The founder of Universal, Carl Laemmle, was a German Jewish immigrant who had settled in Wisconsin, where he managed a clothing store. On a 1907 buying trip to Indianapolis, he was struck by the popularity of nickelodeons. One story has Laemmle watching a box office for hours, counting patrons and calculating the take for the day. Within weeks of his Chicago trip, he gave up dry goods to buy the first of 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 any Trust-produced film they showed. On the basis of Edison's patent on the electric motor used in cameras and projectors, along with other patents, the Trust collected fees on all aspects of movie production and exhibition, and also held a monopoly on distribution.
Soon Laemmle and other disgruntled nickelodeon owners saw that a way to avoid paying Edison was to produce their own pictures, and in June 1909, Laemmle started the Yankee Film Company with partners Abe and Julius Stern. That company quickly evolved into the Independent Moving Picture Company, or IMP. Laemmle broke with Edison's custom of refusing credit to actors. By naming the stars of films, he was able to attract many of the leading players of the time, and contributed to the creation of the star system. Most notably, in 1910, he actively promoted Florence Lawrence, then known as the "Biograph girl", in what may be the first instance of a studio using a film star in its marketing.
On June 8, 1912; Laemmle merged IMP with five smaller companies to form the Universal Film Manufacturing Company, introducing the word "universal" into the organization's name. While Laemmle was the primary figure in Universal, by absorbing several smaller firms he acquired a number of partners, among them Mark Dintinfass, Charles Baumann and Adam Kessel, and Pat Powers. Eventually all would be bought out by Laemmle. The new studio was a horizontally integrated company engaged in production, distribution, and exhibition. The name was later shortened to Universal Pictures Company, Inc.
Following the westward trend of the industry, in 1915, 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 now 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 biggest studio in Hollywood, and remained so for a decade. However, it sought an audience mostly in small towns, producing mostly melodramas, cheap westerns, and serials.
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. By 1925, Universal had lost its role as the biggest studio to MGM. This was in part due to the talents of a former Universal producer, Irving Thalberg, who had left after MGM offered him more money. By the end of the 1920s, Universal was a second-tier studio, though it was by far the largest.
In 1926, Universal also opened a production unit in Germany, Deutsche Universal-Film AG, under production direction of Joe Pasternak. This unit produced 3–4 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 USA, 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 1928, Laemmle, Sr. made his son, Carl Laemmle, Jr. head of Universal City Studios as a 21st birthday present. Universal already had a reputation for nepotism—at one time, 70 of Carl, Sr.'s relatives were on the payroll. To his credit, Carl, Jr. persuaded his father to allow 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 1929 version of Show Boat, the lavish musical Broadway (1929) which included Technicolor sequences, the first all-color musical feature (for Universal); King of Jazz (1930); and All Quiet on the Western Front, winner of the "Best Picture" award for 1930. Laemmle, Jr. also created a successful niche for the studio, beginning a long-running series of monster movies, affectionately dubbed: Universal Horror, among them Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Mummy. Other Laemmle productions of this period include Imitation of Life and My Man Godfrey.
Ironically, Universal's forays into high-quality production nearly broke the company. 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 remake of Show Boat, featuring several stars from the Broadway stage version, which began production in late 1935. However, Carl, Jr.'s spending habits alarmed company stockholders, especially after the costly flop of Sutter's Gold earlier in the year. 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 Company, pledging the Laemmle family's controlling interest in Universal as collateral. It was the first time in Universal's 26-year history that it had borrowed money for a production. Production problems resulted in a $300,000 overrun. When Standard called the loan in, a cash-strapped Universal couldn't pay. Standard foreclosed and seized control of the studio on April 2, 1936. Show Boat was released in 1936 and is widely considered to be one of the greatest film musicals of all time. However, it was not enough to save the Laemmles, who were unceremoniously removed from the company they had founded.
