Major film studio
A major film studio is a production and distribution company that releases a substantial number of films annually and consistently commands a significant share of box office revenue in a given market. In the American and international markets, the major film studios, often simply known as the majors, are commonly regarded as the six diversified media conglomerates whose various film production and distribution subsidiaries collectively command approximately 80 to 85% of U.S. box office revenue. The term may also be applied more specifically to the primary motion picture business subsidiary of each respective conglomerate.
The "Big Six" majors are all film studios active since Hollywood's Golden Age. Three of them-Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros. Pictures, and 20th Century Fox-were one of the "Big Five", but the other three-Universal Pictures, Columbia Pictures, and Walt Disney Pictures-did not gain their market shares until much later. The former two were part of the "Little Three" in the next tier down although considered majors and the latter one was an independent production company during the Golden Age and was an important Hollywood entity while being a mini-major. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) and RKO were the other two Golden Age "Big Five" majors, that exist today only as a mini-major and a small independent company. United Artists was a distribution company for several independent producers during the Golden Age, later began producing films, grew to major status, then merged with MGM.
While the main studios of the Big Six are located within 15 miles (24 km) of each other, Disney is the only one that has been owned by the same conglomerate since its founding and is also the sole member whose parent entity is still located near Los Angeles on Disney's studio lot and in the same building, where as the five others report to conglomerates that are respectively located elsewhere in Dallas (Warner Bros.), New York City (Fox and Paramount), Philadelphia (Universal), and Tokyo (Columbia); moreover, Disney and Columbia are the only ones whose parent companies are still headquartered near the Pacific Ocean. Paramount is the only one still based in Hollywood with Columbia being in Culver City and Fox in Century City; furthermore, Paramount, Columbia, and Fox are the only ones still located within and near the Los Angeles city limits. Both Disney and Warner Bros. are located in Burbank and Universal is in the unincorporated area of Universal City.
Most of today's Big Six also control subsidiaries with their own distribution networks that concentrate on arthouse pictures (e.g. Fox Searchlight Pictures) or genre films (e.g. Sony's Screen Gems); several of these specialty units were shut down or sold off between 2008 and 2010. The six major studios are contrasted with smaller production and/or distribution companies, which are known as independents or "indies". The leading independent producer/distributors such as Lionsgate, STX Entertainment, and Tang Media Partners’ Global Road Entertainment (a 2017 merger of two independents) are sometimes referred to as "mini-majors". From 1998 through 2005, DreamWorks SKG commanded a large enough market share to arguably qualify it as a seventh major, despite its relatively small output. In 2006, DreamWorks was acquired by Viacom, Paramount's corporate parent. In late 2008, DreamWorks once again became an independent production company; its films were distributed by Disney's Touchstone Pictures until 2016, at which point distribution switched to Universal.
The Big Six major studios are today primarily backers and distributors of films whose actual production is largely handled by independent companies – either long-running entities or ones created for and dedicated to the making of a specific film. The specialty divisions often simply acquire distribution rights to pictures in which the studio has had no prior involvement. While the majors still do a modicum of true production, their activities are focused more in the areas of development, financing, marketing, and merchandising. Those business functions are still usually performed in or near Los Angeles, even though the runaway production phenomenon means that most films are now mostly or completely shot on location at places outside Los Angeles.
Since the dawn of filmmaking, the U.S. major film studios have dominated both American cinema and the global film industry. U.S. studios have benefited from a strong first-mover advantage in that they were the first to industrialize filmmaking and master the art of mass-producing and distributing high-quality films with broad cross-cultural appeal. Today, the Big Six majors routinely distribute hundreds of films every year into all significant international markets (that is, where discretionary income is high enough for consumers to afford to watch films). It is very rare, if not impossible, for a film to reach a broad international audience on multiple continents and in multiple languages without being picked up by one of the majors for distribution.
