United ArtistsTHE BOUTIQUE
THE KRIM-BENJAMIN TAKEOVER
THE TRANSAMERICA MERGER AND BEYOND
Unlike the other major motion picture companies, United Artists (UA) never owned a studio or had actors and directors under contract. It functioned throughout its life solely as a distribution company for independent producers. The history of the company can be conveniently divided into three periods: (1) from 1919 to 1950, when the company was owned by Mary Pickford (1893– 1979), Charles Chaplin (1889–1977), and their partners and functioned mainly as a boutique distributor of quality films; (2) from 1951 to 1981, when the company was rescued from near bankruptcy by a new management team headed by Arthur Krim (1910–1994) and Robert Benjamin, who transformed UA into a modern business enterprise; and (3) from 1981 to 2004, when the company was acquired by Kirk Kerkorian (b. 1917), who merged it with MGM and sold off and reacquired parts of both companies several times until he finally disposed of the remains to Sony in 2004.
United Artists was founded in 1919 by Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks (1883–1939), and D. W. Griffith (1875–1948) as a means of insuring control over the marketing of their pictures. Capitalizing on their fame in the movies, Pickford, Chaplin, and their partners had risen from the ranks of studio employees to become heads of their own independent production companies. They enjoyed considerable autonomy over their work—from the writing of the scenario to the final cut—and released their films through leading companies, which provided them with production financing and a share of the profits. But rumors of a consolidation in the industry by companies that intended to cap salaries placed the stars on the defensive. By forming United Artists they would now have to secure their own financing and oversee the selling of their pictures, but the risks were worth taking to guarantee their independence.
During the early years of UA's existence, the founders delivered some of the finest pictures of their careers. The premiere UA release was Douglas Fairbanks' His Majesty, the American, which was released on 1 September 1919. Fairbanks went on to produce such swashbucklers as Robin Hood (1922) and The Thief of Bagdad (1924). Pickford's best-remembered pictures were Pollyanna (1920), Little Lord Fauntleroy (1921), and a remake of Tess of the Storm Country (1922). Griffith delivered Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), and Orphans of the Storm (1921), among others. Chaplin came through with the influential A Woman of Paris (1923) and his acknowledged masterpiece, The Gold Rush (1925).
Despite this record of excellence, which earned a reputation for the company as the Tiffany's of the industry, United Artists confronted a product shortage from the outset. The company was geared to release one picture a month—three pictures a year from each of the owners—to operate efficiently. But production progressed slower than had been anticipated. Chaplin, for example, decided to produce full-length features exclusively, rather than continue with two- or three-reelers; and Fairbanks began producing costume spectaculars, which cost more and took longer to make.
To fill out the roster, UA attempted to bring in other big-name stars as partners without success, since they were either tied to the major studios or had no stomach for the risks of independent production. Not until Joseph M. Schenck (1878–1961), producer and entrepreneur, was brought in as a partner in 1924 to reorganize the company did circumstances improve. Schenck brought three stars with him under contract—his wife, Norma Talmadge (1897–1957); his sister-in-law, Constance Talmadge (1900–1973); and his brother-inlaw, Buster Keaton (1895–1966). To solve the product crisis, Schenck formed Art Cinema Corporation to finance and produce pictures for UA distribution. This company was owned by Schenck and his business associates and was not a UA subsidiary. Art Cinema went on to deliver over fifty pictures to UA. Among them were three Buster Keaton masterpieces, The General (1927), College (1927), and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928).
To streamline operations and save on overhead expenses, Schenck proposed merging the company with the distribution arm of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which was then a fledgling producer-distributor connected to the Loew's theater chain. But Chaplin vetoed the plan, fearing that MGM would use UA's films to force what he considered its inferior product on exhibitors, among other reasons. To survive the battle for the theaters, which was being waged by several companies to gain control of the exhibition market, Schenck proposed forming a United Artists theater chain to insure access to first-run houses at favorable rental rates for the company's films. Chaplin vetoed this proposal as well, with the result that in June 1926 Schenck and his UA partners on their own formed the United Artists Theatre Circuit, a publicly-held company, separate from United Artists, which went on to construct or acquire first-run theaters in the major metropolitan areas. Schenck had other plans to strengthen United Artists, such as a proposed merger with Warner Bros., but United Artists would remain what it was founded to be, what Chaplin doggedly insisted on its being, a distribution company for top-quality independent productions.
