Inspired by the successes of men like Charles Pathé and George Méliès, the first studios started out as nothing more than a set of old, abandoned shops that were converted into small theatres aptly dubbed as a nickelodeon. Following the hype was a man by the name of Carl Laemmle, who set up his first theatre in the city of Chicago, in 1906.
Having been a successful businessman before, with his clothes shops, Laemmle knew exactly what attracted customers and with his business savvy, his distribution of films, and their exhibition, expanded and thrived, until one day, in 1908, the MPPC (Motion Pictures Patents Company) punched him in the gut with a huge and unwavering licensing contract. Led by the father of motion pictures himself (Thomas Edison), the MPPC forbade any film exchanges (which would be called “distributors” in today’s day and age) from any sort of trading, unless it was under their terms, and as puts it “Laemmle was outraged. Furiously mulling over Edison’s abuse of monopoly power…he turned in his license.” In short, he quit, and soon after, smaller independent exhibitors looked to him for films, eventually prompting him to start his own film production company. Thus, Universal Studios was born.
Of course, it wasn’t known by that name at the time. In fact, it was originally called the IMP (Independent Moving Pictures) and wouldn’t be named Universal until 1912, when several smaller production companies merged with IMP. With the incorporation of these businesses, IMP started churning out successful shorts and eventually made a feature film in 1913, called Traffic in Souls. Despite its success, Laemmle didn’t see the appeal in making features, and as states “[He] was reluctant to commit himself to feature production and continued to turn out mainly one- and two-reelers.”. However, despite making such movies, the transition into features wasn’t too far off, and soon Laemmle found himself looking for a place to set up his small, separate studios into one giant and single conglomerate that would pave the way into Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Moving to the West
In 1915 Laemmle moved his business into the northern hills of California, and “with much fanfare” opened the doors to Universal City, along with Edison, who had, only a few years before, wanted his business to fail. After that business began to boom, and Laemmle found it hard to keep up, from his offices in New York. Eventually, he assigned a man by the name of Irving Thalberg as general manager of his studios, having been highly impressed by his sharp observations about how inefficiently the studios were being run. Needless to say, Thalberg became known as the ‘boy wonder’ for the company, turning out films that gave Universal its name. Unfortunately, Thalberg left in 1922, to join the Mayer Company, which would later become MGM Studios.
Meanwhile, the Golden Age of Hollywood had begun, with celebrity names decorating the billboards at theatres all over the country and audiences flooding to watch whatever films the major studios put on for the show. In the midst of these, the leaders of Universal were rather busy expanding their business overseas, and with their attention elsewhere the company was one of the last to incorporate sound films into their repertoire, and being such, wasn’t very successful during the 1920s and 1930s, despite their vast numbers of released films. In the late 1930s, when the Great Depression of America hit the country, Universal would find itself inevitably stuck and in the red for quite some time, and thanks to its mounting debts, Carl Laemmle and his son (who he roped in to become the Head of Production) had to sell their shares to a small group of industrialists, led by John Cheever Cowdin.
Despite the few “hits” they had, in terms of films, they still wouldn’t find their acclaim until the 1970s, 20 years after the Golden Age of Hollywood. Learning from its earlier mistake with sound, Universal was one of the first production companies to jump on the TV bandwagon, combining both film and TV production studios into one. It was through this synergy that the company was reborn. It finally got its name back, thanks to its many productions and collaborations with new and budding artists, one of which would become a household name in all of film directing, Steven Spielberg. Turning out films like Jaws, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, and Jurassic Park, Universal would finally become the major player it was always meant to be.
With its latest blockbuster releases such as Pitch Perfect, Jurassic World, and Furious 7 it seems like Universal is just warming up. After all, the company does have a few theme parks under their belt, who knows what they could do in the 21st Century?
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