UA was incorporated as a joint venture on February 5, 1919, by Pickford, Chaplin, Fairbanks, and Griffith. Each held a 20% stake, with the remaining 20% held by lawyer William Gibbs McAdoo. The idea for the venture originated with Fairbanks, Chaplin, Pickford and cowboy star William S. Hart a year earlier. Already Hollywood veterans, the four stars talked of forming their own company to better control their own work.
They were spurred on by established Hollywood producers and distributors who were tightening their control over actor salaries and creative decisions, a process that evolved into the studio system. With the addition of Griffith, planning began, but Hart bowed out before anything was formalized. When he heard about their scheme, Richard A. Rowland, head of Metro Pictures, is said to have observed, "The inmates are taking over the asylum." The four partners, with advice from McAdoo (son-in-law and former Treasury Secretary of then-President Woodrow Wilson), formed their distribution company, with Hiram Abrams as its first managing director. Its headquarters was established at 729 Seventh Avenue in New York City.
The original terms called for each of the stars to produce five pictures each year. By the time the company was operational in 1920–1921, feature films were becoming more expensive and polished, and running times had settled at around ninety minutes (eight reels) and the original goal was abandoned.
UA's first film (His Majesty, the American by and starring Fairbanks) was a success. Funding for movies was limited. Without selling stock to the public, following the other studios, all United had for finance was weekly prepayment installments from theater owners for upcoming movies. As a result, production was slow and the company distributed an annual average of five films during its first five years.
By 1924 Griffith had dropped out and the company was facing a crisis: the alternatives were to either bring in others to help support a costly distribution system or concede defeat. Veteran producer Joseph Schenck was hired as president. He had been producing pictures for a decade, and he brought commitments for films starring his wife, Norma Talmadge, his sister-in-law, Constance Talmadge, and his brother-in-law, Buster Keaton. Contracts were signed with independent producers, most notably Samuel Goldwyn, and Howard Hughes. In 1933, Schenck organized a new company with Darryl F. Zanuck, called Twentieth Century Pictures, which soon provided four pictures a year, forming half of UA's schedule.
Schenck formed a separate partnership with Pickford and Chaplin to buy and build theaters under the United Artists name. They began international operations, first in Canada and then in Mexico. By the end of the 1930s, United Artists was represented in over 40 countries.
When he was denied an ownership share in 1935, Schenck resigned. He set up 20th Century Pictures' merger with Fox Film Corporation to form 20th Century Fox. Al Lichtman succeeded Schenck as company president. Other independent producers distributed through United Artists in the 1930s including: Walt Disney Productions, Alexander Korda, Hal Roach, David O. Selznick and Walter Wanger. As the years passed, and the dynamics of the business changed, these "producing partners" drifted away. Samuel Goldwyn Productions and Disney went to RKO, and Wanger to Universal Pictures.
In the late 1930s, UA turned a profit. Goldwyn was providing most of the output for distribution. Goldwyn sued United several times for disputed compensation leading Goldwyn to leave. MGM's 1939 hit Gone with the Wind was supposed to be a UA release except that Selznick wanted Clark Gable, who was under contract to MGM, to play Rhett Butler. Also that year Fairbanks died.
UA became embroiled in lawsuits with Selznick over his distribution of some films through RKO. Selznick considered UA's operation sloppy and left to start his own distribution arm.
In the 1940s United Artists was losing money because of poor pictures. Cinema attendance continued dropping as television became more popular. It sold off its Mexican releasing division to Crédito Cinematográfico Mexicano, a local company.
The Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers (SIMPP) was founded in 1941 by Pickford, Chaplin, Disney, Orson Welles, Goldwyn, Selznick, Alexander Korda, and Wanger—many of whom were members of United Artists. Later members included Hunt Stromberg, William Cagney, Sol Lesser and Hal Roach.
The Society aimed to advance the interests of independent producers in an industry controlled by the studio system. SIMPP fought to end ostensibly anti-competitive practices by the seven major film studios—Loew's (MGM), Columbia Pictures, Paramount Pictures, Universal Pictures, RKO Radio Pictures, 20th Century Fox, and Warner Bros./First National—that controlled the production, distribution and exhibition.
