Columbia

POST-COHN COLUMBIA:INTO THE NEW HOLLYWOOD

Columbia's run of profitable years, which extended back to its founding in 1924, finally ended in 1958, the year of Harry Cohn's death. By then Columbia had sustained its contract system, centralized management, and studio production setup (still at Gower Gulch) longer than most of its competitors, but its recent success had been primarily a function of Cohn's willingness to take risks and embrace change. At the time of Harry Cohn's death, which came two years after the demise of his brother Jack, Columbia's annual revenues exceeded $100 million, putting it on a par with once-indomitable Paramount, Fox, and MGM and well ahead of the other studios. After Cohn's death the penchant for innovation and risk taking actually increased, which was scarcely avoidable given the changes and challenges facing the industry and which steadily dissolved Columbia's on-screen personality, since Columbia's boldest ventures in the 1960s and 1970s involved partnerships with overseas producers and with a new generation of independent auteurs , all of whom required creative control over their pictures. Thus, Columbia was relegated increasingly to the role of a financing and distribution company, and it experienced far wider swings in its economic fortunes than it had under Cohn.

Columbia's Screen Gems operation continued to produce hit TV series in the 1960s, most notably (and profitably) prime-time sitcoms like The Flintstones (1960), Bewitched (1964), I Dream of Jeannie (1965), and The Partridge Family (1970). While these kept the studio machinery running, feature film production declined dramatically. During the 1950s, Columbia released 450 films, with its output steadily falling from about 60 per year in 1950 to less than 40 by decade's end. The decline continued in the 1960s, when Columbia released 252 films and its annual output declined to about 20 per annum—a pace that would continue through the 1970s.

Most of Columbia's releases in the 1960s and 1970s were independent productions or co-productions, many of them packaged and produced overseas without the participation of top studio executives Abe Schneider and Leo Jaffe. Columbia's long-standing relationships with top independent Sam Spiegel (1901–1985) ( On the Waterfront , The Bridge on the River Kwai ) continued into the 1970s, most notably with the monumental 1962 hit, Lawrence of Arabia . Another important relationship involved Ray Stark, who partnered with Columbia on several Barbra Streisand (b. 1942) hits: Funny Girl (1968), The Owl and the Pussycat (1970), The Way We Were (1973), and Funny Lady (1975). In 1965, as the "British invasion" spread from music to film, Columbia opened offices in London that delivered A Man for All Seasons (1966), Georgy Girl (1966), To Sir, with Love (1967), and Oliver! (1968). An independent company owned by producer-director Stanley Kramer (1913–2001) gave Columbia its biggest commercial hit of the era, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), a then-daring treatment of interracial romance—but equally an exercise in nostalgia, considering its co-stars Spencer Tracy (1900–1967) and Katharine Hepburn (1907–2003).

Far more daring—and in many cases far more profitable—was Columbia's output of "youth pictures," art films, and auteur projects. In fact, no other studio championed the director-driven Hollywood New Wave to the degree that Columbia did with pictures like Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964), Mickey One (Arthur Penn, 1965), In Cold Blood (Richard Brooks, 1967), The Swimmer (Frank Perry, 1968), Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (Paul Mazursky, 1969), Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969), Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson, 1970), Husbands (John Cassavetes, 1970), The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich, 1971), Images (Robert Altman, 1972), The Last Detail (Hal Ashby, 1974), Shampoo (Ashby, 1975), and Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976). But despite this truly phenomenal output of low-cost, high-quality films, Columbia suffered record losses from 1971 to 1973 due to a run of big-budget flops like McKenna's Gold (1969), Cromwell (1970), Nicholas and Alexandra (1971), and Lost Horizon (1973) as well as a costly relocation. After a half-century on Gower Street, Columbia executed a move between 1970 and 1972 to lavish new facilities in Burbank, north of Hollywood.

