Rank was a Methodist and his interest film began when he became involved in showing religious films Sunday school children at his local church. In 1933 he founded the British National (film) film company in order to distribute religious films. In 1935 he went into partnership with Charles Boot and Charles M. Woolf to build Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire. In the same year he founded General Film Distributors (the UK distributor for Universal Pictures). In 1939 he joined the board of the Odeon cinema chain and founded the Rank Organisation in 1946, which became the dominant force in British film production.
In 1953 Rank set up the J. Arthur Rank Group Charity, now The Rank Foundation, to promote Christian belief.
He was given a peerage in 1957 and created a Baron Rank of Sutton Scotney in Hampshire.
From the late 1950s the Rank Organisation began to diversify its interests into fields other than film. Rationalisation of the group (which had now been renamed Rank Group) in the 1990s led to the sale of Pinewood Studios and Odeon as well as the holidays businesses (including Butlins, Warner and Haven), engineering companies and anything else not deemed strictly core. By 2003, the Rank Group consisted only of casino and bingo gaming businesses, Deluxe film video and DVD processing and the Hard Rock Cafe.