In 1942, SIMPP filed an antitrust suit against Paramount's United Detroit Theatres. The complaint accused Paramount of conspiracy to control first-and subsequent-run theaters in Detroit. This was the first antitrust suit brought by producers against exhibitors that alleged monopoly and restraint of trade.
In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court Paramount Decision ordered the major Hollywood movie studios to sell their theater chains and to eliminate certain anti-competitive practices. This effectively ended the studio system.
By 1958, many of the objectives that led to the creation of the SIMPP had been achieved, and SIMPP closed its offices.
Needing a turnaround, Pickford and Chaplin hired Paul V. McNutt, a former governor of Indiana, as chairman and Frank L. McNamee as president. McNutt did not have the skill to solve UA's financial problems and the pair was replaced in a few months.
On February 16, 1951, lawyers-turned-producers Arthur Krim (of Eagle-Lion Films) and Robert Benjamin approached Pickford and Chaplin with a wild idea: let them take over United Artists for ten years. If, at the end of those years, UA was profitable, they would own half the company. Fox Film Corporation president Spyros Skouras extended United Artists a $3 million loan through Krim and Benjamin's efforts.
In taking over UA, Krim and Benjamin created the first studio without an actual "studio". Primarily acting as bankers, they offered money to independent producers. UA leased space at the Pickford/Fairbanks Studio, but did not own a studio lot. Thus UA did not have the overhead, the maintenance, or the expensive production staff at other studios.
They had two hits, The African Queen and High Noon, turning a profit in their first year. Among their first clients were Sam Spiegel and John Huston, whose Horizon Productions gave UA one major hit, The African Queen (1951) and a substantial success, Moulin Rouge (1952). Others followed, among them Stanley Kramer, Otto Preminger, Hecht-Hill-Lancaster Productions, and actors newly freed from studio contracts and seeking to produce or direct their own films.
With the instability in the film industry due to theater divestment, the business was considered risky. In 1955 movie attendance reached its lowest level since 1923. Chaplin sold his 25% share during this crisis to Krim and Benjamin for $1.1 million, followed a year later by Pickford who sold her share for $3 million.
United Artists went public in 1957 with a $17 million stock and debenture offering. The company was averaging 50 films a year. In 1958, UA acquired Ilya Lopert's Lopert Pictures Corporation, which released foreign films that attracted criticism or had censorship problems.
In 1957, United Artists Records Corporation and United Artists Music Corporation were created after UA failed to buy a record company. In 1968, UA Records was merged with Liberty Records, along with their many subsidiary labels such as Imperial Records and Dolton Records. In 1972, the group was consolidated into one entity as United Artists Records. It was later taken over by EMI and managed by Capitol Records which continues to control the catalog.
In 1959 after failing to sell several pilots, United Artists offered its first ever television series, The Troubleshooters. United Artists later released its first sitcom, The Dennis O'Keefe Show.
In the 1960s, mainstream studios fell into decline and some were acquired or diversified. UA prospered while winning 11 Academy Awards, including five for best picture, adding relationships with the Mirisch brothers, Billy Wilder, Joseph E. Levine and others. In 1961, United Artists released West Side Story, which won a record ten Academy Awards (including Best Picture).
In 1960, UA purchased Ziv Television Programs. UA's television division was responsible for shows such as Gilligan's Island, The Fugitive, Outer Limits and The Patty Duke Show. The television unit had begun to build up a profitable rental library, including Associated Artists Productions, owners of Warner Bros. pre-1950 features, shorts and cartoons and 231 Popeye cartoon shorts purchased from Paramount Pictures in 1958, becoming United Artists Associated, its distribution division.
In 1963 UA released two Stanley Kramer films: It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and A Child is Waiting. In 1964, UA introduced U.S. film audiences to the Beatles by releasing A Hard Day's Night (1964) and Help! (1965).
