Of the five major film studios (Disney, Warner Bros., Universal, Paramount, Columbia), the oldest and in fact the oldest surviving film studio in the United States is Universal, which was founded in 1912. Despite its current status as one of the most recognized studios in the world, it had a rocky history of poor management and unpredictable box office returns which makes its rise to power somewhat of an underdog story.
The story of Universal begins with a young German-born Jewish man named Carl Laemmle (pronounced “LEM-lee”) who immigrated to the United States in 1884 and settled in Chicago where he worked a number of jobs. By the turn of the century he was a successful bookkeeper with a keen sense for advertisement, but in 1906 he left the world of books for the new and exciting world of film, starting one of the first motion picture theaters in Chicago and challenging Thomas Edison’s monopoly on the film industry.
Laemmle was successful because he stood out, emphasizing the star power of actors like Mary Pickford to sell his films. In fact, Laemmle’s promotion of the actors Florence Laurence and King Baggot in 1910 may be the first instance of stars being used to market a film.
Laemmle moved to New York to produce his own movies, founding what would start out as the Yankee Film Company but changed to Independent Motion Pictures (IMP) in 1909.
While Carl Laemmle is often credited for being the founder of Universal, Universal Pictures would not come into being until Laemmle decided to merge IMP with five other film studios: Powers Motion Picture Company (founded by Pat Powers), Champion Film Company (Mark Dintenfass), Rex Motion Picture Company (William Swanson), Nestor Film Company (David Horsley) and the New York Motion Picture Company (Charles Baumann and Adam Kessel). The men who founded these studios would all be the founders of what became the Universal Film Manufacturing Company in 1912, with Carl Laemmle serving as president.
Like all the biggest film studios in this era, Universal would be in charge of the production, distribution and exhibition of its film output, eventually following the trend of producing most of its films in Hollywood.
In 1915, Universal City Studios in Los Angeles was the largest motion picture studio lot in the world and Laemmle was the first movie mogul to open his studio to tourists. The area would later become the site of the theme park Universal Studios Hollywood in 1964 (a bit more on that later).
The first film released by Universal was the 20-minute two-reel silent drama The Dawn of Netta (1912) directed by Tom Ricketts, and Universal would release a steady stream of films every year afterwards. In these early days, the studio had three brands to classify its feature films: red feather (low-budget films), bluebird (ambitious films) and jewel (prestige films).
As I alluded to before, Universal was a pioneer in the star system. Character actor Lon Chaney became a drawing card for Universal in the 1920s, his two major hits for the studio in that decade being The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925), the success of which led to even more monster movies in the 1930s.
These monster movies were Universal’s biggest claim to fame for decades. This series of films would come to be known as the Universal Classic Monsters series and it was the first multi-picture shared universe in film history making them the Marvel Studios of the studio era.
Frankenstein (1931) starring Boris Karloff and Dracula (1931) starring Bela Lugosi are the most famous but they were followed by other hits like The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933) and The Wolf Man (1941) as well as countless sequels like The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Dracula’s Daughter (1936), Son of Frankenstein (1939), The Invisible Man Returns (1940), The Mummy’s Hand (1940), The Invisible Woman (1940), The Ghost of Frankenstein (1941), The Mummy’s Tomb (1942) and even crossovers like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). The monster movies would continue into the fifties with movies like Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954).
The monster movie universe was championed by Carl Laemmle’s son Carl Laemmle Jr. who became the head of Universal in 1928. Laemmle Jr. was adventurous and he wanted to take Universal into the modern era, which in those days meant Technicolor, musicals and high-budget spectacle. He was further encouraged by Universal’s success with the 1930 war drama All Quiet on the Western Front which was one of the studio’s biggest successes and an Oscar winner for Best Picture.
