This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981
William Alfred Gibson (1869-1929), film producer and businessman, was born in London, son of William Gibson, soldier, and his wife Matilda, née Day. He attended Ilford College, Essex, and migrated to Australia while a teenager. With Presbyterian forms on 17 November 1898 at Albert Park, Melbourne, he married Annabella Kirk; they had a son and a daughter. Gibson worked as a chemist in the firm of William Johnson & Son of St Kilda, and supplied chemicals to some of the first film exhibitors in Melbourne. In 1900 he bought a projector and films from one of his clients, and in partnership with William Johnson's son, Millard, he began to screen films for the public. Huge crowds were attracted and soon the firm of Johnson & Gibson bought other 'biograph' machines, engaged staff, and expanded their operations until they were presenting some forty shows in and around Melbourne. Except for some local scenic items, all their films were imported.
In 1906 Johnson and Gibson joined the theatrical entrepreneurs, John and Nevin Tait, to produce a dramatic film, The Story of the Kelly Gang. By this time, Johnson and Gibson had become experts in photography and film processing, and they were responsible for technical aspects of the production. Directed by another Tait brother, Charles, the film was staged mainly at Heidelberg near Melbourne. When completed, it was over 4000 feet (1219 m) in length and ran for well over an hour, and claims have been made that it was in fact the world's first 'feature' film. It was certainly the first such film to be made in Australia. It opened at the Athenaeum Hall, Melbourne, on 26 December 1906, and was an immediate commercial success.
Johnson and Gibson continued to photograph films for other producers until March 1911, when they merged with the Tait family in a greatly expanded company, Amalgamated Pictures Ltd. This new company, based in Melbourne, produced a series of profitable feature films, including in 1911 The Mystery of a Hansom Cab and The Bells.
In November 1912, in the context of increasingly fierce competition between rival film exhibitors and film importers, Amalgamated Pictures joined a cluster of companies centred around Australasian Films Ltd for film distribution, cinema equipment and production, and Union Theatres Ltd for cinema ownership and film exhibition. The combine dominated the Australian film trade as a monopoly until after World War I, when American production companies began to set up branches in Australia to market their own films. Australasian Films and Union Theatres continued, however, to be major forces in the Australian trade, and became the foundation for the present-day Greater Union Organization. Gibson held positions as joint managing director of Union Theatres and as director and then general manager of Australasian Films until his death. He also served on the management boards of several subsidiary companies in the combine.
A highly astute businessman, Gibson early realized that it was safer to import films than to produce them, and Australasian Films only occasionally ventured into feature film production; its substantial technical resources were used mainly for news-reels and short films. Although sometimes referred to as the 'father' of Australian film production, because of his part in making The Story of the Kelly Gang, Gibson rarely associated himself directly with production after 1912, and ironically found his companies becoming the target of many critics who saw them as the instrument by which production had been suppressed in Australia. The companies were investigated by a royal commission into the film industry in 1927, but no action resulted against them.
Hollow-cheeked and grey-faced, even when young, Gibson was tirelessly hard working, and had few outside interests, although he was president of the Dandenong Agricultural Society, in the vicinity of his home, Oakwood Park. For business he travelled extensively around Australia, to Europe and America. In 1920 he was appointed O.B.E. for his services to the community, especially for patriotic work and fund-raising activities during World War I.
Survived by his wife and children, Gibson died from broncho-pneumonia aged 60 on 6 October 1929 in Melbourne. He was buried in Brighton cemetery. His estate was valued for probate at £41,976.
A. F. Pike, 'Gibson, William Alfred (1869–1929)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gibson-william-alfred-6312/text10887, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 9 March 2014.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981