|Major film studio unit||Date founded||Arthouse/indie||Genre movie/B movie||Animation||Other divisions and brands||US/CA market share (2017)|
|Warner Bros. Pictures||1923||18.50%2|
|Walt Disney Studios
(The Walt Disney Company)
|Walt Disney Pictures||1923||21.82%1|
|Fox Entertainment Group
(21st Century Fox)
|20th Century Fox||1935||Fox Searchlight Pictures||12.92%4|
^1 Disney 21.78%; UTV Communications: 0.04% (Prev. totals: 2016 - 26.1%; 2015 - 20.7%; 2014 - 14.9%; 2013 - 15.9%; 2012 - 14.7%; 2011-12.2%; 2010—14.3%; 2009—11.9%; 2008—11.4%; 2007—15.3%; 2006—16.7%; 2005—14.6%; 2004—16.5%)
^2 Warner Bros.: 18.50% (Prev. totals: 2016 - 16.92%; 2015 - 14.0%; 2014 - 14.4%; 2013 - 17.08%; 2012 - 15.3%; 2011-18.1%; 2010—18.0%; 2009—20.1%; 2008—19.4%; 2007—20.5%; 2006—14.9%; 2005—21.7%; 2004—17.7%)
^3 Universal: 13.80%; Focus Features: 1.18% (Prev. totals: 2016 - 12.54%; 2015 - 21.6%; 2014 - 10.3%; 2013 - 13.9%; 2012-11.3%; 2011-11.3%; 2010—9.2%; 2009—10.0%; 2008—12.9%; 2007—12.7%; 2006—10.9%; 2005—13.2%; 2004—10.8%)
^4 20th Century Fox: 12.02%; Fox Searchlight: 0.90% (Prev. totals: 2016 - 12.96%; 2015 - 12.7%; 2014 - 16.5%; 2013 - 10.80%; 2012-10.4%; 2011-11.1%; 2010—14.8%; 2009—16.1%; 2008—13.2%; 2007—11.9%; 2006—17.0%; 2005—16.5%; 2004—11.7%)
^5 Sony (Columbia/Screen Gems/TriStar): 9.59%; Sony Pictures Classics: 0.28% (Prev. totals: 2016 - 8.1%; 2015 - 8.5%; 2014 - 11.6%; 2013 - 11.17% ; 2012 - 17.0%; 2011-13.4%; 2010—12.8%; 2009—14.2%; 2008—13.4%; 2007—13.4%; 2006—19.3%; 2005—11.1%; 2004—16.8%)
^6 Paramount: 4.79%; Paramount Vantage: 0.03% (Prev. totals: 2016 - 7.52%; 2015 - 6.2%; 2014 - 9.7%; 2013 - 8.94%; 2012-8.3%;2011-19.3%; 2010—16.8%; 2009—14.3%; 2008—17.2%; 2007—16.1%; 2006—11.0%; 2005—9.8%; 2004—6.8%)
Past majors include:
|Mini-major studio unit||Date founded||Other divisions and brands||US/CA market share|
|Lionsgate Motion Picture Group
|The Amblin Group
|Tang Media Partners||Global Road Entertainment||2011||0.99%|
|Gaumont Film Company||1895||Gaumont Animation|
|Egmont Nordisk Film
^7 Roadside Attractions, partly owned by Lionsgate, had an additional 0.34% market share.
Past mini-majors include:
- Allied Artists Pictures, 1967
- Artisan Entertainment - purchased in 2003 by Lions Gate Entertainment
- Avco Embassy, 1967 - acquired by Norman Lear and Jerry Perenchio in 1982; acquired by the Coca-Cola Company in 1985; acquired by Dino DeLaurentiis in 1986
- The Cannon Group
- Castle Rock Entertainment - purchased in 1993 by Turner Broadcasting System; TBS merged with Time Warner in 1996
- DreamWorks Animation - acquired by NBCUniversal in 2016
- DreamWorks Pictures - now a label of Amblin Partners
- FilmDistrict - merged into Focus Features (a subsidiary of Universal) in 2014
- Miramax Films - owned by The Walt Disney Company from 1993 to 2010; sold to Filmyard Holdings in 2010, then to beIN Media Group in 2016
- New Line Cinema - purchased in 1994 by Turner Broadcasting System; TBS merged with Time Warner in 1996; New Line merged with Warner Bros. in 2008
- New World Pictures - acquired by News Corporation (then parent company of 20th Century Fox) in 1997
- October Films - purchased in 1997 by Universal; purchased in 1999 by Barry Diller and merged with Gramercy Pictures into USA Films; USA in 2001 acquired by Vivendi (then parent company of Universal) and merged with Good Machine and Universal Focus into Focus Features
- Orion Pictures - in 1990, was considered the last of the mini-majors Purchased in 1988 by Kluge/Metromedia; purchased in 1997 by MGM
- Overture Films - distribution and marketing assets sold to Relativity Media in 2010; Overture's film library acquired by Lionsgate by May 2016.
- PolyGram Filmed Entertainment - sold to Universal Studios in 1999; re-launched in 2017 as Universal Music Group's film & television production division, PolyGram Entertainment
- Republic Pictures - Produced many serials and was formed by the consolidation of six minor studios
- Relativity Media - filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on July 30, 2015 Emerged from bankruptcy in 2016, only to re-file in May 2018
- Summit Entertainment - acquired by Lions Gate Entertainment in 2012
- Trimark Pictures - acquired by Lions Gate Entertainment in 2000
- TriStar Pictures - consolidated in 1987 into Columbia, one of the partners in the joint venture that created it.
- Turner Pictures - purchased and merged with Time Warner in 1996; now known as WarnerMedia 2018.
