1918 saw his first venture into film production, an area that he would have liked to develop further. This was a song-film, initially titled A Romany Lass. It was filmed locally and starred actors contracted to the Hippodrome, Middlesbrough. It was reissued in 1927 as Rilka or The Gypsy Queen. Gifford describes it as “Romance. Scotland. Colonel’s son conquers cowardice by fighting rival for gypsy.5” In 1928 at the time of the release of a new Thompson film production, this time by North of England Cinemas Limited, the local paper recalled the release and success of Rilka or The Gypsy Queen:
The success of ‘Rilka’ alone has been phenomenal, and one of the chief reasons for this was the fact that the vocalists … … are, from a musical standpoint, on a higher plane altogether than the average stage artiste.”6
However one of Thompson’s employees, “Mr C”, took a less enthusiastic view:
Well it was a bit amateurish you know, the actors were professionals that Mr Thompson had on at the Hippodrome, but the actual production was amateurish.7
Perhaps more than other films the experience of attending a song-film depended upon how good the singers were and accordingly it is understandable why there might be conflicting views of it. That new production was Neath Skies of Spain, also a song-film. It must surely be significant that the reissue of Rilka and the issue of Neath Skies of Spain came at the time that British “quota films” were required, perhaps ensuring them a ready market of exhibitors keen to comply with their statutory requirements for the exhibition of such films.