Universal Pictures (also known as Universal Studios) is an American film studio owned by Comcast through the Universal Filmed Entertainment Group division of its wholly owned subsidiary NBCUniversal. Founded in 1912 by Carl Laemmle, Mark Dintenfass, Charles O. Baumann, Adam Kessel, Pat Powers, William Swanson, David Horsley, Robert H. Cochrane, and Jules Brulatour, it is the oldest surviving film studio in the United States, the world's fifth oldest after Gaumont, Pathé, Titanus, and Nordisk Film, and the oldest member of Hollywood's "Big Six" studios in terms of the overall film market. Its studios are located in Universal City, California, and its corporate offices are located in New York City.
Universal Pictures is a member of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), and was one of the "Little Three" majors during Hollywood's golden age.
Universal Studios was founded by Carl Laemmle, Mark Dintenfass, Charles O. Baumann, Adam Kessel, Pat Powers, William Swanson, David Horsley, Robert H. Cochrane and Jules Brulatour. One story has Laemmle watching a box office for hours, counting patrons and calculating the day's takings. Within weeks of his Chicago trip, Laemmle gave up dry goods to buy the first several nickelodeons. For Laemmle and other such entrepreneurs, the creation in 1908 of the Edison-backed Motion Picture Trust meant that exhibitors were expected to pay fees for Trust-produced films they showed. Based on the Latham Loop used in cameras and projectors, along with other patents, the Trust collected fees on all aspects of movie production and exhibition, and attempted to enforce a monopoly on distribution.
Soon, Laemmle and other disgruntled nickelodeon owners decided to avoid paying Edison by producing their own pictures. In June 1909, Laemmle started the Yankee Film Company with partners Abe Stern and Julius Stern. That company quickly evolved into the Independent Moving Pictures Company (IMP), with studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey, where many early films in America's first motion picture industry were produced in the early 20th century. Laemmle broke with Edison's custom of refusing to give billing and screen credits to performers. By naming the movie stars, he attracted many of the leading players of the time, contributing to the creation of the star system. In 1910, he promoted Florence Lawrence, formerly known as "The Biograph Girl", and actor King Baggot, in what may be the first instance of a studio using stars in its marketing.
The Universal Film Manufacturing Company was incorporated in New York on April 30, 1912. Laemmle, who emerged as president in July 1912, was the primary figure in the partnership with Dintenfass, Baumann, Kessel, Powers, Swanson, Horsley, and Brulatour. Eventually all would be bought out by Laemmle. The new Universal studio was a vertically integrated company, with movie production, distribution and exhibition venues all linked in the same corporate entity, the central element of the Studio system era.
Following the westward trend of the industry, by the end of 1912 the company was focusing its production efforts in the Hollywood area.
On March 15, 1915,:8 Laemmle opened the world's largest motion picture production facility, Universal City Studios, on a 230-acre (0.9-km²) converted farm just over the Cahuenga Pass from Hollywood. Studio management became the third facet of Universal's operations, with the studio incorporated as a distinct subsidiary organization. Unlike other movie moguls, Laemmle opened his studio to tourists. Universal became the largest studio in Hollywood, and remained so for a decade. However, it sought an audience mostly in small towns, producing mostly inexpensive melodramas, westerns and serials.
In its early years Universal released three brands of feature films—Red Feather, low-budget programmers; Bluebird, more ambitious productions; and Jewel, their prestige motion pictures. Directors included Jack Conway, John Ford, Rex Ingram, Robert Z. Leonard, George Marshall and Lois Weber, one of the few women directing films in Hollywood.