- United Artists - became a major studio then acquired by MGM in 1981; relaunched in 2006 by Paula Wagner and Tom Cruise, but after both of them resigned in 2008, MGM used the company as a brand namesake for franchises such as Rocky and James Bond.
- Vestron Pictures - acquired by Live Entertainment in 1991
- Walt Disney Productions / The Walt Disney Company - became a major studio
- The Weinstein Company - acquired in Chapter 11 bankruptcy and renamed Lantern Entertainment
- Weintraub Entertainment Group
Lions Gate Entertainment, which moved in 2006 from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Santa Monica, California, was the most successful North American movie studio based outside the Los Angeles metropolitan area before its relocation. Now known as Lionsgate, it was founded in 1997 by financier Frank Giustra. (The company is unrelated to Lion's Gate Films, the Los Angeles–based production company run by filmmaker Robert Altman in the 1970s.) In 2003, the company doubled in size with the acquisition of Artisan Entertainment. In January 2012, Lionsgate acquired Summit Entertainment, which was the highest-grossing mini-major the previous three years. Summit was founded as an independent overseas sales company in 1991, moved into production in the mid-1990s, and was reconstituted as a full-fledged studio in 2006. Lionsgate also owns a minority stake in the independent distribution company Roadside Attractions.
Lionsgate is apparently on the cusp of becoming a major studio with the parent's purchase of Summit Entertainment as well as its controlling share of Roadside Attractions (43%) and Pantelion Films (as specialty units). With its top five box office showing it was declared a new major studio by Variety; however, The Hollywood Reporter does not yet recognize the company as a major.
The Weinstein Company was founded in late 2005 by brothers Harvey and Bob Weinstein after their departure from Miramax Films, which they had founded in 1979. In 1993, they sold control of Miramax to the Walt Disney Company, continuing to run the studio in quasi-independent fashion under the Disney umbrella. When the Weinsteins left Disney, they retained the right to the Dimension Films brand, which is used by The Weinstein Company (as it was by Miramax) for genre films. After the success of 1408, released in June 2007, the studio went two years without a hit. It experienced several high-level executive defections in 2008, and announced major layoffs that November. The Weinsteins have a long-standing relationship with Quentin Tarantino—all of the feature films he has directed through 2009 have been distributed either by Miramax, when it was led by the brothers, or The Weinstein Company. The successful release of his Inglourious Basterds in August 2009 was seen as a "turnaround" for the studio.
MGM, after decades as a major studio, continues to distribute motion pictures and television content as a minor, privately held media company. In April 2005, it was purchased from Kirk Kerkorian's Tracinda Corporation by a consortium including Sony, cable company Comcast (who now owns Universal Pictures), Providence Equity Partners, and three other private investment firms. MGM has a deal with 20th Century Fox for the distribution of home video and overseas theatrical product. MGM is also once again the sole owner of United Artists, after Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner sold back their minority stakes. Via its original 1981 merger with UA, MGM controls the rights to the James Bond franchise. Columbia co-distributed the first two Bond films starring Daniel Craig after the 2005 purchase. After a third Bond film with Craig was put on hold when MGM slipped into deep financial trouble, Sony reached an agreement with MGM in April 2011 to distribute Skyfall. Sony's distribution rights to the franchise expired in late 2015 with the release of Spectre. In 2017, MGM and Eon offered a one-film contract to co-finance and distribute the upcoming 25th film worldwide, which was reported on 25 May 2018 to have been won by Universal Pictures.
DreamWorks was founded in 1994 by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen. Once again independent with the founding of a new company after two-and-a-half years under the Viacom/Paramount corporate umbrella, it is backed by India's Reliance ADA Group. DreamWorks is not a full-service studio—it produces and finances films, but as it did for most of its first era as an independent, it arranges distribution through the majors. In February 2009, after dropping out of a deal with Universal, DreamWorks struck such a deal with Disney, though Paramount was releasing the DreamWorks pictures developed there through mid-2011. The first independent DreamWorks film to be released under the new deal, via Touchstone, was I Am Number Four in February 2011. Katzenberg, who was completely divested from the new DreamWorks, ran DreamWorks Animation as a totally separate business. The company maintained distribution deals with DreamWorks Pictures, Paramount Pictures and 20th Century Fox. On August 22, 2016, Universal Studios' parent company NBCUniversal acquired DreamWorks Animation for $3.8 billion, thereby granting Universal ownership access to every DreamWorks Animation product and distribution rights for future movies. As part of the agreement, Katzenberg relinquished control of DreamWorks Animation to Illumination Entertainment's CEO Chris Meledandri while heading as new chairman of DreamWorks New Media. How to Train Your Dragon 3, which is scheduled to be released on March 1, 2019, will be the first DreamWorks Animation movie to be distributed by Universal Studios.