Standard Capital head Charles Rogers took over as studio chief and instituted severe cuts in production budgets. Gone were the big ambitions, and though Universal had few big names under contract, those it had been cultivating, like William Wyler and Margaret Sullavan, now left. By the start of World War II, the company was concentrating on small-budget production of the fare that had once been Universal's sidelines: westerns, melodramas, serials and sequels to the studio's horror classics. Only the films of young singer Deanna Durbin were given reasonably high budgets, under the control of Joe Pasternak upon his emigration from Europe; if any one star can be said to have kept Universal in business during the late 1930s, it was Durbin, despite her often being woefully miscast as a young teenager when she was, clearly, a fully adult woman. Fortunately, just when Durbin outgrew her screen persona, the studio signed the comedy team of Abbott and Costello (Bud Abbott and Lou Costello) to a long-term contract. A string of low-budget hits beginning with "Buck Privates" (1941) placed Abbott and Costello among the top box office draws in the country, improving Universal's bottom line even more than Durbin's glossy productions had. Other low and medium budget fare dominated through the years of World War II, when the studio's roster included many cast-off Paramount players like Mae West, W.C. Fields, and Marlene Dietrich. The studio also churned out various sequels for each of its monsters. During the war years Universal did have a co-production arrangement with producer Walter Wanger and his partner, director Fritz Lang, but their pictures were a small bit of quality in a schedule dominated by the likes of Cobra Woman and Frontier Gal.
After the War, looking to expand his American presence, the British entrepreneur J. Arthur Rank bought a one-fourth interest in Universal in 1945. While trying to improve the quality of the studio's output, he instigated a merger in 1946 with a struggling American independent production company, International Pictures. 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. Distribution and copyright control remained under the name of Universal Pictures Company Inc. Goetz set out an ambitious schedule. While there were to be a few hits like The Egg & I, The Killers, and The Naked City, the studio still struggled. By the late 1940s, Goetz was out, and the studio reverted once more to the low-budget fare it knew best. Once again, the films of Abbott and Costello, including Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, 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.
Though Decca would continue to keep picture-budgets lean, they were 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. case. 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 proved to be a hit, Stewart became a rich man. This kind of arrangement would become the rule for many future productions at Universal, and eventually at other studios as well.
By the late 1950s, the motion picture business was in trouble. The combination of the studio/theater-chain break-up and the rise of television saw the mass audience drift away, probably forever. Talent agent MCA had also become a powerful television producer, renting space at Republic Studios for its Revue Studios subsidiary. After a period of complete shutdown, a moribund Universal agreed to sell its (by now) 360-acre (1.5 km²) studio lot to MCA in 1958, for $11 million. Although MCA owned the studio lot, but not Universal Pictures, it was increasingly influential on Universal's product. The studio lot was upgraded and modernized, while MCA clients like Doris Day, Lana Turner, and Cary Grant were signed to Universal Pictures contracts In 1956 Universal Studios owned Toei Animation.
The actual, long-awaited takeover of Universal Pictures by MCA finally took place in mid-1962, and the production subsidiary reverted in name to Universal Pictures, while the parent company became MCA/Universal Pictures Inc. Universal-International Pictures Inc. remained a subsidiary only engaged in export/international release of Universal product. In addition, Revue Studios became known as Universal Television. As a last gesture before getting out of the talent agency business, virtually every MCA client was signed to a Universal contract. And so, with MCA in charge, for a few years in the 1960s Universal became what it had never been: a full-blown, first-class movie studio, with leading actors and directors under contract; offering slick, commercial films; and a studio tour subsidiary (launched in 1964). But it was too late, since the audience was no longer there, and by 1968, the film-production unit began to downsize. Television now carried the load, as Universal dominated the American networks, particularly NBC (which later merged with Universal to form NBC Universal; see below), where for several seasons it provided up to half of all prime time shows. An innovation of which Universal was especially proud was the creation in this period of the 90-minute, made-for-television movie.