Columbia survived this deepening financial crisis with the help of the investment firm Allen and Co., which in 1973 purchased controlling interest in the studio (for a paltry $1.5 million). That put the company under the command of Herbert Allen Jr., the son of Allen and Co.'s co-founder, who installed a new management team of Alan Hirschfield, David Begelman, and Peter Guber. Columbia's finances rebounded, propelled by the 1977 megahit, Close Encounters of the Third Kind directed by Steven Spielberg (b. 1946), but the new team's tenure was cut short by a forgery scandal involving Begelman. The resurgence continued under the new studio head, Frank Price, whose five-year stint (1978–1983) was highlighted by two huge Dustin Hoffman (b. 1937) hits, Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), Columbia's first US-produced multiple Oscar ® winner in twenty-five years, and Tootsie (1982).

The Price regime, while financially successful, marked the end of Columbia Pictures' control of its destiny—or even of its production operations. By then it was releasing only a dozen or so films per year, most of them produced by independents, and many were "packaged" by talent agencies—most notably Mike Ovitz of Creative Artists Agency (CAA), who certainly had more to do with Tootsie , for example, than anyone at Columbia Pictures. Columbia's control of its destiny was further compromised when Price engineered the studio's acquisition by Coca-Cola, which bought the studio in 1982 for roughly $750 million. The new parent company attempted to expand its "filmed entertainment" operations on various fronts, including the buyout of partners HBO and CBS in TriStar Pictures, a new production venture geared to the exploding pay cable and home video markets. The Coca-Cola era brought huge hits like Ghostbusters (1984) and costly flops like Ishtar (1987) as well as considerable turnover in the studio executive ranks after Price's 1983 departure, culminating in the disastrous stint of the British independent producer David Puttnam in 1986 and 1987.

By the late 1980s Columbia Picture's fortunes had again reached a low point; in fact, its share of the motion picture market fell to 4.5 percent in 1988 and, incredibly, to 3 percent in 1989 (versus TriStar's 6 percent share). At that point Coca-Cola decided to sell the studio to Sony, the Japanese electronics manufacturing giant that had purchased CBS Records a year earlier and now was looking for a film "software" company to complement its production of "hardware" (TVs, VCRs, and so on). In a deal brokered by Mike Ovitz, Sony bought Columbia Pictures Industries and all its assets, including TriStar, in late 1989 for $3.4 billion. A year later Sony bought the MGM Studio in Culver City, where it housed the Columbia and TriStar operations. Sony also became embroiled with Time Warner over the hiring of producers Peter Guber and Jon Peters to run Columbia-TriStar, which led to several years of management turmoil and subpar production results.

The Sony-Columbia alliance eventually coalesced under the leadership of studio veteran John Calley, who took over Sony's Motion Picture Group in 1996. In 2002 Columbia was back to the top of the industry, thanks largely to its blockbuster hits of that year, Spider-Man and Men in Black II . Calley handed off the top executive position in 2003 to another veteran studio boss, Amy Pascal, whose portfolio expanded a year later when a Sony-led media consortium acquired MGM (the producer-distributor, not the MGM studio facility, which Sony already owned) for $5 billion. Thus, Sony's Motion Picture Group, which already included Columbia, TriStar, and two indie subdivisions, Sony Pictures Classics and Screen Gems, now owned the largest film and television library in the industry, as well as the lucrative James Bond and Pink Panther franchises.

The acquisition of MGM further diminished the stature and importance of Columbia Pictures within the Sony media empire. In fact, Sony seemed far less interested in sustaining and exploiting Columbia's brand-name value than in promoting its own, and thus the emphasis in recent years has been on Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE) rather than on Columbia Pictures. And because all of the Hollywood studios have become little more than brand names and libraries, Columbia Pictures seems to be an increasingly endangered studio.

Buscombe, Ed. "Notes on Columbia Pictures Corporation, 1926–1941." In Movies and Methods , edited by Bill Nichols, vol. 2, 92–108. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Capra, Frank. Frank Capra: The Name Above the Title, An Autobiography . New York: Macmillan, 1971.

Hirschhorn, Clive. The Columbia Story . London: Hamlyn, 1999.

McBride, Joseph. Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success . New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

McClintick, David. Indecent Exposure: A True Story of Hollywood and Wall Street . New York: Morrow, 1982.

Yule, Andrew. Fast Fade: David Puttnam, Columbia Pictures, and the Battle for Hollywood . New York: Delacorte, 1989.

Thomas Schatz

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