Nonetheless, Schenck's reorganization had stabilized the company and created a niche in which United Artists could function effectively throughout the studio era. The company had established distribution outlets in most overseas markets and was firmly ensconced as one of Hollywood's eight major motion picture companies, albeit the smallest. Of the original founders, only Charlie Chaplin remained active as a producer during the 1930s. The star system was now firmly controlled by the majors and the day of the actor-producer had passed. Chaplin therefore was an anomaly in the business. He not only produced his pictures using his own money, but he also wrote, directed, and starred in them as well—a one-man show—that included City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936), The Great Dictator (1941), and Monsieur Verdoux (1947).
UA's most active producers during the 1930s were Samuel Goldwyn (1882–1974), Twentieth Century Pictures, Alexander Korda (1893–1956), David O. Selznick (1902–1965), Walter Wanger (1894–1968), and a few others. Three of these producers, Goldwyn, Korda and Selznick, also became partners in the company. As a group, they constituted a new breed of independent—the "creative" producer. The creative producer operated in much the same way as the head of a major studio, only on a much smaller scale. Sam Goldwyn, for example, owned a small studio in Hollywood, where he made forty pictures during the decade, all of which he personally financed. His production staff included some of the best talent around—art director Richard Day (1896–1972); cinematographer Gregg Toland (1904–1948); music director Alfred Newman (1901–1970); directors John Ford (1894–1973), Leo McCarey (1898–1969), King Vidor (1894–1982), and William Wyler (1902–1981); and writers Sidney Howard (1891–1939), Elmer Rice (1892–1967), Maxwell Anderson (1888–1959), Lillian Hellman (1906–1984), Ben Hecht (1894–1964), Robert E. Sherwood (1896–1955), and S. N. Behrman (1893–1973). What linked Goldwyn and the other producers to UA was the distribution contract, a document guaranteeing that UA would sell and promote their pictures in all the principal markets of the world. In return for this service, UA charged its producers a distribution fee to recoup its marketing expenses and to generate a profit.
United Artists released relatively few pictures each year, from fifteen to twenty. As a group, they could be labeled prestige pictures. As understood by the trade, the prestige picture was not a genre; rather, the term designated production values and promotion treatment. A prestige picture was typically a big-budget special of any genre based on a presold property and injected with plenty of star power, glamorous and elegant trappings, and elaborate special effects.
Sam Goldwyn produced a series of Eddie Cantor (1892–1964) musicals starting with Whoopee! (1930), which was shot in two-strip Technicolor and marked Busby Berkeley's entry into the movies, and two prestige films based on Pulitzer Prize–winning works, King Vidor's Street Scene (1931) and John Ford's Arrowsmith (1931). Goldwyn sustained his reputation as a producer of class pictures by making three pictures in collaboration with William Wyler, Dodsworth (1936), Dead End (1937), and Wuthering Heights (1939). Wuthering Heights, Goldwyn's last picture for UA, was one of the most highly admired pictures of the decade, winning the New York Film Critics award for best picture, among other honors. Based on Emily Brontë's strange tale of a tortured romance, it starred Laurence Olivier as the demon-possessed Heathcliff and Merle Oberon as his beloved Cathy.
Twentieth Century, which was owned by Joseph Schenck and Darryl Zanuck (1902–1979), a former Warner Bros. producer, supplied UA with quality fare from 1933 until it merged with Fox Films in 1935, including Alfred Werker's The House of Rothschild (1934) and Richard Boleslawski's Les Miserables (1935). The British producer-director Alexander Korda (1893–1956) became a partner in UA in 1935 after delivering The Private life of Henry VIII (1933), an historical biopic starring Charles Laughton, which earned Laughton an Academy Award® for Best Actor and sparked a brief interest in the United States in British costume pictures and historical biopics. Korda went on to deliver such films as The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), René Clair's The Ghost Goes West (1935), and The Four Feathers (1939).
In his attempt to compete with the very best in the business, David O. Selznick (1902–1965) produced a series of prestige picture for UA that included The Prisoner of Zenda (John Cromwell, 1937), A Star Is Born (William Wellman, 1937), and Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940). Selznick's biggest hit, Gone With The Wind (1939), was given to MGM in return for Clark Gable's services and much-needed production financing. After being made a partner in UA in 1941, Selznick produced three hits, Since You Went Away (Cromwell,1944), I'll Be Seeing You (William Dieterle, 1944), and Spellbound (Hitchcock, 1945).
