Who Owns Universal Studios? – The film production and distribution company Universal Pictures, or as it is commonly known, Universal Studios or just Universal, is the world’s fifth-oldest major film studio (the other four being the famous French studios Gaumont Film Company and Pathé, Titanus, and the Danish Nordisk Film company) and the oldest surviving studio in its country of origin. Legally known as Universal City Studios LLC, the studio was acquired by MCA in 1962 and was relaunched in 2004 as NBCUniversal, a subsidiary owned by Comcast.
Who Owns Universal Studios?
In 1912, Universal Studios was founded by Carl Laemmle, William Swanson, Mark Dintenfass, Adam Kessel, Charles O. Baumann, Robert H. Cochrane, David Horsley, Pat Powers and Jules Brulatour. The studios are located at 100 Universal City Plaza Drive in California’s Universal City, while the home to its corporate offices in New York City. A major member of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), Universal Studios was a part of the “Little Three” majors during the golden age of Hollywood.
Universal Studios is considered one of Hollywood’s most successful film studios and is known worldwide today. Some of the major releases by Universal Studios include Furious 7 (2015), Jurassic World (2015), Jurassic Park (1993), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), and Jaws (1975). All of these movies did significant business and broke box office records. The last three films of the list, all directed by Steven Spielberg coincidentally, were the highest-grossing films of all time post their release.
The company has been in business for more than a century, and it goes without saying that there is a rich history attached to it. Also, taking into account that the company changed its name and ownership, it would be wise to trace the company’s history from its founding to the present.
Founding and Establishment
On April 30, 1912, what was then known as the Universal Film Manufacturing Company was incorporated with Carl Laemmle as the principal figure (also president), in partnership with other founders Dintenfass, Baumann, Kessel, Powers, Swanson, Horsley, and Brulatour. Initially established as a merger of Independent Moving Pictures (IMP), the Powers Motion Picture Company, Rex Motion Picture Manufacturing Company, Champion Film Company, Nestor Film Company, and the New York Motion Picture Company in June 1912, Laemmle eventually bought all of these companies.
Universal Studios then formed a company with vertical integration, involving film production, distribution, and exhibition locations/venues under the same corporate entity. Laemmle was cautious with his business venture and did not take unnecessary risks. For example, he did not develop a theatre chain even though all of his competitors were expanding and produced all of his films independently, refraining from taking on debt. While business fluctuated depending on projects that demanded high-budget production, there were also moments of success with releases such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925).
A significant figure that emerges in the initial production policy decision was Laemmle’s secretary, Irving Thalberg. Thalberg operated as studio chief until MGM poached him, and without his vision, Universal became a second-tier studio and stayed so for the coming decades. Laemmle also had imposed a “clean picture” policy on his studio in the initial years, but it was withdrawn in 1927 when it was observed that “unclean” pictures made more profit for studios than “clean” pictures.
The Laemmle Leadership Ends
Carl Jr., son of Laemmle Sr., was made the head of Universal Studios in 1928 as a 21st birthday gift. Carl Jr. updated the studio with many important and necessary changes. He expanded the business by making a theatre chain, converted the studio to sound production, and undertook many high-budget productions. With a series of successful horror releases, the studio in the 1940s came to be colloquially called Universal Horror.
However, it was this lavish spending that spelled doom for the Laemmle’s. For the film Show Boat (1936), Universal Studios broke its 26-year record and took a loan to finance products from the Standard Capital Corporation. The Laemmles were removed from a company they had founded when the production went $300,000 over budget. On April 2, 1936, Standard foreclosed and took control of the Studios, changing the ownership of the Studios.
J. Cheever Cowdin of Standard Capital Corporation took over and appointed himself president and chairman of the board of directors. British entrepreneurs C.M. Woolf and J. Arthur Rank bought a great proportion of stakes in the company. The Studio operated under a new production policy which operated under major cuts in production budgets on upcoming film projects. Due to this focus on low-budget production, Universal was one of the last of the American studios to sign a contract with Technicolor.