In 2010, Summit led with $519.9 million in grosses and a 5.0% market share. Lionsgate was close behind with $513.9 million in grosses, good for a 4.9% share. They were far ahead of the other mini-majors, none of which reached $100 million in grosses or a 1% share. In 2009, Summit's mini-major-leading figures were $480.4 million in grosses and a 4.5% market share. Lionsgate's $401.5 million in grosses gave it a 3.8% share. Two other companies commanded market shares greater than 1%: Weinstein/Dimension (2.0%) and Overture Films (1.5%). In 2008, Lionsgate topped the mini-majors with $441.5 million in grosses, a 4.5% market share. Three other companies had over $100 million in box office grosses: Summit (2.4% market share), MGM/UA (1.7% market share), and Overture (1.1% market share).
In 2007, Lionsgate and MGM/UA were virtually tied for the position of most successful mini-major in terms of market share, each with 3.8%. No other independent studio had even a 1% market share. In 2006, Lionsgate had a 3.6% market share, The Weinstein Company had a 2.5% market share, and MGM/UA had a 1.8% market share. In 2005, the still independent DreamWorks SKG had 5.7% and Lionsgate had 3.2%. Of MGM/UA's four significant money-earners during 2005, it released three before its acquisition by the Sony-led consortium; MGM/UA's total market share for the year was 2.1%. The Weinstein Company, in its first three months of operation, gained 0.5% of the year's total market share. In 2004, DreamWorks SKG had 10.0% (more than the Paramount Motion Pictures Group), Newmarket had 4.3% (due almost entirely to The Passion of the Christ), Lionsgate had 3.2%, and MGM/UA had 2.1%.
Instant major studios
"'Instant major' is a newly coined term for a film company that seemingly overnight has approached the status of major" In 1967, three "instant majors" studios popped up, two of which were partnered with a Television network theatrical film unit with most lasting until 1973:
Other significant, past independent entities
- Lucasfilm - purchased in 2012 by The Walt Disney Company.
- Marvel Studios/Marvel Entertainment - purchased in 2009 by The Walt Disney Company.
- Pixar Animation Studios - purchased in 2006 by The Walt Disney Company.
- The Samuel Goldwyn Company - purchased in 1996 by John Kluge/Metromedia International; purchased in 1997 by MGM.
- Turner Pictures - purchased along with Turner Broadcasting System, Hanna-Barbera, Castle Rock Entertainment, New Line Cinema and Turner Entertainment (including the pre-May 1986 MGM library) in 1996 by Time Warner (now WarnerMedia, a subsidiary of AT&T, as of June 2018)
- United Artists - became a mini-major studio then became a major studio; later purchased in 1981 by MGM.
The majors before the Golden Age
In 1909, Thomas Edison, who had been fighting in the courts for years for control of fundamental motion picture patents, won a major decision. This led to the creation of the Motion Picture Patents Company, widely known as the Trust. Comprising the nine largest U.S. film companies, it was "designed to eliminate not only independent film producers but also the country's 10,000 independent [distribution] exchanges and exhibitors." Though its many members did not consolidate their filmmaking operations, the New York–based Trust was arguably the first major North American movie conglomerate. The independents' fight against the Trust was led by Carl Laemmle, whose Chicago-based Laemmle Film Service, serving the Midwest and Canada, was the largest distribution exchange in North America. Laemmle's efforts were rewarded in 1912 when the U.S. government ruled that the Trust was a "corrupt and unlawful association" and must be dissolved. On June 8, 1912, Laemmle organized the merger of his production division, IMP (Independent Motion Picture Company), with several other filmmaking companies, creating the Universal Film Manufacturing Company in New York City. By the end of the year, Universal was making movies at two Los Angeles facilities: the former Nestor Film studio in Hollywood, and another studio in Edendale. The first Hollywood major was in business.
In 1916, a second powerful Hollywood studio was established when Adolph Zukor merged his Famous Players Film Company movie production house with the Jesse L. Lasky Company to form Famous Players-Lasky. The combined studio acquired Paramount Pictures as a distribution arm and eventually adopted its name. That same year, William Fox relocated his Fox Film Corporation from Fort Lee, New Jersey to Hollywood and began expanding. In 1918, four brothers—Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack Warner—founded the first Warner Brothers Studio on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. On April 4, 1923, the Warner Brothers incorporated their fledgling movie company as "Warner Brothers Pictures, Inc."
The Motion Picture Theatre Owners of America and the Independent Producers' Association declared war in 1925 on what they termed a common enemy — the "film trust" of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Paramount, and First National, which they claimed dominated the industry by not only producing and distributing motion pictures, but by entering into exhibition as well. On October 6, 1927, Warner Bros. released The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson, and a whole new era began, with “pictures that talked,” bringing the Studio to the forefront of the film industry. The Jazz Singer played to standing-room-only crowds throughout the country and earned a special Academy Award for Technical Achievement. Fox, in the forefront of sound film along with Warners, was also acquiring a sizable circuit of movie theaters to exhibit its product.