Always in search of films from any appropriate source to fill out its roster, UA set up a production company in 1936 for Walter Wanger, a former studio producer turned independent like Selznick. With financing guaranteed by UA, Wanger produced three hits, Cromwell's Algiers (1938), Ford's Stagecoach (1939), and Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent (1940).
In a category of his own, Walt Disney (1901–1966) released his phenomenally successful Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony cartoons through the company from 1932 to 1937. Flowers and Trees (1932), The Three Little Pigs (1933), The Tortoise and the Hare (1934), Three Orphan Kittens (1935), and The Country Cousin (1936) won an Academy Award® for Disney each year he was at UA.
The ranks of independent producers swelled during World War II as a result of greater demand for entertainment by the public and a drop in production by the studios due to shortages of material and studio personnel. And since independent production became less speculative, commercial banks were willing to at least provide partial production financing under certain conditions. Most of the new entrants were speculators of various stripes, but they also included the occasional star or director who was fleeing the servitude of the studio system. UA opened its doors to many independent producers, some of them far below the company's previous standards. The few pictures that perpetuated UA's reputation in this period, in addition to Chaplin's Great Dictator, were In Which We Serve (Noel Coward,1942), Stage Door Canteen (Sol Lessor, 1943), and The Story of G.I. Joe (Lester Cowan, 1945).
UA's best known pictures after the war were produced by old hands, the eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes (1905–1976), who had been dabbling in production since the 1930s, and UA founder Charles Chaplin, who kept up his pace of producing, directing, and starring in a film once every five to six years. In 1946, UA agreed to distribute Hughes's The Outlaw starring Jane Russell, a picture which Hughes had briefly released on his own in 1943 without a Production Code seal. Hughes made the required cuts for UA, but after the film was released he bypassed the company and launched a vulgar advertising campaign that prominently focused on Jane Russell's breasts. After the Production Code Administration (PCA) revoked its approval of the movie, Hughes brought suit against the organization charging unlawful restraint of trade, but he lost his fight. Although the major circuits barred the film, independent houses were more than happy to play it, and The Outlaw went on to gross more than any other picture UA had in release.
Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux (1947) was controversial for entirely separate reasons. Critical reaction by the press to this picture, in which Chaplin abandoned his famous tramp to play a cynical middle-class bank clerk who happened also to be a modern Bluebeard, was hostile. Chaplin's popularity had sunk to its all-time low as a result of a paternity suit he was involved in and rising resentment over Chaplin's alleged pro-communist stand during the war. He was asked if he was a communist, he was asked why he had not become an American citizen, and he was accused of being unpatriotic. John Rankin, a member of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, called for Chaplin's deportation. Following a hate campaign, led primarily by the Catholic War Veterans and the American Legion, and boycotts of the picture, Chaplin ordered it withdrawn from distribution. Even though it grossed more than $1.5 million abroad, Chaplin felt that the UA sales force was responsible for its poor domestic showing, with the result that he lost confidence in his company.
The motion picture industry entered a recession after the war, causing financial institutions to declare a moratorium on independent production. Lacking capital resources and unable to finance production, UA went downhill. The threat of bankruptcy in 1951 convinced Mary Pickford and Charles Chaplin, the two remaining stockholders in the company, to turn over operating control of United Artists to a management team headed by two young lawyers, Arthur B. Krim and Robert S. Benjamin. The deal Krim and Benjamin struck was that if United Artists turned a profit in any one of the first three years of their management, the team would be allowed to purchase a 50 percent stake in the company for a nominal one dollar per share.
Taking the offensive, Krim and Benjamin gained the confidence and support of an increasing number of banks and initiated a broad financing program that attracted important producers, stars, and directors to the company. In return for distribution rights, UA now offered independent producers financing, creative control over their work, and a share of the profits. In essence, UA went into partnership with its producers. The company and a producer had to agree on the basic ingredients—story, cast, director, and budget—but in the making of the picture, UA gave the producer complete autonomy including the final cut.
After a picture was placed in release, United Artists charged its producer a schedule of distribution fees ranging from 30 to 45 percent of the film's rentals, depending on the market (that is, domestic or foreign). These fees were designed not only to recoup the company's expenses in maintaining a permanent worldwide sales organization, but also to generate profits. Since the marketing costs of a picture remained relatively fixed regardless of its box office performance, a hit could generate revenues well in excess of distribution expenses.