At the same time, it backed two expatriate North Americans in Britain, who had acquired screen rights to Ian Fleming's James Bond novels. For $1 million, UA backed Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli's Dr. No in 1963 and launched the James Bond series. The franchise outlived UA's time as a major studio, continuing half a century later. Other successful projects backed in this period included the Pink Panther series, which began in 1964, and Spaghetti Westerns, which made a star of Clint Eastwood.
In 1964, the French subsidiary, Les Productions Artistes Associés, released its first production That Man from Rio.
On the basis of its film and television hits, in 1967, 98% of UA's stock was purchased by Transamerica Corporation. Transamerica selected David and Arnold Picker to lead its studio. UA debuted a new logo incorporating the parent company's striped T emblem and the tagline "Entertainment from Transamerica Corporation". This wording was later shorten/ed to "A Transamerica Company". The following year, in 1968, United Artists Associated was reincorporated as United Artists Television Distribution.
UA released another Best Picture Oscar winner in 1967, In the Heat of the Night and a nominee for Best Picture, The Graduate, an Embassy production that UA distributed overseas.
In 1970, UA lost $35 million; thus the Pickers were pushed aside for the return of Krim and Benjamin.
Other successful pictures included the 1971 screen version of Fiddler on the Roof. However, the 1972 film version of Man of La Mancha was a failure. New talent was encouraged, including Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Sylvester Stallone, Saul Zaentz, Miloš Forman and Brian De Palma. In 1973, United Artists took over the sales and distribution of MGM's films in Anglo-America until the latter bought UA in 1981 due to the massive losses from Heaven's Gate. Cinema International Corporation took over international distribution rights for MGM's films and carried on to United International Pictures (made from CIC and UA's International assets being owned by partner MGM) in the 1980s.
In 1975, Harry Saltzman sold UA his 50% stake in Danjaq, the holding-company for the Bond films. UA was to remain a silent partner, putting up money, while Albert Broccoli took producer credit. Danjaq and UA remained the public co-copyright holders for the Bond series, and the 2006 Casino Royale remake shares the copyright with Columbia Pictures.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was released by UA in 1975. It won the Best Picture Academy Award and earned $56 million. UA followed with the next two years' Best Picture Oscar winners, Rocky and Annie Hall.
However, Transamerica was not pleased with UA's releases such as Midnight Cowboy and Last Tango in Paris that were rated X by the Motion Picture Association of America. In these instances, Transamerica demanded the byline "A Transamerica Company" be removed on the prints and in all advertising. At one point, the parent company expressed its desire to phase out the UA name and replace it with Transamerica Films. Krim tried to convince Transamerica to spin off United Artists, but he and Transamerica's chairman could not come to an agreement. Finally in 1978, following a dispute with Transamerica chief John R. Beckett over administrative expenses, UA's top executives, including chairman Krim, president Eric Pleskow, Benjamin and other key officers walked out. Within days they announced the formation of Orion Pictures, with backing from Warner. The departures concerned several Hollywood figures enough that they took out an ad in a trade paper warning Transamerica that it had made a fatal mistake in letting them go.
Transamerica inserted Andy Albeck as UA's president. United had its most successful year with four hits in 1979: Rocky II, Manhattan, Moonraker and The Black Stallion.
The new leadership agreed to back Heaven's Gate, the pet project of director Michael Cimino, which overran its budget and cost $44 million. This led to the resignation of Albeck who was replaced by Norbert Auerbach. United Artists recorded a major loss for the year due almost entirely to this fiasco. It destroyed UA's reputation with Transamerica and the greater Hollywood community. However, it may have saved the United Artists name, as UA's final head before the sale, Steven Bach, wrote in his book Final Cut that there was talk about renaming United Artists to Transamerica Pictures.
In 1980, Transamerica decided to exit the film making business, and United Artists was put up for sale. Kirk Kerkorian's Tracinda Corp. purchased the company. Tracinda also owned Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which acquired United Artists in 1981.