Universal-International and Decca Records
In 1945, J. Arthur Rank, who already owned stakes in the studios, got into a four-way merger with Universal, International Pictures, and producer Kenneth Young. Even though the project, called United World Pictures, was a failure and dissolved within a year, Rank and International Pictures tried again. As a result, another merger was announced on July 30, 1946, reorganizing the studio as Universal-International. The founder of International, William Goetz, and Leo Spitz was named co-heads of Universal-International Pictures.
Universal-International Pictures was a subsidiary of Universal Pictures Company, Inc., as the latter also served as an import-export subsidiary and the copyright holder for the production arm’s films. Under Goetz, Universal-International took an ambitious turn. First, the studio became the official American distributor of Rank’s British films. Then, in 1947, the company bought majority stakes in home-movie dealer Castle Films and took over entirely in 1951.
Even though business was expanding, the production aspect of the studio still struggled and the movies released were yet to be warmly welcomed by the audience. By the end of the 1940s, Goetz and Rank were out, and investor Milton Rackmil came into the picture. His Decca Records took complete control over studio production in 1952.
A decade after Decca Records took over. Another takeover happened in the MCA-Decca Records merger. MCA formed what was known as the Universal City Studios, Inc. in 1964. A studio-tour subsidiary was launched in the same year, and Universal finally became a full-fledged A-lists studio.
Expansion, NBCUniversal and Comcast
The company was looking forward to expanding internationally, and it was in 1990 that the Japanese company Matsushita Electric (now Panasonic) agreed to acquire MCA for $6.6 billion. However, despite the cash infusion following the acquisition, the cultural clash led Matsushita to withdraw and sell 80% of the stake (for $5.7 billion) in MCA/Universal to Seagram, the Canadian drinks distributor. Seagram aimed to expand in the entertainment industry and bought PolyGram in 1999 and other entertainment properties.
The following year, in June 2000, Seagram was bought by the French water utility company Vivendi, which already owned StudioCanal, and the studios then came to be known as Vivendi Universal. In 2004, Vivendi Universal was in debt. So it sold 80% of the stakes of Vivendi Universal Entertainment to General Electric (GE), parent of NBC, thus giving birth to NBCUniversal. At the same time, Universal Studios Inc. remained as the legal name of the production subsidiary. GE eventually purchased the remaining stakes owned by Vivendi in 2011.
In January 2011, Comcast, the cable provider company, bought 51% of their stake in the studios while buying the rest of the 49% in 2013 for $16.7 billion. Donna Langley became the sole chairman of Universal Pictures in the same year after co-chairman Adam Fogelson was ousted. Jeff Shell, previously NBCUniversal International Chairman, was appointed as the chairman of the recently created Filmed Entertainment Group. Ron Meyer was appointed as the Vice-Chairman of NBCUniversal while still overseeing Universal Parks and Resorts.
Universal Studios has been under the ownership of various companies and corporations, all of whom added to the expansion of the film production and distribution business, which Laemmle originally had in mind when he founded this company. While Laemmle’s original foresight was commendable, his abstaining from high-budget production impacted business until, eventually, his son brought the studios up to date. However, Carl Jr.’s ambition proved to be the downfall of the Laemmles as the production went over budget following seizure by Standard Capital Corporation.
The studios again exchanged hands when Universal-International came into being, and Decca Records took over. With the hope of taking the company to a worldwide market, several acquisitions took place, and owners changed rapidly. After having Matsushita Electric, Seagram, and Vivendi, the studios were finally bought by General Electric and renamed NBCUniversal. However, soon enough, Comcast took over the majority of the stakes and eventually acquired the entire ownership of the company, which remains to this day. The studios are successful today and have already made a major acquisition in 2016 when they bought DreamWorks Animation. Today, Universal is a household name all across the globe and is among the major production and distribution companies around the world.