Distribution profits rewarded the company, to be sure, but UA also used them to offset losses on production loans and to contribute to a pool for the financing of new projects. For those pictures that earned back their investments, United Artists also enjoyed production profits. Since the distribution fee offset UA's risk as financier, the company could afford to be generous with the production profits. UA gave anywhere from 50 to 75 percent of the profits to the producer. These were the rewards for the filmmaker's efforts.
The Krim-Benjamin team turned a profit in its first year and within a few years bought out Chaplin and Pickford to own the company outright by 1955. In 1957, they took the company public and its stock was traded on the New York Stock Exchange. By then, UA's roster included fifty independents, among them such actor-producers as John Wayne (1907–1979), Frank Sinatra (1915–1998), Gregory Peck (1916–2003), Bob Hope (1903–2003), and Kirk Douglas (b. 1916); such director-producers as William Wyler (1902–1981), Stanley Kramer (1913–2001), and Otto Preminger (1906–1986); and such production units as the Mirisch Corporation and Hecht-Hill-Lancaster. No longer the smallest of the majors, United Artists grew to become the largest producer-distributor of motion pictures in the world by 1966.
Two prestige pictures came to the new UA the first year, Sam Spiegel's The African Queen (John Huston,1951) and Stanley Kramer's High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952). In 1952, UA released Arch Oboler's Bwana Devil, which started the 3-D craze, and in 1953, Otto Preminger's The Moon Is Blue, which ignited a campaign by UA to challenge the Production Code. The Hecht-Lancaster production of Marty (1955), a small-budget sleeper starring Ernest Borgnine, further boosted the company's reputation by winning the Oscar® for best picture. After going public, UA was off and running. Stanley Kramer delivered The Defiant Ones (1958) and Judgment at Nuremberg (1961); Kirk Douglas, The Vikings (1958); Otto Preminger, Exodus (1960); Burt Lancaster, The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962); and Jerome Hellman-John Schlesinger, Midnight Cowboy (1969). The latter was the only X-rated film to win the Oscar® for best picture.
By far, UA's most successful alliance was with the Mirisch Company. The brainchild of Harold Mirisch and his two brothers, Walter and Marvin, the Mirisch company operated as an "umbrella" organization that provided business and legal services to independents. The objective was to allow filmmakers to concentrate on production while the company managed the logistics of production, arranged the financing and distribution, and supervised the marketing. To produce its top-of-the-line product, Mirisch gave multiple-picture contracts to such ranking directors as Billy Wilder, John Sturges, Robert Wise, and George Roy Hill and to promising younger directors such as Blake Edwards and Norman Jewison.
The Mirisches produced nearly seventy pictures for UA over fifteen years. They were in every genre and consistently took Hollywood's top honors. Three pictures won Oscars® for best picture: The Apartment (Wilder,1960), West Side Story (Robert Wise, 1961), and In the Heat of the Night (Norman Jewison, 1967). Other acclaimed Mirisch pictures included Some Like It Hot (Wilder, 1959), The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges, 1960), The Pink Panther (Blake Edwards, 1963), and The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (Jewison, 1966).
United Artists operated internationally, like all the majors, which entailed marketing foreign films in the United States and investing in production overseas, in addition to marketing American films abroad. In its search for commercial product, United Artists fared best in Great Britain where it exploited the "Swinging London" phenomenon. Its British investment paid off big with Tony Richardson's production of Tom Jones (1963), a movie version of Henry Fielding's ribald and Hogarthian novel of the same name starring Albert Finney. The film won four Academy Awards®—for best picture, director, screenplay, and musical score—and set a new box office record for a foreign film.
b. Samuel Wilder, Sucha Galicia, Austria-Hungary, 22 June 1906, d. 27 March 2002
Internationally acclaimed as one of Hollywood's great directors, Billy Wilder explored the dark side of postwar America. Wilder was a consummate craftsman, and worked in many styles and genres, among them film noir, social problem drama, melodrama, romantic comedy, and farce. His films challenged conventional movie taboos and were known for their acerbic wit and cynical social satire. Wilder's career peaked in 1960, when he won the best director, best screenplay, and best picture Oscars® for The Apartment to become the first person to win three Academy Awards® in a year.