In 1981, United Artists Classics, which had formerly been a division of the company that re-released library titles, was turned into a first-run art film distributor by Nathaniel T. Kwit, Jr. Tom Bernard was hired as the division's head of sales and Ira Deutchman as head of marketing. Later the division added Michael Barker and Donna Gigliotti. Deutchman left to form Cinecom, and Barker and Bernard formed Orion Classics and Sony Pictures Classics. The label mostly released foreign and independent films such as Ticket to Heaven and The Grey Fox, and occasional first-run reissues from the UA library, such as director's cuts of Head Over Heels and Cutter's Way. When Barker and Bernard left to form Orion, the label was briefly rechristened MGM/UA Classics before it was shut down in the late 1980s.
The merged companies became MGM/UA Entertainment Company and in 1982 began launching new subsidiaries: the MGM/UA Home Entertainment Group, MGM/UA Classics and MGM/UA Television Group. Kerkorian also bid for the remaining, outstanding public stock, but dropped his bid, facing lawsuits and vocal opposition.
After the purchase, David Begelman's duties were transferred from MGM to MGM/UA. Under Begelman, MGM/UA produced unsuccessful films and he was fired in July 1982. Of the 11 films he put into production, by the time of his termination only Poltergeist proved to be a hit.
As part of the consolidation, in 1983 MGM closed and put up for sale United Artists' long time headquarters at 729 Seventh Avenue in New York City.
WarGames and Octopussy in the early 1980s made profits for the new MGM/UA, but were not sufficient for Kerkorian. A 1985 restructuring led to independent MGM and UA production units with the combined studio leaders each placed in charge of a single unit. Speculation from analysts was that one of the studios, most likely UA, would be sold to fund the other's (MGM) stock buy-back to take that studio private. However, soon afterwards, one unit's chief was fired and the remaining executive, Alan Ladd, Jr., took charge of both.
On August 7, 1985, it was announced that Ted Turner's Turner Broadcasting System would buy MGM/UA. As film licensing to television became more complicated, Turner saw the value of acquiring MGM's film library for his superstation WTBS. Under the terms of the deal, Turner would immediately sell United Artists back to Kerkorian.
In anticipation Kerkorian installed film producer Jerry Weintraub as the chairman and chief executive of United Artists Corporation in November 1985. Former American Broadcasting Company executive Anthony Thomopoulos was recruited as UA's president Weintraub's tenure at UA was brief; he left the studio in April 1986, replaced by former Lorimar executive Lee Rich.
On March 25, 1986, Turner's acquisition of MGM/UA was finalized in a cash-stock deal for $1.5 billion, and was renamed "MGM Entertainment Co.". Kerkorian then repurchased United Artists for roughly $480 million.
Due to financial community concerns over his debt load, Ted Turner was forced to sell MGM's production and distribution assets to United Artists for $300 million on August 26, 1986. The MGM lot and lab facilities were sold to Lorimar-Telepictures. Turner kept the pre-May 1986 MGM film and television library, along with the Associated Artists Productions library, Gilligan's Island and its animated spin-offs, and the RKO Pictures films that United Artists had previously purchased.
United Artists was renamed MGM/UA Communications Company (MUCC) and organized into three main units: one television production and two film units. David Gerber headed up the TV unit with Anthony Thomopoulous at UA, and Alan Ladd, Jr. at MGM. Despite a resurgence at the box office in 1987 with Spaceballs, The Living Daylights and Moonstruck, MUCC lost $88 million.
In April 1988, Kerkorian's 82% of MUCC was up for sale. MGM and UA were split by July. Eventually, 25% of MGM was offered to Burt Sugarman, and producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber, but the plan fell through. Rich, Ladd, Thomopoulous and other executives grew tired of Kerkorian's antics and began to leave. By summer 1988, the mass exodus of executives started to affect productions, with many film cancellations. The 1989 sale of MGM/UA to the Australian company Qintex/Australian Television Network (owners of the Hal Roach library both MGM and UA distributed in the 1930s) also fell through, due to the company's bankruptcy later that year. On November 29, 1989, Turner Broadcasting System (the owners of the pre-May 1986 MGM library) attempted to buy entertainment assets from Tracinda Corporation, including MGM/UA Communications Co. (which also included United Artists, MGM/UA Home Video, and MGM/UA Television Productions), but failed. UA was essentially dormant after 1990, releasing no films for several years.