Despite Laemmle's role as an innovator, he was an extremely cautious studio chief. Unlike rivals Adolph Zukor, William Fox, and Marcus Loew, Laemmle chose not to develop a theater chain. He also financed all of his own films, refusing to take on debt. This policy nearly bankrupted the studio when actor-director Erich von Stroheim insisted on excessively lavish production values for his films Blind Husbands (1919) and Foolish Wives (1922), but Universal shrewdly gained a return on some of the expenditure by launching a sensational ad campaign that attracted moviegoers. Character actor Lon Chaney became a drawing card for Universal in the 1920s, appearing steadily in dramas. His two biggest hits for Universal were The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). During this period Laemmle entrusted most of the production policy decisions to Irving Thalberg. Thalberg had been Laemmle's personal secretary, and Laemmle was impressed by his cogent observations of how efficiently the studio could be operated. Promoted to studio chief, Thalberg was giving Universal's product a touch of class, but MGM's head of production Louis B. Mayer lured Thalberg away from Universal with a promise of better pay. Without his guidance Universal became a second-tier studio, and would remain so for several decades.
In 1926, Universal opened a production unit in Germany, Deutsche Universal-Film AG, under the direction of Joe Pasternak. This unit produced three to four films per year until 1936, migrating to Hungary and then Austria in the face of Hitler's increasing domination of central Europe. With the advent of sound, these productions were made in the German language or, occasionally, Hungarian or Polish. In the U.S., Universal Pictures did not distribute any of this subsidiary's films, but at least some of them were exhibited through other, independent, foreign-language film distributors based in New York, without benefit of English subtitles. Nazi persecution and a change in ownership for the parent Universal Pictures organization resulted in the dissolution of this subsidiary.
In the early years, Universal had a "clean picture" policy. However, by April 1927, Carl Laemmle considered this to be a mistake as "unclean pictures" from other studios were generating more profit while Universal was losing money.
Oswald the Lucky Rabbit
Universal owned the rights to the "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit" character, although Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks had created Oswald, and their films had enjoyed a successful theatrical run. After Charles Mintz had unsuccessfully demanded that Disney accept a lower fee for producing the property, Mintz produced the films with his own group of animators. Instead, Disney and Iwerks created Mickey Mouse, who in 1928 starred in the first "sync" sound animated short, Steamboat Willie. This moment effectively launched Walt Disney Studios' foothold, while Universal became a minor player in film animation. Universal subsequently severed its link to Mintz and formed its own in-house animation studio to produce Oswald cartoons headed by Walter Lantz.
In 2006, after almost 80 years, NBC Universal sold all Walt Disney-produced Oswald cartoons, along with the rights to the character himself, back to Disney. In return, Disney released ABC sportscaster Al Michaels from his contract so he could work on NBC's Sunday night NFL football package. However, Universal retained ownership of Oswald cartoons produced for them by Walter Lantz from 1929 to 1943.
Keeping leadership of the studio in the family
In 1928, Laemmle, Sr. made his son, Carl, Jr. head of Universal Pictures as a 21st birthday present. Universal already had a reputation for nepotism—at one time, 70 of Carl, Sr.'s relatives were supposedly on the payroll. Many of them were nephews, resulting in Carl, Sr. being known around the studios as "Uncle Carl." Ogden Nash famously quipped in rhyme, "Uncle Carl Laemmle/Has a very large faemmle." Among these relatives was future Academy Award-winning director/producer William Wyler.
"Junior" Laemmle persuaded his father to bring Universal up to date. He bought and built theaters, converted the studio to sound production, and made several forays into high-quality production. His early efforts included the critically panned part-talkie version of Edna Ferber's novel Show Boat (1929), the lavish musical Broadway (1929) which included Technicolor sequences; and the first all-color musical feature (for Universal), King of Jazz (1930). The more serious All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), won its year's Best Picture Oscar.
Laemmle, Jr. created a niche for the studio, beginning a series of horror films which extended into the 1940s, affectionately dubbed Universal Horror. Among them are Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933). Other Laemmle productions of this period include Imitation of Life (1934) and My Man Godfrey (1936).
The Laemmles lose control
Universal's forays into high-quality production spelled the end of the Laemmle era at the studio. Taking on the task of modernizing and upgrading a film conglomerate in the depths of the depression was risky, and for a time Universal slipped into receivership. The theater chain was scrapped, but Carl, Jr. held fast to distribution, studio and production operations.
