United Artists: Doomed to Fail?

In 1919, the three best known actors in the world, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin, plus one of the best known directors, D. W. Griffith, established United Artists Studios.  It was a remarkable film studio, the first and only one owned and run by actors. The major studios said it was doomed to fail—after all, everyone knew actors weren’t smart enough to manage their own careers, let alone a studio. Yet United Artists did pretty well, year after year.

The actors’ motive was independence—remember this was the era of the studio system, where studios “owned” the actors and had total control over what they did (even in their private lives), which films they acted in, which parts they played, and how much they were paid.

What happened to their films? Chaplin’s are controlled by his estate through a French distribution company. Most of Griffith’s and Fairbanks films belong to the Film Preservation Associates, a restoration company. The Mary Pickford Foundation owns the rights to her existing films.  In 1931, only a few years after the advent of sound, Mary almost destroyed all her old silent films, fearing that they would make her look ridiculous to future generations. Fortunately her lifelong friend and actress Lillian Gish talked her out of it.

United Artists pretty much ceased to exist in the 1940s. A version of the studio continues today under the same name, but it has nothing in common with the original. Tom Cruise is one of the principal partners.

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