Paramount Pictures evolved from the merger of two production companies that then took control of their distributor to create the most powerful studio of its day.
On May 8, 1912, the twists and turns began when Adolph Zukor founded Famous Players in Famous Plays. Zukor had emigrated to New York as a 16-year-old orphan from Hungary and became wealthy in the fur business. Fate intervened in 1903 when a cousin asked to borrow $3,000 for an arcade partnership. Zukor agreed and opened his own arcade, which did big business with peep show machines running short films.
Zukor then moved into the fledgling movie business, thinking people would lose interest in movie clips and would then embrace feature films. When Zukor learned who held the U.S. rights to the French feature QUEEN ELIZABETH, starring legendary stage actress Sarah Bernhardt, he immediately licensed it for $35,000.
He premiered QUEEN ELIZABETH in July 1912 at NY’s Lyceum, a legitimate stage theatre. It was a major entertainment event that put Famous Players on the map. He was absolutely right about longer movies resonating with audiences.
Meanwhile, in 1913 movie pioneer Jesse Lasky in partnership with a new director (Cecil B. DeMille), an experienced director (Oscar Apfel), and a tough businessman (Sam Goldfish – later Goldwyn) formed The Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Co. Its first production, THE SQUAW MAN, was the first feature film in Hollywood and was a big hit in theatres.
Zukor & Lasky’s movies were released through Paramount Pictures, the first U.S. national distributor. Utah theatre owner W.W. Hodkinson formed Paramount on May 8, 1914 — two years to the day after Zukor had started Famous Players. When the ambitious Zukor realized he and Lasky were making most of Paramount’s films, he saw how to take over the company and get the power base he craved.
After secretly assembling a large block of Paramount stock, at the June 13, 1916 shareholders meeting, Zukor ousted Hodkinson by nominating distributor Hiram Abrams for president and voting his own shares to elect him. Zukor and Lasky merged their companies on June 28, 1916, to form Famous Players-Lasky, valued then at a substantial $12.5M.
Zukor soon was president of the Paramount Famous Lasky Corp., which now distributed and made films. Under Zukor, Paramount built a theatre circuit with nearly 2,000 screens and dominated Hollywood for decades. Zukor, who ruled his empire from Paramount’s Times Square headquarters, was chairman emeritus when he died June 10, 1976, at 103.
“It occurred to me that if we could take a novel or a play and put it on the screen, the people would be interested. We should get not only the casual passers-by but people leaving their homes, going out in search of amusement.” – Adolph Zukor