Eventually, in 1990, US was sold to Italian promoter Giancarlo Parretti, who had attempted to purchase Pathé the previous year. Parretti had bought a smaller company and renamed it Pathé Communications anticipating a successful purchase of the original French company, but failed in that attempt, so instead merged MGM/UA with his former company, resulting in MGM-Pathé Communications Co. Having bought MGM/UA by overstating his own financial condition, within a year Parretti had defaulted to his primary bank, Crédit Lyonnais, which foreclosed on the studio in 1992. This resulted in the sale or closure of MGM/UA's string of US theaters. On July 2, 1992, MGM-Pathé Communications was again named Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc. In an effort to make MGM/UA saleable, Credit Lyonnais ramped up production, and convinced John Calley to run UA. Under his supervision, Calley revived two the Pink Panther and James Bond franchises and highlighted UA's past by giving the widest release ever to a film with an NC-17 rating, Showgirls. MGM was sold by Credit Lyonnais in 1996, again to Kirk Kerkorian's Tracinda, resulting in Calley's departure.
In 1999, filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola attempted to buy UA from Kerkorian. The deal was rejected, but Coppola signed a production deal with the studio instead.
In 1999, UA was repositioned as a specialty studio. MGM had just acquired The Samuel Goldwyn Company, which had been a leading distributor of arthouse films. After that name was retired, MGM folded UA into Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures. G2 Films, successor to Goldwyn, was renamed United Artists. The distributorship, branding and copyrights for UA's main franchises (James Bond, Pink Panther, and Rocky) were moved to MGM, although select MGM releases (notably the James Bond franchise co-held with Danjaq, LLC and the Amityville Horror remake) carry a United Artists copyright. The first arthouse film to bear the UA name was Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her.
UA (re-christened United Artists Films) hired Bingham Ray to run the company in 2000. Under his supervision, it produced and distributed many art films, including Bowling for Columbine; 2002's Nicholas Nickleby and the winner of that year's Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, No Man's Land; and 2004's Undertow, and Hotel Rwanda, a co-production of UA and Lions Gate Entertainment.
In 2005, a partnership of Comcast, Sony and several merchant banks bought United Artists and its parent, MGM, for $4.8 billion. Though only a minority investor, Sony closed MGM's distribution system and folded most of its staff into their own studio, and the movies UA had completed and planned for release - Capote, Art School Confidential, The Woods, and Romance and Cigarettes - were reassigned to Sony Pictures Classics.
In March 2006, MGM announced that it would return once again as a distribution company domestically. Striking distribution deals with The Weinstein Company, Lakeshore Entertainment, Bauer Martinez Entertainment and other independent studios, MGM distributed films from these companies. MGM continued funding and co-producing projects released in conjunction with Sony's Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group on a limited basis and produced "tentpoles" for its MGM Distribution.
Sony had a minority stake in MGM, but otherwise MGM and UA operated under the direction of Stephen Cooper (CEO and minority owner of MGM).
On November 2, 2006, MGM announced that Tom Cruise and his long-time production partner Paula Wagner were resurrecting UA. This announcement came after the duo were released from a fourteen-year production relationship at Viacom-owned Paramount Pictures. Cruise, Wagner and MGM Studios created United Artists Entertainment LLC and the producer/actor and his partner owned a 30% stake in the studio, with the approval by MGM's consortium of owners.
The deal gave them control over production and development. Wagner was named CEO, which was allotted an annual slate of four films with different budget ranges, while Cruise served as a producer for the revamped studio and the occasional star.
UA became the first motion picture studio granted a WGA waiver in January 2008 during the Writers' Strike.
On August 14, 2008, MGM announced that Wagner would leave UA to produce films independently. Her output as head of UA was two films, both starring Cruise, Lions for Lambs and Valkyrie. Wagner's departure led to speculation that a UA overhaul was imminent.