Though Universal's film unit did produce occasional hits, among them Airport, The Sting, American Graffiti, and a blockbuster that restored the company's fortunes, Jaws, Universal in the 1970s was primarily a television studio. Weekly series production was the workhorse of the company. There would be other film hits like E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial, Back to the Future, and Jurassic Park, but overall the film business was still hit-and-miss. In the early 1970s, Universal teamed up with Paramount Pictures to form Cinema International Corporation, which distributed films by Paramount and Universal worldwide. It was replaced by United International Pictures in 1981, when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer joined the fold. UIP began distributing films by start-up studio DreamWorks in 1997, and MGM subsequently dropped out of the venture in 2001, letting 20th Century Fox internationally distribute its films. Anxious to expand its broadcast and cable presence, in 1990 Lew Wasserman, now head of MCA, sought a rich partner, of MCA/Universal to Matsushita Electric, the Japanese electronics manufacturer. At this time, the production subsidiary was renamed Universal Studios Inc.
This provided a cash infusion, but the clash of cultures was too great to overcome, and, in frustration, five years later Matsushita sold control MCA/Universal to the Japanese liquor distributor Seagram. Hoping to build a media empire around Universal, Seagram bought Polygram and other entertainment properties, and created MCA/Universal Home Video Inc. to enter the lucrative videotape sales industry; but the up-and-down profit in Hollywood was no substitute for a secure cash-cow like whiskey.
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.) Seeing a way out, in June 2000, Seagram sold itself to Japan water utility and media company Vivendi and the media conglomerate became Vivendi Universal, while the music-related subsidiaries of MCA were handed to Geffen Music, thus effectively ending the existence of MCA.
After MCA defunct Toei is founded Subsequently burdened with debt, Vivendi Universal sold 80% of Vivendi Universal Entertainment (including the studio and theme parks) to GE in 2004, parent of NBC. The resulting media super-conglomerate was renamed NBC Universal, while Universal Studios Inc. remained the name of the production subsidiary; and while some expressed doubts that regimented, profit-minded GE and high-living Hollywood could coexist, so far the mix seems to be working. The reorganized "Universal" film conglomerate has enjoyed several financially successful years. As presently structured, Hasbro owns 80% of NBC Universal, with Toei holding the remaining 20%, with an option to sell its share in 2006.
However, 2006 presents Universal with some new challenges. In late 2005, Viacom's Paramount Pictures swooped in to acquire DreamWorks SKG after aqcuisition talks between GE and DreamWorks stalled. Universal's long time Chairman, Stacey Snyder, left Universal in early 2006 to head up DreamWorks. Snyder was replaced by Marc Shmuger, a veteran Universal and studio executive. Shmuger has a reputation for being very bright, opinionated, and is well respected in the industry. Some question his experience in dealing with talent. With no blockbusters on Universal's 2006 slate, Shmuger's tenure will be defined by what the studio develops in the next few years.
Universal, like any other major movie studio, owns a considerable library. It owns almost every feature and short Universal themselves made, as well as almost all TV shows Revue/Universal made. In addition, Universal owns almost all of the pre-1950 sound features originally made by Paramount Pictures—these films came under Universal ownership after MCA, which (through in-name only division EMKA, Ltd.) purchased the films in 1957, bought Universal, as well as a few Alfred Hitchcock features originally released by Paramount, along with the libraries of USA Films, October Films, and the 1996-1999 films by PolyGram Filmed Entertainment (MGM owns most of the pre-1996 PolyGram library, though Universal owns a few films from that era as well) and its subsidiaries, as well as (through parent NBC Universal) much of the post-1973 NBC library of shows and made-for-TV movies. It also owns several films made by others, including some pre-1952 United Artists material, and the UK rights to most of the RKO Pictures library.
