The motion picture industry entered a recession after the war, causing financial institutions to declare a moratorium on independent production. Lacking capital resources and unable to finance production, UA went downhill. The threat of bankruptcy in 1951 convinced Mary Pickford and Charles Chaplin, the two remaining stockholders in the company, to turn over operating control of United Artists to a management team headed by two young lawyers, Arthur B. Krim and Robert S. Benjamin. The deal Krim and Benjamin struck was that if United Artists turned a profit in any one of the first three years of their management, the team would be allowed to purchase a 50 percent stake in the company for a nominal one dollar per share.
Taking the offensive, Krim and Benjamin gained the confidence and support of an increasing number of banks and initiated a broad financing program that attracted important producers, stars, and directors to the company. In return for distribution rights, UA now offered independent producers financing, creative control over their work, and a share of the profits. In essence, UA went into partnership with its producers. The company and a producer had to agree on the basic ingredients—story, cast, director, and budget—but in the making of the picture, UA gave the producer complete autonomy including the final cut.
After a picture was placed in release, United Artists charged its producer a schedule of distribution fees ranging from 30 to 45 percent of the film's rentals, depending on the market (that is, domestic or foreign). These fees were designed not only to recoup the company's expenses in maintaining a permanent worldwide sales organization, but also to generate profits. Since the marketing costs of a picture remained relatively fixed regardless of its box office performance, a hit could generate revenues well in excess of distribution expenses.
Distribution profits rewarded the company, to be sure, but UA also used them to offset losses on production loans and to contribute to a pool for the financing of new projects. For those pictures that earned back their investments, United Artists also enjoyed production profits. Since the distribution fee offset UA's risk as financier, the company could afford to be generous with the production profits. UA gave anywhere from 50 to 75 percent of the profits to the producer. These were the rewards for the filmmaker's efforts.
The Krim-Benjamin team turned a profit in its first year and within a few years bought out Chaplin and Pickford to own the company outright by 1955. In 1957, they took the company public and its stock was traded on the New York Stock Exchange. By then, UA's roster included fifty independents, among them such actor-producers as John Wayne (1907–1979), Frank Sinatra (1915–1998), Gregory Peck (1916–2003), Bob Hope (1903–2003), and Kirk Douglas (b. 1916); such director-producers as William Wyler (1902–1981), Stanley Kramer (1913–2001), and Otto Preminger (1906–1986); and such production units as the Mirisch Corporation and Hecht-Hill-Lancaster. No longer the smallest of the majors, United Artists grew to become the largest producer-distributor of motion pictures in the world by 1966.
Two prestige pictures came to the new UA the first year, Sam Spiegel's The African Queen (John Huston,1951) and Stanley Kramer's High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952). In 1952, UA released Arch Oboler's Bwana Devil , which started the 3-D craze, and in 1953, Otto Preminger's The Moon Is Blue , which ignited a campaign by UA to challenge the Production Code. The Hecht-Lancaster production of Marty (1955), a small-budget sleeper starring Ernest Borgnine, further boosted the company's reputation by winning the Oscar ® for best picture. After going public, UA was off and running. Stanley Kramer delivered The Defiant Ones (1958) and Judgment at Nuremberg (1961); Kirk Douglas, The Vikings (1958); Otto Preminger, Exodus (1960); Burt Lancaster, The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962); and Jerome Hellman-John Schlesinger, Midnight Cowboy (1969). The latter was the only X-rated film to win the Oscar ® for best picture.
By far, UA's most successful alliance was with the Mirisch Company. The brainchild of Harold Mirisch and his two brothers, Walter and Marvin, the Mirisch company operated as an "umbrella" organization that provided business and legal services to independents. The objective was to allow filmmakers to concentrate on production while the company managed the logistics of production, arranged the financing and distribution, and supervised the marketing. To produce its top-of-the-line product, Mirisch gave multiple-picture contracts to such ranking directors as Billy Wilder, John Sturges, Robert Wise, and George Roy Hill and to promising younger directors such as Blake Edwards and Norman Jewison.
The Mirisches produced nearly seventy pictures for UA over fifteen years. They were in every genre and consistently took Hollywood's top honors. Three pictures won Oscars ® for best picture: The Apartment (Wilder,1960), West Side Story (Robert Wise, 1961), and In the Heat of the Night (Norman Jewison, 1967). Other acclaimed Mirisch pictures included Some Like It Hot (Wilder, 1959), The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges, 1960), The Pink Panther (Blake Edwards, 1963), and The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (Jewison, 1966).
