Paramount Pictures is one of the oldest surviving film studios in the world and the second-oldest in America after Universal. It has gone by a few different names through the years but its first iteration as the Famous Players Film Company was first founded in 1912 by Adolph Zukor.
Zukor, an Austro-Hungarian immigrant who worked his way up to becoming a wealthy New York City businessman (thanks to the success of his fur business) first became interested in the film industry when he was approached by his cousin Max Goldstein to invest in a chain of theaters in Buffalo, New York. Zukor loaned Goldstein the money and teamed up with other investors to open a penny arcade in NYC called the Automatic Vaudeville Company which soon expanded to cities like Newark, Boston and Philadelphia.
This theater involvement led to Zukor founding the film distribution company Famous Players. The goal of Famous Players was to bring famous stage actors to the big screen via stageshow adaptations. One of the company’s first adaptations was The Prisoner of Zenda (1913) which was directed by Edwin S. Porter (who also directed the first blockbuster action film in history The Great Train Robbery) and Hugh Ford. But this was after they distributed the French film Les Amours de la reine Élisabeth (The Loves of Queen Elizabeth) in 1912.
In 1916, Famous merged with the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company to form Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, and the wide distribution of these films would be handled by a company founded by Utah theatre owner W.W. Hodkinson called Paramount Pictures Corporation and this would be the first successful nationwide film distributor in the world.
Also that year, Zukor and Lasky bought Hodkinson out of Paramount and merged his company with Famous Players-Lasky. This company would quickly grow into a dominant rival for major industry player First National, especially since Zukor had filmmakers like Samuel Goldwyn and Cecil B. DeMille handling the production side of the company.
Some of the actors Zukor and Lasky hired to be in these films include Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino, and seeing as how Zukor was a huge proponent of using stars to sell his films and the fact that he was an ambitious buyer, seller and investor with a knack for knowing what will make the most money, he was a driving force for the studio’s success. And these were the days when studio moguls owned both film companies and theater companies which in this case was the Publix Theatres Corporation later renamed Paramount-Publix.
By 1927, the name of the studio was changed to the Paramount Famous Lasky Corporation.
In the 1930s, one of PFL’s greatest accomplishments would be becoming Disney’s first serious rival in the field of animation thanks to their distribution partnership with David and Max Fleischer who created animated shorts starring two of the most popular cartoon characters, Betty Boop and Popeye.
Unfortunately during the Depression the company would face financial troubles and it would nearly go bankrupt thanks to Zukor’s over-valued expansions and stock purchases, putting his studio in a receivership in 1933 and ultimately leading Paramount-Publix to bankruptcy. It didn’t help when the Hays Code infiltrated Hollywood in 1934 and took the edge out of the company’s adult-oriented films such as those of Mae West.
In 1936, Zukor became Chairman of the Board and film executive and theater chain owner Barney Balaban took over the company as president, lasting until 1964. At this time, Zukor would rename the company Paramount Pictures.
The sound era brought stars like Claudette Colbert, Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich, Cary Grant, Carole Lombard and comedians like Mae West, W.C. Fields and the Marx Brothers. Popular Paramount films released in this period include The Lady Eve (1941), Sullivan’s Travels (1942), Holiday Inn (1942), Double Indemnity (1944) and the Bing Crosby/Bob Hope Road films. In the fifties there was Sunset Boulevard (1950), Roman Holiday (1953), a lot of Martin & Lewis comedies plus solo Jerry Lewis outings like The Bellboy, Cinderfella and The Nutty Professor, not to mention Cecil B. DeMille epics like Samson and Delilah, The Greatest Show on Earth and The Ten Commandments and Alfred Hitchcock suspense thrillers like Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much and Vertigo.
Paramount was turning out films like a factory thanks to Zukor’s vast theater control and strategy of block booking (a tactic that meant theaters who bought one Paramount film were legally obligated to buy more Paramount films in the future in order to stifle competition), although the block booking was widely scrutinized as bordering on antitrust violations and it led to a 1948 Supreme Court decision known as United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. which banned movie studios from owning movie theaters, splitting Paramount up into two seperate companies, one for film distribution and one for theater exhibition founded in 1949 called United Paramount Theaters.
Following this decision, Paramount went into decline and they understandably had to cut down on spending despite intermittent success with films like Psycho and Breakfast at Tiffany’s in the sixties, a decade in which Paramount’s finances sank further when television took over and the studio era was essentially dead. So in 1966, Zukor sold Paramount to industrial conglomerate Gulf+Western Industries Corporation.
Gulf+Western founder Charles Bluhdorn put Robert Evans in charge of production and he actually did a good job revitalizing Paramount’s reputation in the sixties and seventies with films like Rosemary’s Baby, The Godfather, Chinatown and Nashville. Paramount also got into television with their purchase of Desilu (Mission: Impossible, Star Trek, Mannix).
By 1976, Barry Diller, the man who would later go on to found the television network FOX, was put in charge of Paramount’s film division with a parade of high-concept crowd pleasers with a team of executives that included Michael Eisner (Paramount CEO from 1976 to 1984), Jeffrey Katzenberg (Head of Production), Don Simpson (President of Production) and Dawn Steel (Senior VP of Production). These proteges of Diller would later be dubbed by the media as the “Killer Dillers” and they would go on to head their own companies (for example, Eisner would head Disney, Katzenberg would head DreamWorks and Steel would head Columbia Pictures).
Paramount would have huge success in the late seventies and eighties and that success would continue into the nineties and beyond. Successful films released by Paramount in this period include Saturday Night Fever (1977), Grease (1978), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), Friday the 13th (1980), Airplane! (1980), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), Flashdance (1983), Footloose (1984), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Top Gun (1986), Crocodile Dundee (1986), Fatal Attraction (1987), The Naked Gun (1988), many Eddie Murphy comedies like 48 Hrs., Beverly Hills Cop and Coming to America and John Hughes comedies Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
Meanwhile Gulf+Western was starting to become an unpopular investment in the eighties but since Paramount was one of their few successful assets, G+W sold off many of its subsidiaries and got renamed Paramount Communications Incorporated in 1989.
In the nineties, popular films like Ghost, Forrest Gump, Clueless, Mission: Impossible and Titanic (one of the most popular films in the world) were released.
In 1994, Viacom acquired a majority stake in Paramount and the film studio, which also owned a television production company, record companies, broadcasting stations and theme parks, would soon have its own broadcast network called UPN (which would later become half-owned by Warner Bros. after it merged with The WB and became The CW).
Viacom’s purchase of CBS in 1999 put Paramount and CBS under the same umbrella for a long time until 2019 when Paramount and CBS finally came together under ViacomCBS, founded by Shari Redstone the president of Viacom owner National Amusements. Before that merger, Viacom was the owner of many cable networks including MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon, BET, Comedy Central and Showtime. After the merger, the streaming service CBS All Access was renamed Paramount+ and the films and shows from all these networks and studios would finally come together in one place.
And subscribers will have a lot of things to choose from. Paramount has found a lot of success with franchises like Transformers, G.I. Joe, Mission: Impossible, Star Trek, Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield and Sonic the Hedgehog and thanks to Viacom that list also includes Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and SpongeBob SquarePants.
And that concludes the story of how Paramount basically became one of Hollywood’s biggest film studios. It is actually the last major film studio to be literally located in Hollywood. In addition to that fact, in case you have ever wondered about the origin of Paramount’s logo design, the legend is that there were originally 24 stars surrounding the mountain with each star representing the 24 “stars” who Zukor had under contract at the time. I told you he loved using stars to promote his films so that makes sense.