The United Artists Revival

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Before moving to United Artists, Arhtur Krim and Robert Benjamin managed Eagle-Lion Films, the American-British company that had taken over low-end independent PRC. At Eagle-Lion, Krim and Benjamin initiated a hybrid brand of independent production whereby their company would provide film producers with 'a patchwork of financing consisting of second money, studio credits and completion bonds to supplement conventional bank loans.'31 Although the company had some success and managed to attract a small number of top-rank independent producers (Walter Wanger, Brian Foy and Edward Small), financial problems - but mainly Robert R. Young's (the company's owner) interference in Eagle-Lion's decision-making - forced Krim to resign in May 1949 and seek other opportunities in the film industry.

Krim and Benjamin approached United Artists in January 1951. After demonstrating to the two remaining shareholders, Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin, that the company was only a step away from bankruptcy, they convinced the two owners to allow them to manage the company as trustees for their combined stock for a period of ten years. If United Artists showed any profit at the end of any of the first three financial years under their management, Krim and Benjamin would be invited to acquire 50 per cent of the company's stock for just $8,000.32 With the two remaining owners finally agreeing to stay away from the day-to-day operations of the company, Krim and Benjamin's regime commenced its battle to save UA from liquidation and potentially become co-owners with Pickford and Chaplin.

After purchasing Eagle-Lion's library of titles, which gave UA some films for immediate distribution and, consequently, some much needed income, Krim and Benjamin sought to secure distribution rights for independent productions. Among others they obtained the rights for Romulus-Horizon's (the second of the two companies owned by Sam Spiegel and John Huston) The African Queen (Huston, 1951) and for the Stanley Kramer Productions' Cyrano De Bergerac (Gordon, 1951). With both films proving substantial hits, UA started gradually stabilising operations. By the end of 1951, the company had distributed 45 films and had achieved what only a few months before seemed unthinkable, a $313,000 net profit.33

With Krim and Benjamin now co-owners, United Artists continued its revival over the next few years. In 1952, it released thirty-one films including the extremely successful Stanley Kramer Productions' High Noon (Zinnemann, 1952), a film that grossed $12 million worldwide and gave Gary Cooper his second Oscar. More importantly, UA started projecting to the rest of the industry and to financial institutions a picture of a rationally managed film distribution company, gradually erasing the memories of mismanagement from its recent past. As a result, it started attracting again independent filmmakers like writer-director-producer Ben Hecht who signed a deal in 1952. In 1953 United Artists upped its releases to forty-five including John Huston's Moulin Rouge (1953), and lured one of 20th Century-Fox's top filmmakers, Otto Preminger, to independent production.

Preminger's first film for UA under the banner of his company Carlyle Productions was the controversial The Moon is Blue (1953), which the distributor released without PCA approval after resigning from the Motion Picture Association of America. The film proved a solid success, grossing $4 million, and initiated a heated debate about the future of the Production Code, which in the 1950s seemed outdated. Furthermore, and as all the majors were exploring new exhibition technologies (various forms of widescreen, 3-D, and so on) to battle the effects of television, United Artists decided not to stay behind, investing in 3-D. In 1953, the company released Bwana Devil (Oboler, 1953), the distribution rights for which it had secured for a sum of $1.75 million. UA lost some money on the film but got great publicity from its involvement with exhibition technologies, which further enhanced its position in the industry.34

By 1955 United Artists' reversal of fortune was complete. In the previous year, Hecht-Lancaster (later Hecht-Hill and Lancaster), a newly formed independent production outfit headed by Hollywood star Burt Lancaster, had signed a multi-picture deal with UA and delivered four films in the 1954-5 period alone, including Marty (D. Mann, 1955) which won the Oscar for Best Picture. Joseph L. Manckiewicz had also switched to UA for the production of Barefoot Contessa (1954), an expensive mystery drama he shot in Italy under his production company Figaro. After a short stint at Columbia, Stanley Kramer returned to UA in 1955 with Not As A Stranger (1955), the first of a series of social dramas that would make him one of the most important producer-directors in Hollywood cinema in the 1950s and 60s. Kirk Douglas brought his Bryna Productions to UA for his first film as a producer, The Indian Fighter (De Toth, 1955) and so did young filmmaker Stanley Kubrick whose first film as a producer-director with his company Minotaur Productions, Killer's Kiss (1955), was released by United Artists.

Table 3.1 Number of production companies that released through United Artists and number of films released by the distributor during the 1951-67 period

Year

Releases

Production companies (including non-American ones)

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