The majors during the Golden Age
Between late 1928, when RCA's David Sarnoff engineered the creation of the RKO (Radio-Keith-Orpheum) studio, and the end of 1949, when Paramount divested its theater chain—roughly the period considered Hollywood's Golden Age—there were eight Hollywood studios commonly regarded as the "majors". Of these eight, the so-called Big Five were integrated conglomerates, combining ownership of a production studio, distribution division, and substantial theater chain, and contracting with performers and filmmaking personnel: Loew's/MGM, Paramount, Fox (which became 20th Century-Fox after a 1935 merger), Warner Bros., and RKO. The remaining majors were sometimes referred to as the "Little Three" or “major minor” studios. Two—Universal and Columbia (founded in 1924)—were organized similarly to the Big Five, except for the fact that they never owned more than small theater circuits (a consistently reliable source of profits). The third of the lesser majors, United Artists (founded in 1919), owned a few theaters and had access to production facilities owned by its principals, but it functioned primarily as a backer-distributor, loaning money to independent producers and releasing their films. During the 1930s, the eight majors averaged a total of 358 feature film releases a year; in the 1940s, the four largest companies shifted more of their resources toward high-budget productions and away from B movies, bringing the yearly average down to 288 for the decade.
Among the significant characteristics of the Golden Age was the stability of the Hollywood majors, their hierarchy, and their near-complete domination of the box office. At the midpoint of the Golden Age, 1939, the Big Five had market shares ranging from 22% (MGM) to 9% (RKO); each of the Little Three had around a 7% share. In sum, the eight majors controlled 95% of the market and all the smaller companies combined had a total of 5%. Ten years later, the picture was largely the same: the Big Five had market shares ranging from 22% (MGM) to 9% (RKO); the Little Three had shares ranging from 8% (Columbia) to 4% (United Artists). In sum, the eight majors controlled 96% of the market and all the smaller companies combined had a total of 4%.
The majors after the Golden Age
The end of the Golden Age had been signaled by the majors' loss of a federal antitrust case that led to the divestiture of the Big Five's theater chains. Though this had virtually no immediate effect on the eight majors' box-office domination, it somewhat leveled the playing field between the Big Five and the Little Three. In November 1951, Decca Records purchased 28% of Universal; early the following year, the studio became the first of the classic Hollywood majors to be taken over by an outside corporation, as Decca acquired majority ownership. The 1950s saw two substantial shifts in the hierarchy of the majors: RKO, perennially the weakest of the Big Five, declined rapidly under the mismanagement of Howard Hughes, who had purchased a controlling interest in the studio in 1948. By the time Hughes sold it to the General Tire and Rubber Company in 1955, the studio was a major by outdated reputation alone. In 1957, virtually all RKO movie operations ceased and the studio was dissolved in 1959. (Revived on a small scale in 1981, it was eventually spun off and now operates as a minor independent company.) In contrast, there was United Artists, which had long operated under the financing-distribution model the other majors were now progressively shifting toward. Under Arthur Krim and Robert Benjamin, who began managing the company in 1951, UA became consistently profitable. By 1956—when it released one of the biggest blockbusters of the decade, Around the World in 80 Days—it commanded a 10% market share. By the middle of the next decade, it had reached 16% and was the second-most profitable studio in Hollywood. Despite RKO's collapse, the majors still averaged a total yearly release slate of 253 feature films during the decade.
The 1960s were marked by a spate of corporate takeovers. MCA Inc., under Lew Wasserman, acquired Universal in 1962; Gulf+Western took over Paramount in 1966; and the Transamerica Corporation purchased United Artists in 1967. Warner Bros. underwent large-scale reorganization twice in two years: a 1967 merger with the Seven Arts company preceded a 1969 purchase by Kinney National, under Stephen J. Ross. MGM, in the process of a slow decline, changed ownership twice in the same span as well, winding up in the hands of financier Kirk Kerkorian. The majors almost entirely abandoned low-budget production during this era, bringing the annual average of features released down to 160. The decade also saw an old name in the industry secure a position as a leading player. In 1923, Walt Disney had founded the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio with his brother Roy and animator Ub Iwerks. Over the following three decades Disney became a powerful independent focusing on animation and, from the late 1940s, an increasing number of live-action movies. In 1954, the company—now Walt Disney Productions—established Buena Vista Film Distribution to handle its own product, which had been distributed for years by various majors, primarily United Artists and then RKO. (Disney's 1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, released by RKO, was the second biggest hit of the 1930s.) In its first year, Buena Vista had a major success with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the third biggest movie of 1954. In 1964, Buena Vista had its first blockbuster, Mary Poppins, Hollywood's biggest hit in half a decade. The company achieved a 9% market share that year, more than Fox and Warner Bros. Though over the next two decades, Disney/Buena Vista's share of the box-office would again hit similar marks, its relatively small output and exclusive focus on family movies meant that it was not generally considered a major.
