Feb 8, 2017

EB Films

Screen logo 1952. 
Since I recounted some of this history of Encyclopædia Britannica Films in class, here are some fleshed out details.

The anthology Learning with the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States, ed. Devin Orgeron, Marsha Orgeron, and Dan Streible (Oxford University Press, 2012) includes this sidebar. Listed as Table 3.

Encyclopaedia Britannica Films, Inc.

Among the many producers of classroom films, Encyclopaedia Britannica Films was perhaps the most successful, launching at the beginning of the boom period for educational reels. Hundreds of schools and libraries used the company’s productions -- which numbered up to one thousand titles.
The film corporation’s relationship to the redoubtable printed Encyclopædia Britannica obviously allowed it instant name recognition and authority. The encyclopedia, first published in Edinburgh in 1768, but was acquired and published by American firms from 1901. In 1928, the Sears Roebuck company bought the publishing brand, selling it to ad executive, philanthropist, and University of Chicago vice president William Benton in 1943. He maintained ownership until his death in 1973; thereafter a foundation bearing his name, and run by his son Charles, managed the company until 1996.

Upon buying Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Benton simultaneously created its film production-distribution subsidiary. Although unable to persuade the University of Chicago to be a full partner, he provided the financing that made it part owner. To launch Encyclopaedia Britannica Films, Inc. at full strength, Benton simply acquired two of the most influential entities in the educational film business. From Western Electric, he bought Erpi Classroom Films, Inc., which included production facilities and a large library of films. Benton also convinced George Eastman’s company to donate the Eastman Teaching Films collection to the university, Thus EBF began with more than 500 titles to build upon. In an industry known for marginal economic status, Benton made the motion picture operation into a viable, large-scale business -- buying out the University of Chicago’s share in 1952.

However, EBF was not simply built to exploit these assets. Its productions established a reputation for quality, both technical and educational. Its success was also attributable in part to a large sales and support team that visited schools frequently.

In 1966, near the height of the boom in educational film, the company became Encyclopaedia Britannica Educational Corporation (EBEC), producing and marketing other audiovisual media for schools -- filmstrips, supporting texts, and eventually video and Web-based media.

Financier Jacob [Jacqui] Safra bought the ailing corporation in 1996, creating Encyclopædia Britannica Holding S.A. Copies of most of the original Britannica films continue to be sold on video.

Sources: “Britannica Films,” Time, Apr. 24, 1944; “Help on Celluloid,” Time, Apr. 29, 1957;
“History of Encyclopædia Britannica,” Jan. 2010, http://corporate.britannica.com. Also, Kenneth Kaye, “40th Anniversary of Encyclopedia Britannica Films and Its Predecessor Companies, 1928-1968,” unpublished ms. (1968), provided by Charles Benton, who commissioned this study while president of EBEC.

-- Dan Streible

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