A German emigré, Wilder got his break in 1936 and was hired as a screen writer at Paramount, which paired him with Charles Brackett, the former drama critic for The New Yorker. Wilder and Brackett became the most successful writing team of the period, responsible for such scripts as Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938), Midnight (1939), and Ninotchka (1939, for MGM). Beginning directing in 1942, Wilder went on to make several award-winning films for Paramount, among them: Double Indemnity (1944), an archetypical film noir; The Lost Weekend (1945), a landmark social problem drama about alcoholism; and Sunset Boulevard (1950), a quintessential melodrama about Hollywood.
Turning independent producer in 1954, Wilder made The Seven Year Itch (1955) with Marilyn Monroe for Twentieth Century Fox and Love in the Afternoon (1957), a May-December romance with Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn, for Allied Artists before joining the Mirisch Corporation. Wilder catapulted the Mirisch company into the forefront of the independent producer ranks with Some Like It Hot (1959), a screwball farce starring Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon.
Co-written by I. A. L. Diamond, who enjoyed a twenty-five year partnership with Wilder, Some Like It Hot grossed more than any other comedy up to that time, and was the first of a long string of Mirisch entries to receive Academy Award® honors. Wilder and Diamond delivered two more hits, The Apartment (1960), a scathing comedy of manners about corporate America starring Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, and Fred MacMurray; and Irma La Douce (1963), a sex farce about a Parisian streetwalker that again paired MacLaine and Lemmon. Irma La Douce became Wilder's biggest box office draw; afterwards, Wilder lost touch with his audience and his next films for Mirisch—Kiss Me, Stupid (1964), The Fortune Cookie (1966), and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)—were boxoffice failures. Wilder continued to make quirky movies in the seventies but later found it difficult to find studio backing for his projects. He spent the remaining years of his life receiving accolades for his achievements in the movies.
Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945), Sunset Boulevard (1950), The Seven Year Itch (1955), Some Like It Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960)
Chandler, Charlotte. Nobody's Perfect: Billy Wilder, A Personal Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002.
Crowe, Cameron. Conversations with Wilder. New York: Knopf, 1999.
Sikov, Ed. On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder. New York: Hyperion, 1998.
United Artists financed two additional ventures that successfully capitalized on the British pop culture scene. The first was the James Bond films. Based on the novels of Ian Fleming (1908–1964), the James Bond series was produced by Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman. Leading off with Dr. No (Terence Young, 1962),
Broccoli and Saltzman chose a relatively unknown actor from Edinburgh to play James Bond—Sean Connery. The Bond series continued with From Russia with Love (Terence Young, 1963), Thunderball (Terence Young,1965), and additional hits to become the most successful series in film history. UA's second venture tapped British music. To determine if the Beatles, a new British guitar group from Liverpool, could generate interest in this country, UA commissioned Walter Shenson to produce A Hard Day's Night (Richard Lester, 1964) as a favor for UA's record division, which wanted a soundtrack LP of the Beatles to exploit in the American market. A Hard Day's Night captured the Beatles at the height of their first enormous wave of popularity. More than 1.5 million copies of the soundtrack LP were sold in the first two weeks of release and the picture went on to become a huge success.
United Artists' successful track record made it an object of a takeover. The American film industry entered the age of conglomerates during the sixties as motion picture companies were either taken over by huge multifaceted corporations, absorbed into burgeoning entertainment conglomerates, or became conglomerates through diversification. The takeover of Paramount by Gulf + Western in 1966 marked the first such entry of a conglomerate into the film industry. This move was followed by the merger of United Artists with Transamerica Corporation, a full-line financial service organization headquartered in San Francisco in 1967. The takeover was a friendly one, but relations between parent and subsidiary soured when UA posted significant losses at the end of the sixties and Transamerica attempted to foist "new management techniques" on the company.
United Artists turned itself around by 1974 and reestablished ties to the creative community. Going into the 1970s, Woody Allen (b. 1935) delivered four pictures to UA—Bananas (1971), Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask (1972), Sleeper (1973), and Love and Death (1975). Blake Edwards delivered a series of Pink Panther blockbusters—The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976), and Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978). And the Saul Zaentz-Michael Douglas production team delivered One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Milos Forman, 1975). Based on the Ken Kesey's celebrated cult novel, Cuckoo's Nest, starring Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher, grossed more than any previous UA release and achieved what no other picture in forty years had done—a sweep at the 1975 Academy Awards® (It Happened One Night was the first, in 1934). Nominated for nine Oscars®, Cuckoo's Nest won the top five—best picture, best director, best actor, best actress, and best screenplay adaptation. The following year, the Robert Chartoff-Irwin Winkler production of Rocky (John G. Alvidsen, 1976) won the Oscar® for best picture, the second time in a row for a UA picture. And in 1977, Woody Allen's Annie Hall won the Oscar® for best picture, the third time in a row for a UA picture and an industry record.
