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Psst, Wanna Buy a Studio? : UNITED ARTISTS The Company That Changed the Film Industry by Tino Balio (University of Wisconsin Press: $32.50; 446 pp., illustrated)

April 10, 1988|Mark Litwak | Litwak is an entertainment attorney and the author of "Reel Power: The Struggle for Influence and Success in the New Hollywood," (William Morrow, 1986)

United Artists was founded in 1919 by Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and D. W. Griffith in order to break the hold of the studio system over them. The company was established as a cooperative venture to distribute films produced by each of its founders. It soon began to distribute movies from outside producers who liked the creative autonomy UA offered them. The company distributed some fine pictures, but its financial health was shaky for many years. Racked by dissension and seriously in debt, UA was perilously close to bankruptcy by 1951.

To the rescue came two shrewd, young lawyers, Arthur Krim and Robert Benjamin. They attracted independent producers by offering financing and allowed producers to retain ownership of their films (realizing tax benefits) and final cut. In return, producers deferred much of their fees. During their first year, Krim and Benjamin profitably distributed "The African Queen" and "High Noon," and the studio rebounded.

By 1955, Krim and his management team bought out the last of the founders and owned UA outright. In 1957, they took the company public, and in 1967, they merged it with Transamerica Corp. (TA). Joining a conglomerate was the worst decision of his career, Krim says. Frustration came to a head in 1978 when Krim's management team resigned en masse and formed Orion Pictures.

TA blithely proceeded forward, confident that its financial reporting procedures could adequately monitor the performance of its subsidiary. The company appointed as head of the studio a manager who spoke the conglomerate's language. The result was disastrous, culminating in the "Heaven's Gate" fiasco. Burned, TA bailed out of the movie business, selling UA to MGM in 1981.

In "United Artists: The Company That Changed the Film Industry," Tino Balio tells the fascinating history of UA from 1951 to the 1980s. His previous volume, "United Artists: The Company Built by the Stars," (Wisconsin, 1976), covered the company's earliest years.

Though ostensibly the story of one studio, Balio effectively uses the book as a vehicle to explore some of the social and economic forces affecting the industry. He explains how Charlie Chaplin was run out of the country by anti-Communists, how Otto Preminger and UA successfully challenged the production code with "The Moon Is Blue," and why the studio system was replaced by a method of ad hoc independent production.

The author's claim that United Artists changed the industry by being the first to embrace independent production, however, exaggerates the company's role. UA never had a studio lot nor did it initially have the money to produce films on its own. It was not great vision that motivated UA's approach but a lack of resources. Other studios stopped producing in-house when demand for movies dropped (largely because of the rise of television) and it was no longer profitable to operate an assembly-line manufacturing process. They weren't emulating UA but responding to new industry economics.

To his credit, Balio provides a rare glimpse at the terms of UA's contracts with its independent producers, including the fees paid and the division of profits. Surprisingly lucrative deals were given stars like Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, and producers like the Mirisch brothers.

The author did a superb job integrating information from UA's corporate records, correspondence and other written material, but he only interviewed a handful of UA executives and a couple of producers. No interviews were conducted with TA executives, UA's competitors, nor the many film makers, actors, writers, publicists, journalists and others who regularly interacted with UA.

Consequently, the book's perspective is largely limited to the views of Krim and his allies. Moreover, because the author relies so heavily on documentary excerpts, the writing is at times stilted. It is as if the author is an archeologist reconstructing events from written artifacts when he could have spoken to his subjects directly. No doubt he immersed himself in these secondary sources because they were so readily availble to him--UA donated its corporated records to the University of Wisconsin, where the author is a professor.

Nevertheless, Balio has compiled a useful and valuable history of one of the most dynamic studios in Hollywood. Krim and his team did a remarkable job during their tenure, distributing such critical successes as "Exodus" (1960), "The Apartment" (1960), "West Side Story" (1961), "In the Heat of the Night" (1967) "Midnight Cowboy" (1968), "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975) and "Annie Hall" (1977) as well as launching some very profitable series: the James Bond, Beatle, "Pink Panther" and "Rocky" films. Students of the film industry can learn much from the story of Krim and his associates as told in this book.

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