The history of Universal has been remarkably varied and complex. From the 1915 inauguration of its colossal facility in Hollywood, Universal was a model studio in terms of centralized mass production and efficient marketing. But its failure to develop an exhibition operation relegated Universal to "major minor" status during the classical era (i.e., from early 1920s through the 1940s), while the Big Five integrated majors ruled the industry. Thus Universal had the financial leverage and resources to develop only a few signature stars and product lines, although these did include such trademark cycles as the Deanna Durbin (b. 1921) musicals of the 1930s, the Abbott & Costello comedies of the 1940s, the Douglas Sirk (1897–1987)-directed melodramas of the 1950s, and, of course, the horror cycle that was the key marker of Universal's house style throughout the classical era.

After decades of relative stability as a second-class studio, Universal's postwar fortunes changed dramatically, due largely to the succession of owners and partners over the past half-century, successively International Pictures, Decca Records, the Music Corporation of America (MCA), Matsushita Electric, Vivendi, and General Electric. The most important and prolonged of these alliances involved MCA, which owned Universal from 1962 to 1990 and created a template of sorts for the media conglomerates that would come to rule and effectively define the New Hollywood. The keys to MCA-Universal's success were Lew Wasserman's (1913–2002) visionary leadership, the integration of its film and television operations, and the development of the modern movie blockbuster. But a sore spot for MCA-Universal, as it had been for the studio during the classical era, was the lack of a direct "pipeline" to consumers in the form of a theater chain, a broadcast or cable network, or some other delivery system.

Wasserman's decision in 1990 to sell the company to Matsushita, the Japanese electronics giant and the home-video pioneer, was intended to correct this shortcoming. That effort failed, leading to a period of sustained turmoil and a succession of four owners over a fifteen-year span. The most recent is General Electric, parent company of NBC, which bought the studio in 2004 and created "NBC Universal," which may mark a return to stability and industry might—albeit as a subsidiary of a global conglomerate with no real connections to the studio created almost a century ago.

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