Founded by a poor Hungarian immigrant, the studio went on to become one of Hollywood’s biggest and best and still prevails today, writes Tom McParland.
It’s not every day a film studio can claim two starting dates, or a CEO who served a prison sentence for committing perjury, attempting to bribe a judge, conspiring to obstruct justice and defraud the United States, in connection with bankruptcy. Or another executive who, facing 65 criminal counts for income tax evasion, wire fraud and racketeering, escaped a possible 300-year jail sentence by fleeing then dying in Switzerland with assets of $2.4 billion. No 20th Century-Fox screen action could ever compare with such drama.
But though mixed fortune had always been a part of 20th Century-Fox, it didn’t stop it surviving and achieving innumerable commercial and artistic successes. Or be the first to pioneer two-studio collaboration forty-eight years ago in making The Towering Inferno (1974). And after dropping the ‘Fox’, being part of a 21st Century three-studio collaboration that produced Avatar, the biggest multi-dollar smash in the history of cinema.
Perhaps it was inevitable that Hungarian born, $25 a week furrier Wilhem Fuchs would adopt the New York-friendlier name William Fox when he started out on his own at the age of 21 as the proud owner of a ‘common show’ movie house. Common show cinemas were fire regulatory-exempt 299-seat cinemas as opposed to more strictly regulated larger movie houses.
For William Fox 299-seater nickelodeons meant cheaper running costs. Fox, always more a businessman than showbusiness man, employed tenacity and hard work – the dull but essential characteristics of any successful, speculate-to-accumulate game. His accumulative game was theatre buying.
Collective public watching in nickelodeons rather than individual fairground ‘peep showing’ machines meant a continual shortage of new film stock. In 1910 Thomas Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Company, through a distribution subsidiary, solely owned and regulated the equipment for production thereby dictating the length and the rental amounts film exhibitors would pay. Other small exchanges were bought up or forced out simply by withdrawal of the supply of films. William Fox, also an independent exchange owner, determined to fight them.
He quickly opened up a studio and began solo production. Although Fox had been offered $75,000 for his exchange by Motion Picture Patents Company, he demanded ten times their offer, knowing they’d refuse. Finally when Fox successfully sued the MPA for six million dollars in damages, he thus ended the stranglehold placed on the industry by Biograph, Edison, and Vitagraph combined. Moviemaking progressed in both business and artistry as a result.
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