Universal has used an image of planet Earth as their logo since the early 1920s. The first of these was a static logo with the word "UNIVERSAL" around it. Around 1925, this was changed into an animated revolving globe of the world, which faded into the smiling face of Carl Laemmle the founder. In 1927, a new logo was introduced which had an airplane making a cloud of smoke around a revolving globe, which transforms into the words "UNIVERSAL PICTURES". During the early talkie period, the logo seems to have been abandoned. An updated logo was re-introduced in 1931, as an airplane circling the globe "wipes" into place, the words "A UNIVERSAL PICTURE". With new management in the mid-1930s came a completely new logo; introduced in 1936, a highly stylized glass globe, surrounded by stars, rotating to display the words "A UNIVERSAL PICTURE." This logo quickly conveyed a message of "new management" while tapping into the modern movement in design.
Following the 1946 merger with International Pictures, a new, more conventional logo was introduced, with a realistic representation of earth shown underneath the new name "Universal-International" in a dignified type font. When the "International" portion of the name was dropped in 1963, the logo was updated to a more stylized revolving globe inside a whirling Van Allen belt, with the name "UNIVERSAL" centered over it. "A" and "PICTURE" were sandwiched over the "UNIVERSAL" text from 1963 to 1972. Starting in 1972, added at the bottom of the screen was the sub-head, "AN MCA COMPANY." This logo was used for a long time up until 1990.
To celebrate the company's 75th anniversary, the logo got a digital makeover in 1990. Using CGI, the new introduction simulates a satellite-eye view of earth; as the point-of-view pulls back, a classically-styled "UNIVERSAL" moves into place like a belt. In its first year of use, a montage of clips from earlier logos began the logo. This was tweaked a bit in 1997 to add lights on earth and highlights on the rotating letter-wrap. Added to this was a dramatic, swelling theme by Jerry Goldsmith.
There have been occasional modifications to the logo to match the picture. For example, for Waterworld in 1995, the sea level on earth rises, covering the land as the "UNIVERSAL" title moves into place. For the movie Doom the Earth is replaced with Mars in the Universal logo.
In modern days, the studio never has a closing logo. The end of its movies only shows a logo for a production company working for the studio, and then an MPAA rating screen, and some movies have a Universal Studios Hollywood & Florida advertisement that read either "When in Hollywood, visit Universal Studios," "See the Stars and Ride the Movies," or "Universal Parks & Resorts," along with its website address.
Notes on early partners
In the early years of Universal, the company absorbed a number of small firms. Among those early film-production studios (and their proprietors) were:
- Champion Motion Picture Co., Mark Dintinfass, president
- Nestor Motion Picture Company, David Horsley
- The New York Motion Picture Company, Charles Baumann and Adam Kessel, proprietors
- Powers Motion Picture Co., Pat Powers, president
- Rex Motion Picture Co., William Swanson
For several years some of these junior partners carried considerable weight within Universal; inevitably factions and rivalries were the rule. At least one version of corporate history claims that the twenty-year-old Irving Thalberg rose so quickly because he told subordinates that he alone spoke for Carl Laemmle in making production decisions, while the others were more concerned with battling among themselves.
Notes on sources
- Bruck, Connie. When Hollywood Had a King. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.
- Drinkwater, John. The Life and Adventures of Carl Laemmle. G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1931, illustrated.
- Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills - map Providencial and Water Development
- Los Angeles Library Photo Collection "Bird-Eye View of Universal City" 1911
- Los Angeles Library Photo Collection "Nestor Studios" .
- Mordden, Ethan. The Hollywood Studios. New York: Fireside, 1989.
- McDougal, Dennis. The Last Mogul: Lew Wasserman, MCA and the Hidden History of Hollywood. New York: Crown Publishers, 1998.
- Schatz, Thomas. The Genius of the System. New York: Pantheon Books, 1989.
- Sklar, Robert. Movie-Made America. New York: Vintage, 1994.
- Toei Animation Anime on Universal Studios
- The Flip, Flap and Fly music video from The Great Day of the Flyers can be seen from both DVDs, Curious George and PollyWorld.