The early 1970s were difficult years for all the majors. Movie attendance, which had been declining steadily since the Golden Age, hit an all-time low in 1971. In 1973, MGM president James T. Aubrey Jr. drastically downsized the studio, slashing its production schedule and eliminating its distribution arm (UA would distribute the studio's films for the remainder of the decade). From fifteen releases in 1973, the next year MGM was down to five; its average for the rest of the 1970s would be even lower. Like RKO in its last days under Hughes, MGM remained a major in terms of brand reputation, but little more. MGM, however, was not the only studio to trim its release line. By the mid-1970s, the industry had rebounded and a significant philosophical shift was in progress. As the majors focused increasingly on the development of the next hoped-for blockbuster and began routinely opening each new movie in many hundreds of theaters (an approach called "saturation booking"), their collective yearly release average fell to 81 films during 1975–84. The classic set of majors was shaken further in late 1980, when the disastrously expensive flop of Heaven's Gate effectively ruined United Artists. The studio was sold the following year to Kerkorian, who merged it with MGM. After a brief resurgence, the combined studio again declined. From the mid-1980s on, MGM/UA has been at best a "mini-major", to use the present-day term.
Meanwhile, a new member was finally admitted to the club of major studios and two significant contenders emerged. With the establishment of its Touchstone Pictures brand and increasing attention to the adult market in the mid-1980s, Disney/Buena Vista secured acknowledgment as a full-fledged major. Film historian Joel Finler identifies 1986 as the breakthrough year, when Disney rose to third place in market share and remained consistently competitive for a leading position thereafter. The two contenders were both newly formed companies. In 1978, Krim, Benjamin, and three other studio executives departed UA to found Orion Pictures as a joint venture with Warner Bros. It was announced optimistically as the "first major new film company in 50 years". Tri-Star Pictures was created in 1982 as a joint venture of Columbia Pictures (then owned by the Coca-Cola Company), HBO (then owned by Time Inc.), and CBS. In 1985, Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation acquired 20th Century-Fox, the last of the five relatively healthy Golden Age majors to remain independent throughout the entire Golden Age and after.
In 1986, the combined share of the six classic majors—at that point Paramount, Warner Bros., Columbia, Universal, Fox, and MGM/UA—fell to 64%, the lowest since the beginning of the Golden Age. Disney was in third place, behind only Paramount and Warner Bros.. Even including it as a seventh major and adding its 10% share, the majors' control of the North American market was at a historic ebb. Orion, now completely independent of Warner Bros., and Tri-Star were well positioned as mini-majors, each with North American market shares of around 6% and regarded by industry observers as "fully competitive with the majors". Smaller independents garnered 13%—more than any studio aside from Paramount. In 1964, by comparison, all of the companies beside the then seven majors and Disney had combined for a grand total of 1%. In the first edition of Finler's The Hollywood Story (1988), he wrote, "It will be interesting to see whether the old-established studios will be able to bounce back in the future, as they have done so many times before, or whether the newest developments really do reflect a fundamental change in the US movie industry for the first times since the 20s."
With the exception of MGM/UA—whose position was effectively filled by Disney—the old-established studios did bounce back. The purchase of 20th Century Fox by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation presaged a new round of corporate acquisitions. Between 1989 and 1994, Paramount, Warner Bros., Columbia, and Universal all changed ownership in a series of conglomerate purchases and mergers that brought them new financial and marketing muscle. Paramount's parent company Gulf+Western was renamed Paramount Communications in 1989 and was merged with Viacom five years later. Warner Communications merged with Time Inc. to give birth to the conglomerate Time Warner. Coca-Cola sold Columbia to Japanese electronics firm Sony also in 1989. And Universal's parent MCA was purchased by Matsushita. By the early 1990s, both Tri-Star and Orion were essentially out of business: the former consolidated into Columbia, the latter bankrupt and sold to MGM. The most important contenders to emerge during the 1990s, New Line Cinema, Miramax, and DreamWorks SKG, were likewise sooner or later brought into the majors' fold, though DreamWorks and Miramax are now independent again.
The development of in-house pseudo-indie subsidiaries by the conglomerates—sparked by the 1992 establishment of Sony Pictures Classics and the success of Pulp Fiction (1994), Miramax's first project under Disney ownership—significantly undermined the position of the true independents. The majors' release schedule rebounded: the six primary studio subsidiaries alone put out a total of 124 films during 2006; the three largest secondary subsidiaries (New Line, Fox Searchlight, and Focus Features) accounted for another 30. Box-office domination was fully restored: in 2006, the six major movie conglomerates combined for 89.8% of the North American market; Lionsgate and Weinstein were almost exactly half as successful as their 1986 mini-major counterparts, sharing 6.1%; MGM came in at 1.8%; and all of the remaining independent companies split a pool totaling 2.3%.
