UA started with artists in lead role

MGM's new deal with Cruise, Wagner harkens back to studio's storied history.

When CEO Harry Sloan gives visitors a tour of MGM's airy executive offices on the 14th floor of the MGM Tower in Century City, he enjoys pointing out an antique document in one of the display cases. The paper in question is the founding agreement that Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and director D.W. Griffith signed in 1919 when they decided to take control of their careers by joining to create their own motion picture company, the United Artists Corp.

Until Thursday, that old contract appeared more a historical artifact than a template for the future. But in announcing that it has struck a deal with Tom Cruise and his producing partner Paula Wagner to revive UA, MGM said it was harkening back to UA's storied history as a filmmaker-friendly "place where producers, writers, directors and actors can thrive in a creative environment."

UA, which has earned nine best picture Oscars, has occupied a unique if sometimes embattled spot in Hollywood history. And its legacy is remembered fondly.

With that in mind, producer David Picker, who worked at UA from 1956-73, heading production through most of that period, hailed its newest incarnation, saying: "Knowing some of the films that Paula and Tom have encouraged, it seems like an enlightened choice. The industry could use a film company that works with filmmakers and can give them a sympathetic ear."

As legend has it, silent film stars Chaplin, Pickford and Fairbanks first began talking of creating their own company while traveling the country as part of a war bonds tour during World War I. With Griffith joining the startup, they each committed to making five movies annually, an overly ambitious plan even given the accelerated production schedules of the silent era.

The industry joke that immediately made the rounds was that "the inmates have taken over the asylum." In later years it would be attributed to Chaplin himself, though it is reported to have been coined by Richard Rowland, co-founder of Metro Pictures with Louis B. Mayer.

UA's first decade saw the release of such movies as Chaplin's "The Gold Rush," "City Lights" and "Modern Times"; Griffith's "America"; Fairbanks' "The Three Musketeers" and "Robin Hood"; and 1929's "Coquette," which earned Pickford the best actress Oscar. With Joseph Schenck -- who later would co-found 20th Century Pictures -- serving as president, UA also ventured into distribution and exhibition and worked with filmmakers ranging from Samuel Goldwyn to Walt Disney.

Griffith quickly abandoned the venture. With the coming of talkies, Pickford and Fairbanks faded from the screen, and Chaplin scaled back his own efforts. In its initial burst of success and gradual demise, UA foreshadowed such other filmmaker-driven companies as First Artists (a partnership among Sidney Poitier, Barbra Streisand, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen in the late '60s) and the Directors Company (formed by Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola and William Friedkin in the early '70s). In each case, the founding partners' individual agendas simply didn't stay in sync for long.

UA had become a shell of its former self when, in 1951, New York-based entertainment attorneys Arthur Krim and Robert Benjamin proposed that they take over the company in exchange for an option to buy it if they could turn a profit within four years.

Under their leadership, UA adopted a new model. It didn't invest in developing a studio lot but instead financed movies with filmmakers -- many of who chose to shoot on location throughout the world -- who were given an unprecedented amount of freedom without meddlesome executives looking over their shoulders.

The "new" UA attracted such filmmakers as producer Sam Spiegel and director John Huston, who turned out "The African Queen"; Hill-Hecht-Lancaster Prods., which produced the Oscar-winning "Marty"; and producer-director Stanley Kramer ("Judgment at Nuremberg").

By the '60s, UA seemed to capture the swingin' zeitgeist. Working with Walter Mirisch and the Mirisch Corp., it turned out "West Side Story" and "In the Heat of the Night" as well as Billy Wilder's "Some Like It Hot" and "The Apartment." It was tuned into the British new wave, as well, handling the Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night," Tony Richardson's "Tom Jones" and John Schlesinger's "Midnight Cowboy" and "Sunday Bloody Sunday." It discovered and nurtured such enormously popular franchises as the James Bond adventures, the Pink Panther series and the "Rocky" movies.

"Let's face it, it was a simpler time. We were in the movie business, not the marketing business," Picker recalled. "The atmosphere that we created was one of creative freedom within the parameters of the budget. Although there were risks, the numbers were a lot smaller then. Still, it was a unique time in the industry. At UA, we abrogated our power and egos in favor of the filmmakers and the relations we developed with them."

In 1967, Krim and Benjamin sold control of UA to San Francisco-based Transamerica Corp., an insurance and financial services company. For a time, all prospered. In the mid-'70s, UA scored an Oscar trifecta, winning three best pictures in a row for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Rocky" and "Annie Hall." Eventually tiring of corporate oversight, however, Krim and Benjamin and their team exited in 1978 to form Orion Pictures.

Gradually, UA's fate had become intertwined with MGM's. It had taken over sales and distribution for MGM's films in 1973, and after a new management team allowed Michael Cimino's "Heaven's Gate" to escalate into a $40 million boxoffice bomb, Transamerica tired of the movie business and sold the company to Kirk Kerkorian, who merged it with MGM.

In recent years, UA has had something of an identity crisis. While briefly under the leadership of respected indie exec Bingham Ray, it entered the specialty films arena with such films as Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine" and Terry George's "Hotel Rwanda." At the same time, it appeared to be steering toward more popular genre fare with such movies as the comedy "Legally Blonde" and the horror film "Jeepers Creepers."

After MGM was sold to a consortium of investors in April 2005, UA was effectively put on the shelf. UA films produced before the sale, such as "Capote" and "Art School Confidential," were released by Sony Pictures Classics. A reminder of past glories, the UA logo also adorns the upcoming Sony Pictures release "Casino Royale," which MGM co-produced with Columbia Pictures.

It now falls to Cruise and Wagner to see whether they can restore the UA name to its past glory by taking it back to the future.