With the up and coming Mary Pickford Weekend at TIFF Bell Lightbox, it’s important to remember not only Mary Pickford, but to remember those who helped shape the film industry and art form as we know it.
Sometimes referred to as “the company that changed the film industry” or “the company built by the stars,” United Artists (UA) was founded in 1919 by Mary Pickford, D. W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks. They started the company in order to create high quality, independent motion pictures by having better control over their work as artists and as producers. At the time, distributors and film companies were taking over creative decisions, and sometimes the salaries of Hollywood actors, while treating them more like trained animals than professionals.
Film had become a game instead of a business; it was all about big names, big stars, and a battle for the favourites. In addition, less attention was being paid to the actual production and creation of well told stories with believable set pieces. At the time, major motion picture companies had all the control. When the companies recognized that certain artists were slowly gaining control, they came together and tried to force them out of the business by not renewing their contracts. Some of these artists refused to quit and took the control they deserved by forming their own company: the United Artists.
There were several groundbreaking, industry changing rules and regulations that UA integrated into their new company. For example, no actors were ever under contract so each actor could focus on one production at a time. Under the studio system, actors would be hired to do a certain amount of films a year which forced them to rush into and out of each film they were involved in. Even before forming UA, both Mary Pickford and Charlie Chapman turned down large contracts for higher salaries in order to have more control over creative decisions and films they would choose. For Pickford and Chaplin, it was always about the art of film and they wanted to make it possible for other artists to care about their passion for creation and expression again.
UA created their own works from first idea to opening night. For an actor at that time, to have that much control over their art was something that had never been done before. Independent films were hard to screen as most film studios also owned their own theatre houses, meaning they could control which movies were shown at all times across the entire country. If you made a film without including one of the big film companies, it would be next to impossible to get it in front of an audience.
UA re-introduced individuality and craftsmanship to the industry by beginning to fight the major companies, contending that they should not have absolute control over this aspect of the industry. Their courage to stand up to these power-hungry companies started the ball rolling on opening more independent movie houses and film studios.
Sadly, in the early 20s, around the time UA was beginning to gain ground in this area, the motion picture industry began going through drastic changes. It was more expensive to make a feature film as audiences demanded higher quality films with longer running times, and sound began sneaking its way into the film as “talkies” were born and rapidly burst into popularity.
UA never expected to make a profit, but rather function as a service organization ‘at cost’. This meant they focused on production profits instead of distribution profits, and things were already starting to look bleak for the company when the Great Depression killed the box office. Banks considered independent productions to be unstable so loans were almost always impossible to obtain. For United Artists, there was a constant pull between having money for the next project and making more money by spending more money on the next project. This vicious cycle slowly ran the company into the ground.
In 1951, two lawyers made the UA team an offer: allow them to run the company for five years. If the company was profitable at the end, they would be given the opportunity to purchase it. Seeing no harm, the UA team agreed and the company began to act largely as a ‘bank’, providing loans to independent producers. This model flourished and it is important to note the severity of their achievements and astonishing success. In 1959, UA won 12 Oscars out of 19 nominations, not bad for a company run by actors who were scrutinized and laughed at for starting their own business. Historical and essential films like The Apartment, West Side Story, Tom Jones, In the Heat of the Night and Midnight Cowboy were all 1960s Oscar winners for the company. Blockbusters like The African Queen, Vera Cruz, Barefoot Contessa, Alexander the Great and Around the World were all United Artists pictures. Best actor awards went to several UA artists: David Niven, Burt Lancaster, Maximillian Schell, Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger, to mention a few. The Oscar honourary awards won by producer Stanley Kramer and Jerome Robbins were incredible accomplishments. Some of these people would never have been given the chance to make it as far as they did and some of the greatest films ever made would never have made it past the first draft.
Mary Pickford and the members of the United Artists took an idea and built a company that changed the industry forever. They may have had a bumpy ride, but it was an amazing one, and generations to come will continue to benefit from those first courageous four.
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