The end for the Laemmles came with a lavish version of Show Boat (1936), a remake of its earlier 1929 part-talkie production, and produced as a high-quality, big-budget film rather than as a B-picture. The new film featured several stars from the Broadway stage version, which began production in late 1935, and unlike the 1929 film was based on the Broadway musical rather than the novel. Carl, Jr.'s spending habits alarmed company stockholders. They would not allow production to start on Show Boat unless the Laemmles obtained a loan. Universal was forced to seek a $750,000 production loan from the Standard Capital Corporation, pledging the Laemmle family's controlling interest in Universal as collateral. It was the first time Universal had borrowed money for a production in its 26-year history. The production went $300,000 over budget; Standard called in the loan, cash-strapped Universal could not pay, Standard foreclosed and seized control of the studio on April 2, 1936.
Although Universal's 1936 Show Boat (released a little over a month later) became a critical and financial success, it was not enough to save the Laemmles' involvement with the studio. They were unceremoniously removed from the company they had founded. Because the Laemmles personally oversaw production, Show Boat was released (despite the takeover) with Carl Laemmle and Carl Laemmle Jr.'s names on the credits and in the advertising campaign of the film. Standard Capital's J. Cheever Cowdin had taken over as president and chairman of the board of directors, and instituted severe cuts in production budgets. Gone were the big ambitions, and though Universal had a few big names under contract, those it had been cultivating, like William Wyler and Margaret Sullavan, left.
Meanwhile, producer Joe Pasternak, who had been successfully producing light musicals with young sopranos for Universal's German subsidiary, repeated his formula in America. Teenage singer Deanna Durbin starred in Pasternak's first American film, Three Smart Girls (1936). The film was a box-office hit and reputedly resolved the studio's financial problems. The success of the film led Universal to offer her a contract, which for the first five years of her career produced her most successful pictures.
When Pasternak stopped producing Durbin's pictures, and she outgrew her screen persona and pursued more dramatic roles, the studio signed 13-year-old Gloria Jean for her own series of Pasternak musicals from 1939; she went on to star with Bing Crosby, W. C. Fields, and Donald O'Connor. A popular Universal film of the late 1930s was Destry Rides Again (1939), starring James Stewart as Destry and Marlene Dietrich in her comeback role after leaving Paramount.
By the early 1940s, the company was concentrating on lower-budget productions that were the company's main staple: westerns, melodramas, serials and sequels to the studio's horror pictures, the latter now solely B pictures. The studio fostered many series: The Dead End Kids and Little Tough Guys action features and serials (1938–43); the comic adventures of infant Baby Sandy (1938–41); comedies with Hugh Herbert (1938–42) and The Ritz Brothers (1940–43); musicals with Robert Paige, Jane Frazee, The Andrews Sisters, and The Merry Macs (1938–45); and westerns with Tom Mix (1932–33), Buck Jones (1933–36), Bob Baker (1938–39), Johnny Mack Brown (1938–43); Rod Cameron (1944–45), and Kirby Grant (1946–47).
Universal could seldom afford its own stable of stars, and often borrowed talent from other studios, or hired freelance actors. In addition to Stewart and Dietrich, Margaret Sullavan, and Bing Crosby were two of the major names that made a couple of pictures for Universal during this period. Some stars came from radio, including Edgar Bergen, W. C. Fields, and the comedy team of Abbott and Costello (Bud Abbott and Lou Costello). Abbott and Costello's military comedy Buck Privates (1941) gave the former burlesque comedians a national and international profile.
During the war years Universal did have a co-production arrangement with producer Walter Wanger and his partner, director Fritz Lang, lending the studio some amount of prestige productions. Universal's core audience base was still found in the neighborhood movie theaters, and the studio continued to please the public with low- to medium-budget films. Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce in new Sherlock Holmes mysteries (1942–46), teenage musicals with Gloria Jean, Donald O'Connor, and Peggy Ryan (1942–43), and screen adaptations of radio's Inner Sanctum Mysteries with Lon Chaney, Jr. (1943–45). Alfred Hitchcock was also borrowed for two films from Selznick International Pictures: Saboteur (1942) and Shadow of a Doubt (1943).