Since then, UA has served as a co-producer with MGM for two releases: the 2009 remake of Fame and Hot Tub Time Machine. Throughout 2010, due to continued debt and credit issues for MGM Holdings, Inc., United Artists' parent company left the future of MGM and UA in doubt until it was resolved near the end of the year.
A 2011 financial report revealed that MGM reacquired its 100% stake in United Artists. MGM stated that it might continue to make new films under the UA brand.
On September 22, 2014, MGM acquired a 55% interest in One Three Media and Lightworkers Media, both operated by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey and partly owned by Hearst Entertainment. The two companies were consolidated into a new television company, United Artists Media Group, a revival of the UA brand. Burnett became UAMG's CEO and Downey became president of Lightworkers Media, the UAMG family and faith division. UAMG became the distributing studio for Mark Burnett Productions programming such as Survivor. UAMG was to form an over-the-top faith-based channel.
On December 14, 2015, MGM announced that it had acquired the remaining 45% stake of UAMG it did not already own and folded UAMG into MGM Television. Hearst, Downey and Burnett received stakes in MGM collectively valued at $233 million. Additionally, Burnett was promoted to CEO of MGM TV, replacing the outgoing Roma Khanna. The planned over-the-top faith service became a separate entity owned by MGM, Burnett, Downey and Hearst. With this change, UA once again went dormant.
UA continues to exist as a brand-name for the in-house material parent company MGM currently distributes.
A majority of UA's post-1952 library is now owned by MGM, while the pre-1952 films (with few exceptions) are now either owned by other companies (such as Turner Entertainment) or are in the public domain. However, throughout the studio's history, UA acted more as a distributor than a film studio, crediting the copyright to the production company responsible. This explains why certain UA releases, such as High Noon (1952) and The Final Countdown (1980), are still under copyright but not owned by MGM.
UA originally leased the home video rights to its films to Magnetic Video, the first home video company. Magnetic was purchased by 20th Century Fox in 1981 and was renamed 20th Century-Fox Video that year. In 1982, 20th Century-Fox Video merged with CBS Video Enterprises (which had demerged with MGM/CBS Home Video after MGM merged with UA) giving birth to CBS/Fox Video. Although MGM owned UA around this time, the latter studio's licensing deal with CBS/Fox was still in effect; however, the newly renamed MGM/UA Home Video started releasing some UA product, including UA films originally released in the mid 80s. Prior to MGM's purchase, UA licensed foreign video rights to Warner Bros. through Warner Home Video, in a deal that was set to expire in 1991. In 1986, the pre-1950 WB and the pre-May 1986 MGM film and television libraries were purchased by Ted Turner after its short-lived ownership of MGM/UA, and as a result CBS/Fox lost home video rights to the pre-1950 WB films to MGM/UA Home Video. When the deal with CBS/Fox (inherited from Magnetic Video) expired in 1989, the UA films began to be issued through MGM/UA Home Video.
Before the Magnetic Video and Warner Home Video deals in 1980, United Artists had exclusive rental contacts with a small video label called VidAmerica in the US and another small label called Intervision Video in the UK for the home video release of 20 titles from the UA library (e.g. The Great Escape, Some Like It Hot and Hair, along with a few pre-1950 WB titles).
In 1988, United Artists licensed the video releases for its more obscure titles to a small specialty video distributor called Wood Knapp Video. This deal lasted until 1995.
United Artists owned and operated two television stations between the years of 1968 and 1977. Legal ID's for the company would typically say "United Artists Broadcasting: an entertainment service of Transamerica Corporation," along with the Transamerica "T" logo.
Additionally, United Artists Broadcasting also held the permit to KUAB-TV in Houston, Texas, which would have possibly launched sometime around 1969 on channel 20. United Artists also owned one radio station, WWSH in Philadelphia, from 1970 to 1977.
UAB/Transamerica left the broadcasting business in 1977 by selling WUAB to the Gaylord Broadcasting Company and WWSH to Cox Enterprises.