In January 1978, UA chairman Arthur Krim and top executives resigned from the company. The dismantling of what had been the industry's most stable management team stunned the film business and climaxed years of friction between the company and Transamerica, its conglomerate parent. Krim and his partners went on to form Orion Pictures, a boutique production-distribution company that struggled for most of its life until it finally filed for bankruptcy in 1991.
UA's new management had the misfortune of falling into a blockbuster trap. Sometimes a picture of enormous box office potential goes over budget immediately when put into production. What to do? If the company pulls the plug, the entire investment is lost and the company suffers the wrath of the creative community for not
permitting the filmmaker to realize the expected masterpiece. So more money is pumped in with the hope that no more catastrophes will occur. Such was the case of Michael Cimino's (b. 1943) Heaven's Gate. Proposed at $7.5 million, budgeted at $ 11.5 million, and written off finally at $44 million, the fiasco led to at least temporary unemployment for almost everyone associated with the picture and ultimately to the demise of UA itself.
UA had fallen into the blockbuster trap once before during the Krim-Benjamin regime. The picture was The Greatest Story Ever Told (George Stevens, 1965), a drama of the life of Christ based on the best-selling Fulton Oursler novel. Stevens was one of the most respected directors in the industry and the picture showed every promise of surpassing the box office performance of biblical spectaculars of the 1950s like The Ten Commandments (1956) and Ben-Hur (1959). The Greatest Story, though, earned the distinction of becoming the most ambitious and expensive film ever to be shot in the United States up to that time. Originally budgeted at a modest $7.4 million based on a twenty-three week shooting schedule, the picture ultimately cost $21 million and was brought in seventeen weeks behind schedule. The overrun was due in part to logistical problems, severe weather conditions on location in Nevada and Utah, and to the pace of Stevens's direction.
Critics found just about everything offensive—Stevens's literal and orthodox interpretations, the excessive running time, the sets "by Hallmark," the music, and particularly the cameos that employed thirty Academy Award® winners, among them Shelley Winters, Carroll Baker, John Wayne, and Sidney Poitier. To counter the adverse reviews, UA planned a slow and deliberate campaign that was designed to build the picture's prestige. Eventually, the picture recouped most of its investment.
Heaven's Gate met with a grimmer fate. It was booby-trapped from the start. Within months after UA approved Heaven's Gate, Cimino's The Deer Hunter
(1978) opened in New York and Los Angeles to smash business and won numerous awards, including five Oscars® for best picture, director, supporting actor, editing, and sound. Cimino began shooting Heaven's Gate immediately after the Academy Awards® ceremony. Two weeks into production, Cimino fell two weeks behind schedule. Sixteen weeks into production, costs had escalated to $21 million. Four weeks later, Cimino held a champagne party to celebrate the shooting of the millionth foot of film. Although UA took the drastic step of assuming fiscal control of the picture, the action came too late. A UA executive admitted that the studio seemed to have lost control of the film early on. Film critics were unanimous in their appraisal of the movie, calling Heaven's Gate an unqualified disaster. In its first theatrical run, the $44 million (including promotion costs) superbomb grossed at the box office exactly $12,032.61.
Transamerica had always enjoyed basking in UA's limelight; now it had to endure the humiliation of being associated with one of the most public motion picture failures of all time. Transamerica, therefore, was receptive to a preemptive offer from Kirk Kerkorian, the Las Vegas developer and new owner of MGM, to take UA off its hands. Transamerica got out of the motion picture business with a nice profit. The conglomerate paid $185 million for UA in 1967; Kerkorian offered and Transamerica accepted $320 million for the company in 1981. In acquiring UA, Kerkorian merged the company into a new corporate entity, MGM/UA Entertainment Company. Afterward, Kerkorian sold and bought all or parts of MGM at least four times. The final sale, for $4.8 billion, was to Sony in 2004, after which MGM and United Artists ceased to function as autonomous production entities.
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——. United Artists: The Company that Changed the Film Industry. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.
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