United Artists operated internationally, like all the majors, which entailed marketing foreign films in the United States and investing in production overseas, in addition to marketing American films abroad. In its search for commercial product, United Artists fared best in Great Britain where it exploited the "Swinging London" phenomenon. Its British investment paid off big with Tony Richardson's production of Tom Jones (1963), a movie version of Henry Fielding's ribald and Hogarthian novel of the same name starring Albert Finney. The film won four Academy Awards ® —for best picture, director, screenplay, and musical score—and set a new box office record for a foreign film.
Internationally acclaimed as one of Hollywood's great directors, Billy Wilder explored the dark side of postwar America. Wilder was a consummate craftsman, and worked in many styles and genres, among them film noir, social problem drama, melodrama, romantic comedy, and farce. His films challenged conventional movie taboos and were known for their acerbic wit and cynical social satire. Wilder's career peaked in 1960, when he won the best director, best screenplay, and best picture Oscars ® for The Apartment to become the first person to win three Academy Awards ® in a year.
A German emigré, Wilder got his break in 1936 and was hired as a screen writer at Paramount, which paired him with Charles Brackett, the former drama critic for The New Yorker . Wilder and Brackett became the most successful writing team of the period, responsible for such scripts as Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938), Midnight (1939), and Ninotchka (1939, for MGM). Beginning directing in 1942, Wilder went on to make several award-winning films for Paramount, among them: Double Indemnity (1944), an archetypical film noir; The Lost Weekend (1945), a landmark social problem drama about alcoholism; and Sunset Boulevard (1950), a quintessential melodrama about Hollywood.
Turning independent producer in 1954, Wilder made The Seven Year Itch (1955) with Marilyn Monroe for Twentieth Century Fox and Love in the Afternoon (1957), a May-December romance with Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn, for Allied Artists before joining the Mirisch Corporation. Wilder catapulted the Mirisch company into the forefront of the independent producer ranks with Some Like It Hot (1959), a screwball farce starring Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon.
Co-written by I. A. L. Diamond, who enjoyed a twenty-five year partnership with Wilder, Some Like It Hot grossed more than any other comedy up to that time, and was the first of a long string of Mirisch entries to receive Academy Award ® honors. Wilder and Diamond delivered two more hits, The Apartment (1960), a scathing comedy of manners about corporate America starring Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, and Fred MacMurray; and Irma La Douce (1963), a sex farce about a Parisian streetwalker that again paired MacLaine and Lemmon. Irma La Douce became Wilder's biggest box office draw; afterwards, Wilder lost touch with his audience and his next films for Mirisch— Kiss Me, Stupid (1964), The Fortune Cookie (1966), and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)—were boxoffice failures. Wilder continued to make quirky movies in the seventies but later found it difficult to find studio backing for his projects. He spent the remaining years of his life receiving accolades for his achievements in the movies.
Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945), Sunset Boulevard (1950), The Seven Year Itch (1955), Some Like It Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960)
Chandler, Charlotte. Nobody's Perfect: Billy Wilder, A Personal Biography . New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002.
Crowe, Cameron. Conversations with Wilder . New York: Knopf, 1999.
Sikov, Ed. On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder . New York: Hyperion, 1998.
United Artists financed two additional ventures that successfully capitalized on the British pop culture scene. The first was the James Bond films. Based on the novels of Ian Fleming (1908–1964), the James Bond series was produced by Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman. Leading off with Dr. No (Terence Young, 1962),
Broccoli and Saltzman chose a relatively unknown actor from Edinburgh to play James Bond—Sean Connery. The Bond series continued with From Russia with Love (Terence Young, 1963), Thunderball (Terence Young,1965), and additional hits to become the most successful series in film history. UA's second venture tapped British music. To determine if the Beatles, a new British guitar group from Liverpool, could generate interest in this country, UA commissioned Walter Shenson to produce A Hard Day's Night (Richard Lester, 1964) as a favor for UA's record division, which wanted a soundtrack LP of the Beatles to exploit in the American market. A Hard Day's Night captured the Beatles at the height of their first enormous wave of popularity. More than 1.5 million copies of the soundtrack LP were sold in the first two weeks of release and the picture went on to become a huge success.