As Universal's main product had always been low-budget film, it was one of the last major studios to have a contract with Technicolor. The studio did not make use of the three-strip Technicolor process until Arabian Nights (1942), starring Jon Hall and Maria Montez. The following year, Technicolor was also used in Universal's remake of their 1925 horror melodrama, Phantom of the Opera with Claude Rains and Nelson Eddy. With the success of their first two pictures, a regular schedule of high-budget, Technicolor films followed.
Universal-International and Decca Records takes control
n 1945, the British entrepreneur J. Arthur Rank, hoping to expand his American presence, bought into a four-way merger with Universal, the independent company International Pictures, and producer Kenneth Young. The new combine, United World Pictures, was a failure and was dissolved within one year. Rank and International remained interested in Universal, however, culminating in the studio's reorganization as Universal-International; the merger was announced on July 30, 1946. William Goetz, a founder of International, was made head of production at the renamed Universal-International Pictures Inc., which also served as an import-export subsidiary, and copyright holder for the production arm's films. Goetz, a son-in-law of Louis B. Mayer decided to bring "prestige" to the new company. He stopped the studio's low-budget production of B movies, serials and curtailed Universal's horror and "Arabian Nights" cycles. He also reduced the studio's output from its wartime average of fifty films per year (which was nearly twice the major studio's output) to thirty-five films a year. Distribution and copyright control remained under the name of Universal Pictures Company Inc.
Goetz set out an ambitious schedule. Universal-International became responsible for the American distribution of Rank's British productions, including such classics as David Lean's Great Expectations (1946) and Laurence Olivier's Hamlet (1948). Broadening its scope further, Universal-International branched out into the lucrative non-theatrical field, buying a majority stake in home-movie dealer Castle Films in 1947, and taking the company over entirely in 1951. For three decades, Castle would offer "highlights" reels from the Universal film library to home-movie enthusiasts and collectors. Goetz licensed Universal's pre–Universal-International film library to Jack Broeder's Realart Pictures for cinema re-release but Realart was not allowed to show the films on television.
The production arm of the studio still struggled. While there were to be a few hits like The Killers (1946) and The Naked City (1948), Universal-International's new theatrical films often met with disappointing response at the box office. By the late 1940s, Goetz was out, and the studio returned to low-budget and series films. The inexpensive Francis (1950), the first film of a series about a talking mule and Ma and Pa Kettle (1949), part of a series, became mainstays of the company. Once again, the films of Abbott and Costello, including Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), were among the studio's top-grossing productions. But at this point Rank lost interest and sold his shares to the investor Milton Rackmil, whose Decca Records would take full control of Universal in 1952. Besides Abbott and Costello, the studio retained the Walter Lantz cartoon studio, whose product was released with Universal-International's films.
In the 1950s, Universal-International resumed their series of Arabian Nights films, many starring Tony Curtis. The studio also had a success with monster and science fiction films produced by William Alland, with many directed by Jack Arnold. Other successes were the melodramas directed by Douglas Sirk and produced by Ross Hunter, although for film critics they were not so well thought of on first release as they have since become. Among Universal-International's stable of stars were Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis, Jeff Chandler, Audie Murphy, and John Gavin.
Though Decca would continue to keep picture budgets lean, it was favored by changing circumstances in the film business, as other studios let their contract actors go in the wake of the 1948 U.S. vs. Paramount Pictures, et al. decision. Leading actors were increasingly free to work where and when they chose, and in 1950 MCA agent Lew Wasserman made a deal with Universal for his client James Stewart that would change the rules of the business. Wasserman's deal gave Stewart a share in the profits of three pictures in lieu of a large salary. When one of those films, Winchester '73 (1950), proved to be a hit, the arrangement would become the rule for many future productions at Universal, and eventually at other studios as well.
