The United Artists Corporation (aka United Artists Pictures and United Artists Films) was formed on February 5, 1919 by four Hollywood greats: Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D. W. Griffith. Their motive was to challenge the power of the major studios which, some felt, were making a fortune out of the talent of individuals. The four friends, taking advice from businessman William G. McAdoo (son-in-law of Woodrow Wilson), formed their own distribution company, with Hiram Abrams as its first managing director. It was bought by Arthur Krim in 1952.
The early years
UA set the standard for film distribution as the first major independent company both by and for the artists (hence the studio's name). Many silent and sound actors/filmmakers began their career at UA at the dawn of the studio's existence. For example, Charlie Chaplin made his home at UA producing, directing, and starring in some of his best film work, such as The Gold Rush, Modern Times, and City Lights.
UA's productions/releases during the Golden Age of Hollywood included The Mark of Zorro (1920), Stagecoach (1939) and the films of independent producers in the 1930s and 1940s such as Walt Disney, Alexander Korda and David Selznick.
The 1950s and 1960s
As the 1950s began and management changed, UA was slowly beginning its transition from a distribution company to a major studio. More independent producers would make UA their home. Stanley Kramer, for example, made several films for UA, such as High Noon (1952), and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). Michael Todd allowed UA to release his 1956 Oscar winning Around the World in Eighty Days. And Burt Lancaster and his producing partner Harold Hecht formed a production company that was based at UA, and in turn the studio released several of their films, such as Vera Cruz (1954) and Marty (1955).
UA also introduced U.S. audiences to The Beatles, and along with producer Walter Shenson released A Hard Day's Night (1964) and Help! (1965). UA would later release two more Beatles films, Yellow Submarine (1968) and Let It Be (1970).
UA's 1960s success rested on new franchises, such as: Blake Edwards' Pink Panther movies (with Peter Sellers as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau) and subsequent cartoon shorts; Albert R. Broccoli's James Bond series, which began in 1962 with Dr. No (starring Sean Connery); and the four Spaghetti westerns with Clint Eastwood (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and Hang 'em High ).
In the 1960s, UA established its television division, and through the years it was responsible for hit shows such as Gilligan's Island, The Fugitive, the original Outer Limits, The Patty Duke Show , and thirtysomething. UA also launched its record division in the 1960s, United Artists Records, which included such artists as War and Gerry Rafferty. The division and its backlog were later sold to other companies. That same decade, UA started releasing animated short subjects to theaters, particularly cartoons produced at DePatie-Freleng Enterprises, in response to the success of the opening sequence for the Pink Panther movie. Although UA had previously released Walt Disney shorts in the 1930s and Walter Lantz cartoons for only couple of years in the 1940s, this would be the longest stretch that would last through the end of the 1970s.
Then in 1967, after decades of being privately held, UA was acquired by the Transamerica insurance company.
The 1970s and 1980s
It was only after the beginning of the 1970s that UA's transition to a major studio was complete. In this new generation, UA showcased up-and-coming stars such as Sylvester Stallone (who starred in all of the Rocky films), Sissy Spacek (in 1976's Carrie), and Susan Swift (in Audrey Rose (1977), directed by Robert Wise). UA brought comedian-writer-director Woody Allen his greatest success, making several films for the studio, such as Sleeper (1973), Annie Hall, and Manhattan (1979). Also during that decade, UA became responsible for the distribution of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's films, thus beginning a long (and continuing) partnership with its now sister studio.
As the 1980s began, UA took a gamble on Michael Cimino's pet project/follow-up to his The Deer Hunter, the multi-million-dollar budgeted Heaven's Gate. Almost immediately upon its initial release, the film flopped, and UA sustained major financial losses. This led to UA's acquisition by MGM in 1981. It did not take very long for UA to get back on its feet thanks to its continuing success with its James Bond and Rocky franchises.
For most of the 1990s, the UA studio went dormant, not releasing any films for a number of years, but soon began producing and releasing films once again with more Pink Panther and James Bond movies, and even beginning to make another transition, to a specialty studio.
UA (now known as United Artists Films, a unit of MGM) continues to function today as such a studio, producing and releasing mainly independent films along the lines of competitors such as Lions Gate and Focus Features. Their most recent product includes Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine, 2002's Foreign Film Academy Award winner, No Man's Land, and 2004's Hotel Rwanda, an unprecedented co-production of UA and rival Lions Gate.
United Artists continues to share the copyright of the James Bond film series with Danjaq, LLC (the family firm of the Bond filmmakers), while parent MGM now handles the distribution.
However, the future of UA is in doubt, as evidenced by recent box-office failures as Saved! and Coffee and Cigarettes, and the 2004 sale of UA and parent company MGM by a group of investors led by Sony Pictures Entertainment.
Academy Award success
UA's history was often propelled by the strength of its Oscar-winning films, which include: Rebecca (1940), Around The World in Eighty Days (1956), The Apartment (1960, directed by Billy Wilder), West Side Story (1961), directed by Robert Wise (who helmed many UA films), In The Heat Of The Night (1967), Midnight Cowboy (1968), One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (1975), Rocky (1976), Annie Hall (1977), Apocalypse Now (1979), and Rain Man (1988).
UA (through MGM) still owns nearly all of its backlog from 1953 forward (including a few pre-1953 films such as 1933's Hallelujah, I'm A Bum and 1948's Red River ), while many 1940s and early 1950s films are now owned by either Republic Pictures (through Paramount Pictures) or Castle Hill Productions (via Warner Bros.); the Charlie Chaplin films are owned by the Chaplin estate; the Korda and Samuel Goldwyn films are now owned by (in a twist of irony) MGM; the Mary Pickford films are mostly owned by the Pickford Foundation ; the Disney films/shorts are owned by the Walt Disney Company; the David Selznick films are mostly owned by ABC (distributed for home video by Anchor Bay Entertainment and MGM); most of the Beatles films are now owned by the surviving members of the group themselves through Apple Corps (except for A Hard Day's Night, which is now owned by Miramax Films, and Yellow Submarine, which UA continues to own); and Around the World in Eighty Days is now owned by Warner Bros.; while still other classic 1930s and 1940s UA films are now in the public domain.
- United Artists website