Only one of the major studios changed corporate hands during the first decade of the 2000s, though it did so three times: Universal was acquired by Vivendi in 2000, then by General Electric four years later, and finally by Comcast in 2011. More developments took place among the majors' subsidiaries. The very successful animation production house Pixar, whose films were distributed by Buena Vista, was acquired by Disney in 2006. In 2008, New Line Cinema lost its independent status within Time Warner and became a subsidiary of Warner Bros. Time Warner also announced that it would be shutting down its two specialty units, Warner Independent and Picturehouse. In 2008 as well, Paramount Vantage's production, marketing, and distribution departments were folded into the parent studio, though it retained the brand for release purposes. Universal sold off its genre specialty division, Rogue Pictures, to Relativity Media in 2009. Disney closed down Miramax's operations in January 2010, and sold off the unit and its library that July to an investor group led by Ronald N. Tutor of the Tutor Perini construction firm and Tom Barrack of the Colony Capital private equity firm.
Since June 2018, Warner Bros. is owned by AT&T after it completed it acquisition of Time Warner renaming it WarnerMedia.
The eight Golden Age majors
The eight major film studios of the Golden Age have gone through the following significant ownership changes ("independent" meaning customarily identified as the primary commercial entity in its corporate structure; "purchased" meaning acquired anything from majority to total ownership):
- Independent as CBC Film Sales, 1918–1924 (founded by Harry Cohn, Joe Brandt, and Jack Cohn)
- Independent, 1924–1982 (company changes name as Columbia Pictures Corporation; goes public in 1926; changes name in 1968 to Columbia Pictures Industries after merging with TV subsidiary Screen Gems)
- The Coca-Cola Company, 1982–1987 (purchased by Coca-Cola; Tri-Star Pictures, a joint venture with HBO and CBS initiated in 1982—CBS drops out in 1985 and HBO in 1986)
- independent as Columbia Pictures Entertainment (or Columbia/Tri-Star), 1987–1989 (divested by Coca-Cola; Coke's entertainment business sold to Tri-Star and takes 49% in CPE)
- Sony, 1989–present (purchased by Sony)
20th Century Fox
- Independent, 1935–1985 (founded by Joseph Schenck and Darryl F. Zanuck; fully purchased by Marc Rich and Marvin Davis in 1981; Rich's interest purchased by Davis in 1984; half of Davis's interest purchased by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation in March 1985)
- News Corporation, 1985–2013 (purchased the remainder of Davis's shares in September)
- 21st Century Fox, 2013–present (renamed conglomerate on June 28, 2013)
- The Walt Disney Company, merger pending (acquisition approved by both companies on July 28, 2018, deal expected to close by the first half of 2019)
- Independent, 1923–1929 (founded by Jack L. Warner, Harry Warner, Albert Warner, and Sam Warner; Sam Warner died in 1927)
- Independent as Warner Bros.–First National, 1929–1967 (acquired First National Pictures; syndicate led by Jack Warner, Serge Semenenko of First National Bank of Boston, and Charles Allen Jr. purchased controlling interest in 1956)
- Warner Bros.–Seven Arts, 1967–1969 (purchased by and merged with Seven Arts Productions)
- Kinney National Company, 1969–1972 (Kinney purchased Warner Bros.–Seven Arts)
- Warner Communications, 1972–1990 (Kinney spun off non-entertainment assets and changed name)
- Time Warner, 1990–2018 (Warner merged with Time Inc.; from 2000 to 2003, the parent company was known as AOL Time Warner, following merger with AOL)
- AT&T, 2018–present (AT&T acquired Time Warner and renamed as WarnerMedia)
- Independent as Famous Players-Lasky, 1916–1921 (founded by Adolph Zukor and Jesse L. Lasky)
- Independent, 1922–1966 (as Paramount Pictures, company adopted distribution division's name)
- Gulf+Western Industries, 1966–1989 (purchased by Gulf+Western)
- Paramount Communications, 1989–1994 (Gulf+Western changed name after selling non-entertainment assets)
- Viacom, 1994–2005 (Viacom purchased Paramount)
- Viacom, 2006–present (Viacom split into two companies: "new" Viacom—with Paramount Pictures, MTV, BET, Nickelodeon, VH1, Comedy Central, and other cable channels—and CBS Corporation—which includes CBS Television Studios; both companies are controlled by National Amusements)
- Independent, 1912–1946 (founded by Carl Laemmle, Pat Powers, Adam Kessel, Charles Baumann, Mark Dintenfass, William Swanson, David Horsley, and Jules Brulatour)
- Independent as Universal-International, 1946–1952 (merged with International Pictures)
- Decca, 1952–1962 (purchased by Decca)
- MCA Inc., 1962–1990 (MCA purchased Decca)
- Matsushita Electric, 1990–1995 (Matsushita purchased MCA)
- Seagram, 1996–1999 (purchased by Seagram from Matsushita)
