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Universal Pictures

 

Universal Pictures (also known as Universal Studios, formerly Universal Film Manufacturing Company) 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, Pathe, Titanus, and Nordisk Film, and the oldest member of Hollywood's "Big Five" 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.
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.
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.
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.
In 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 along with Leo Spitz, 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.
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.
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) a $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.

 


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