Universal Pictures (also known as Universal Studios, and formerly Universal Film Manufacturing Company and Universal-International Pictures Inc.) is an American film studio owned by Comcast through the NBCUniversal Film and Entertainment 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 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.
Universal Studios was founded by Carl Laemmle, Mark Dintenfass, Charles O. Baumann, Adam Kessel, Pat Powers, William Swanson, David Horsley, Robert H. Cochrane[a] 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.
Poster for Ivanhoe (1913)
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. The company was established June 8, 1912 formed in a merger of Independent Moving Pictures (IMP), the Powers Motion Picture Company, Rex Motion Picture Manufacturing Company, Champion Film Company, Nestor Film Company, and the New York Motion Picture Company. 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.
File:A Great Love – Clifford S. Elfelt – 1916, Universal Big U – EYE FLM25830 – OB 685649.webm
Melodrama A Great Love (1916) by Clifford S. Elfelt for Universal Big U. Dutch intertitles, 12:33. Collection EYE Film Institute Netherlands.
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.:13
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.
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