- Vivendi, 1999–2004 (Vivendi purchased Seagram)
- General Electric/Vivendi, 2004–2011 (jointly owned by GE (80%) and Vivendi, S.A. (20%) and merged with NBC to form NBC Universal)
- Comcast/General Electric, 2011–2013 (Comcast purchased 51% of redubbed NBCUniversal)
- Comcast, 2013–present (Comcast bought the remaining 49% from GE)
- Loew's Incorporated, 1924–1959 (founded by Marcus Loew; controlling interest in Loew's purchased by William Fox in 1929; Fox was forced to sell off interest in 1930; operational control ceded by Loew's to studio management in 1954)
- Independent, 1959–1990 (fully divested by Loew's; purchased by Edgar Bronfman Sr. in 1967; purchased by Kirk Kerkorian in 1969; United Artists purchased by Kerkorian in 1981 and merged into MGM; purchased by Ted Turner in 1986; repurchased by Kerkorian seventy-four days later; purchased by Giancarlo Parretti in 1990)
- Crédit Lyonnais, 1992–1997 (foreclosed upon by bank after Parretti defaulted)
- Tracinda Corporation, 1997–2005 (repurchased by Kerkorian)
- MGM Holdings, 2005–present
- Sony/Comcast/4 private equity firms, 2005–2010 (purchased by Sony, Comcast, and private investment firms—Providence Equity Partners currently owns the greatest number of shares—and privately held as a minor media company independent of Sony/Columbia)
- Credit Suisse, JPMorgan Chase, other former bondholders (2011–present) including Carl Icahn (2011-2012)
- Independent, 1919–1967 (founded by Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, D. W. Griffith, and Mary Pickford; operational control by Arthur Krim and Robert Benjamin from 1951; fully purchased by Krim and Benjamin in 1956)
- Transamerica, 1967–1981 (purchased by Transamerica)
- MGM/UA, 1981–1992 (purchased by Kirk Kerkorian from Transamerica and merged into MGM; see above for further detail)
RKO Radio Pictures
- RCA, 1928–1935 (founded by David Sarnoff)
- Independent, 1935–1955 (half of RCA's interest purchased by Floyd Odlum, control split between RCA, Odlum, and Rockefeller brothers; controlling interest purchased by Odlum in 1942; controlling interest purchased by Howard Hughes in 1948; Hughes interest purchased by Stolkin-Koolish-Ryan-Burke-Corwin syndicate in 1952; interest repurchased by Hughes in 1953; fully purchased by Hughes in 1954)
- General Tire and Rubber, 1955–1984 (purchased by General Tire and Rubber—coupled with General Tire's broadcasting operation as RKO Teleradio Pictures; production and distribution halted in 1957; movie business dissolved in 1959 and RKO Teleradio renamed RKO General; RKO General establishes RKO Pictures as production subsidiary in 1981)
- GenCorp, 1984–1987 (reorganization creates holding company with RKO General and General Tire as primary subsidiaries)
- Wesray Capital Corporation, 1987–1989 (spun off from RKO General, purchased by Wesray—controlled by William E. Simon and Ray Chambers—and merged with amusement park operations to form RKO/Six Flags Entertainment)
- Seven sisters — the seven major studios during the 1980s through mid-2000s
- Hollywood history and culture
- Media conglomerate
- Big Three — the three major music corporations: Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group; formerly the Big Six: before Universal acquired PolyGram in 1998 and merged with EMI in 2012, and Sony and BMG merged in 2004
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Alibaba Pictures is investing in Amblin Partners and has entered into a strategic partnership with the mini-major for co-productions, finance and distribution.
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The company counts China's Hony Capital and Tencent among its major investors, as well as the Hong Kong telecom conglomerate PCCW. Other major investors include the private equity firm TPG Growth and the TV and broadband company Liberty Global. East West Bank chairman Dominic Ng and producer Gigi Pritzker have also invested in the studio.
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Gaumont International Television, the French mini-major’s L.A.-based production and distribution studio, is staffing up its Los Angeles office with the appointment of three new execs. (France)
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articipant Media has inked a multi-year output deal with Scandinavian mini-major Nordisk Film for all the films Participant produces together with Amblin Partners.
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Artisan Home Entertainment, a division of mini-major Artisan Entertainment, has upped Jed Grossman to senior vice president, rental sales and distribution.
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Disney also exploited new technologies and delivery systems, creating synergies that were altogether unique among the studios, and that finally enabled the perpetual “mini-major” to ascend to major studio status.
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