MCA takes over
In the early 1950s, Universal set up its own distribution company in France, and in the late 1960s, the company also started a production company in Paris, Universal Productions France S.A., although sometimes credited by the name of the distribution company, Universal Pictures France. Except for the two first films it produced, Claude Chabrol's Le scandale (English title The Champagne Murders, 1967) and Romain Gary's Les oiseaux vont mourir au Pérou (English title Birds in Peru), it was only involved in French or other European co-productions, including Louis Malle's Lacombe, Lucien, Bertrand Blier's Les Valseuses (English title Going Places, 1974), and Fred Zinnemann's The Day of the Jackal (1973). It was only involved in approximately 20 French film productions. In the early 1970s, the unit was incorporated into the French Cinema International Corporation arm.
By the late 1950s, the motion picture business was again changing. The combination of the studio/theater-chain break-up and the rise of television saw the reduced audience size for cinema productions. The Music Corporation of America (MCA), the world's largest talent agency, had also become a powerful television producer, renting space at Republic Studios for its Revue Productions subsidiary. After a period of complete shutdown, a moribund Universal agreed to sell its 360-acre (1.5 km²) studio lot to MCA in 1958, for $11 million, renamed Revue Studios. MCA owned the studio lot, but not Universal Pictures, yet was increasingly influential on Universal's product. The studio lot was upgraded and modernized, while MCA clients like Doris Day, Lana Turner, Cary Grant, and director Alfred Hitchcock were signed to Universal contracts.
The long-awaited takeover of Universal Pictures by MCA, Inc. happened in mid-1962 as part of the MCA-Decca Records merger. The company reverted in name to Universal Pictures from Universal-International. As a final gesture before leaving the talent agency business, virtually every MCA client was signed to a Universal contract. In 1964, MCA formed Universal City Studios, Inc., merging the motion pictures and television arms of Universal Pictures Company and Revue Productions (officially renamed as Universal Television in 1966). And so, with MCA in charge, Universal became a full-blown, A-film movie studio, with leading actors and directors under contract; offering slick, commercial films; and a studio tour subsidiary launched in 1964.
Television production made up much of the studio's output, with Universal heavily committed, in particular, to deals with NBC (which much later merged with Universal to form NBC Universal; see below) providing up to half of all prime time shows for several seasons. An innovation during this period championed by Universal was the made-for-television movie. In 1982, Universal became the studio base for many shows that were produced by Norman Lear's Tandem Productions/Embassy Television, including Diff'rent Strokes, One Day at a Time, The Jeffersons, The Facts of Life, and Silver Spoons which premiered on NBC that same fall.
At this time, Hal B. Wallis, who had recently worked as a major producer at Paramount, moved over to Universal, where he produced several films, among them a lavish version of Maxwell Anderson's Anne of the Thousand Days (1969), and the equally lavish Mary, Queen of Scots (1971). Though neither could claim to be a big financial hit, both films received Academy Award nominations, and Anne was nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Richard Burton), Best Actress (Geneviève Bujold), and Best Supporting Actor (Anthony Quayle). Wallis retired from Universal after making the film Rooster Cogburn (1975), a sequel to True Grit (1969), which Wallis had produced at Paramount. Rooster Cogburn co-starred John Wayne, reprising his Oscar-winning role from the earlier film, and Katharine Hepburn, their only film together. The film was only a moderate success.
In the early 1970s, Universal teamed up with Paramount to form Cinema International Corporation, which distributed films by Paramount and Universal outside of the US and Canada. Though Universal did produce occasional hits, among them Airport (1970), The Sting (1973), American Graffiti (also 1973), Earthquake (1974), and a big box-office success which restored the company's fortunes: Jaws (1975), Universal during the decade was primarily a television studio. When Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer purchased United Artists in 1981, MGM could not drop out of the CIC venture to merge with United Artists overseas operations. However, with future film productions from both names being released through the MGM/UA Entertainment plate, CIC decided to merge UA's international units with MGM and reformed as United International Pictures. There would be other film hits like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Back to the Future (1985), An American Tail (1986), The Land Before Time (1988), Field of Dreams (1989), and Jurassic Park (1993), but the film business was financially unpredictable. UIP began distributing films by start-up studio DreamWorks in 1997, due to connections the founders have with Paramount, Universal, and Amblin Entertainment. In 2001, MGM dropped out of the UIP venture and went with 20th Century Fox's international arm to handle distribution of their titles, an arrangement which remains ongoing.