Unfortunately, Laemmle Jr.’s ambitions ended up being a risky endeavor during the depression. The film responsible for the Laemmle family losing control of the studio was the lavish 1936 musical Show Boat. The movie was so expensive that for the first time in the studio’s history, Universal had to obtain a loan in order to make it. They had gotten one from Standard Capital Corporation but when the production on Show Boat went $300,000 over budget and the Laemmles were unable to pay them back, Standard seized control of Universal from the Laemmles with Standard’s J. Cheever Cowdin taking over as president and severely cutting the budgets of Universal’s film production.
In the 1940s, Universal concentrated on low-budget westerns, melodramas and B pictures along with a few comedies, musicals, action serials and Sherlock Holmes mysteries. They could no longer afford their own staple of stars and instead hired freelance and often from other film studios and even radio.
In 1946, British entrepreneur J. Arthur Rank and independent company International Pictures merged with Universal and reorganized the studio as Universal-International with International founder William Goetz made head of production, one of his first acts being reducing Universal’s film output to concentrate more on quality films.
As part of the deal, Universal-International would distribute Rank’s British films in America, including Great Expectations (1946) and Hamlet (1948), although Rank would eventually lose interest in the company when its film output failed to make much money in this period.
In the 1950s, after the break-up of studios and theaters following the U.S. vs. Paramount Pictures court case of 1948 along with the rise of television’s popularity, the motion picture industry was changing and Universal-International was getting limited financial returns in this decade. To make some money, the studio agreed to sell its Los Angeles studio lot in 1958 to the Music Corporation of America (MCA), which was a powerful television producer and the largest talent agency in the world at the time.
While MCA owned the Universal studio lot, they did not take over as the owners of Universal itself until 1962, reverting the name of the company from Universal-International back to Universal Pictures and leaving the talent agency business to focus on operating the studio.
Following the formation of the theme park Universal Studios Hollywood in 1964, Universal became an A-film studio and finally started producing slick commercial films, with the studio’s TV arm Universal Television founded in 1966 taking up a great deal of their production schedule as they were responsible for half of all prime time shows and had a particularly good working relationship with NBC.
The film division was less predictable than the television division in the seventies, despite occasional successes like Airport (1970), The Day of the Jackal (1973), The Sting (1973), Earthquake (1974), The Deer Hunter (1978) and especially huge box office hits like American Graffiti (1973), Jaws (1975) and Animal House (1978).
However, starting in the eighties they would begin a winning streak of popular movies, their most successful films of that decade including E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Back to the Future, Field of Dreams, Do the Right Thing, The Blues Brothers, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and John Hughes high school comedies like Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Weird Science. Despite this streak of hits in the eighties, their most popular film came out in the nineties with the release of the blockbuster adventure Jurassic Park and that decade would also include popcorn blockbuster remake The Mummy and family-friendly Oscar nominee Babe.
Into the 21st century, the studio would have more blockbuster success with animated films like Despicable Me, the Fast & Furious series and raunchy Judd Apatow comedies as well as Pitch Perfect, Ted and the Bourne film series. Plus they would be at the forefront of popular horror films like Get Out and The Invisible Man and are reportedly once again attempting a cinematic horror-themed universe for the modern era.
So how did Universal and NBC merge under the umbrella of Comcast?
Universal had often shuffled its partnerships with other studios in order to steady its unpredictable financial intake, which led to a joint venture with Paramount called United International Pictures, founded in 1981 with the purpose of film distribution outside of North America, as well as MCA head Lew Wasserman’s search for a rich partner, which jumped from companies like Panasonic, Seagram and StudioCanal owner Vivendi before finally landing with NBC owner General Electric (GE), leading to the formation of the media conglomerate NBCUniversal in 2004.
In 2011, GE sold majority stake of the company to the cable provider Comcast, making Comcast not only the owner of Universal and NBC but also Universal’s assets Focus Features, Working Title, Illumination, DreamWorks Animation and a stake in Amblin Partners, plus NBC’s assets Telemundo, Syfy, USA, E!, Bravo, the streaming service Peacock and a 33% stake in Disney’s streaming service Hulu.
Needless to say, Universal is no longer an underdog.