Matsushita, Seagram, Vivendi and NBCUniversal
Anxious to expand the company's broadcast and cable presence, longtime MCA head Lew Wasserman sought a rich partner. He located Japanese electronics manufacturer Matsushita Electric (now known as Panasonic), which agreed to acquire MCA for $6.6 billion in 1990.
Matsushita provided a cash infusion, but the clash of cultures was too great to overcome, and five years later Matsushita sold an 80% stake in MCA/Universal to Canadian drinks distributor Seagram for $5.7 billion. Seagram sold off its stake in DuPont to fund this expansion into the entertainment industry. Hoping to build an entertainment empire around Universal, Seagram bought PolyGram in 1999 and other entertainment properties, but the fluctuating profits characteristic of Hollywood were no substitute for the reliable income stream gained from the previously held shares in DuPont.
To raise money, Seagram head Edgar Bronfman Jr. sold Universal's television holdings, including cable network USA, to Barry Diller (these same properties would be bought back later at greatly inflated prices). In June 2000, Seagram was sold to French water utility and media company Vivendi, which owned StudioCanal; the conglomerate then became known as Vivendi Universal. Afterward, Universal Pictures acquired the United States distribution rights of several of StudioCanal's films, such as David Lynch's Mulholland Drive (2001) and Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001) which became the second-highest-grossing French language film in the United States since 1980. Universal Pictures and StudioCanal also co-produced several films, such as Love Actually (2003) an $40 million-budgeted film that eventually grossed $246 million worldwide. In late 2000, the New York Film Academy was permitted to use the Universal Studios backlot for student film projects in an unofficial partnership.
Burdened with debt, in 2004 Vivendi Universal sold 80% of Vivendi Universal Entertainment (including the studio and theme parks) to General Electric (GE), parent of NBC. The resulting media super-conglomerate was renamed NBCUniversal, while Universal Studios Inc. remained the name of the production subsidiary. After that deal, GE owned 80% of NBC Universal; Vivendi held the remaining 20%, with an option to sell its share in 2006.
In late 2005, Viacom's Paramount Pictures acquired DreamWorks SKG after acquisition talks between GE and DreamWorks stalled. Universal's long time chairperson, Stacey Snider, left the company in early 2006 to head up DreamWorks. Snider was replaced by then-Vice Chairman Marc Shmuger and Focus Features head David Linde. On October 5, 2009, Marc Shmuger and David Linde were ousted and their co-chairperson jobs consolidated under former president of worldwide marketing and distribution Adam Fogelson becoming the single chairperson. Donna Langley was also upped to co-chairperson. In 2009, Stephanie Sperber founded Universal Partnerships & Licensing within Universal to license consumer products for Universal.
GE purchased Vivendi's share in NBCUniversal in 2011.
Comcast era (2011–present)
GE sold 51% of the company to cable provider Comcast in 2011. Comcast merged the former GE subsidiary with its own cable-television programming assets, creating the current NBCUniversal. Following Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approval, the Comcast-GE deal was closed on Jan 29, 2011. In March 2013, Comcast bought the remaining 49% of NBCUniversal for $16.7 billion. In September 2013, Adam Fogelson was ousted as co-chairman of Universal Pictures, promoting Donna Langley to sole-chairman. In addition, NBCUniversal International Chairman, Jeff Shell, would be appointed as Chairman of the newly created Filmed Entertainment Group. Longtime studio head Ron Meyer would give up oversight of the film studio and appointed Vice Chairman of NBCUniversal, providing consultation to CEO Steve Burke on all of the company's operations. Meyers still retains oversight of Universal Parks and Resorts.
Universal's multi-year film financing deal with Elliott Management expired in 2013. In summer 2013, Universal made an agreement with Thomas Tull's Legendary Pictures to distribute their films for five years starting in 2014 (the year that Legendary's similar agreement with Warner Bros. Pictures ends).
In June 2014, Universal Partnerships took over licensing consumer products for NBC and Sprout with expectation that all licensing would eventually be centralized within NBCUniversal.