|Date of birth:
|January 7 1873
|Date of death:
|June 10 1976 (aged 103)
|Los Angeles, California, United States
|Academy Honorary Award
1949 Lifetime Achievement
|Lottie Kaufman (1897-1956)
Adolf Cukor (Adolph Zukor) (January 7, 1873 – June 10, 1976) was a pioneering film mogul and founder of Paramount Pictures.
Zukor was a key figure in the development of the powerful studio system that ran Hollywood from the late 1920s through the 1960s.
He was known as the "father of the feature film in America." From running penny arcades to creating Paramount Pictures Corporation, Zukor had a hand in the development of every aspect of the film industry. One of the very first studio magnates, Zukor realized that the three elements of the film business—production, distribution, and exhibition—were financially dependent on each other, and could be increased by opportunistic mergers.
Zukor worked at Paramount every day until his 100th birthday, and held the title of chairman emeritus until his death at the age of 103.
In 1948, Zukor was awarded a special Oscar for his trailblazing contributions to the film industry.
The early years
Adolph Zukor was born to a Jewish family in the rural village of Risce, Hungary. His parents ran a small store and grew crops. Zukor did not remember his father, who died when the boy was one year old and his brother Arthur was three. Their mother was the daughter of a rabbi. She remarried, but died when Zukor was eight.
The two brothers went to live with an uncle. They were sent to live with their uncle, Kalman Liebermann, a rabbi who hoped Adolph would follow in his footsteps. "I had the devil of a time persuading my uncle … that I wasn't cut out for the theological calling," Zukor would later recall. His brother, Arthur, did become a rabbi.
Zukor was an unexceptional student. At the age of 12, he was apprenticed to a store owner for whom he swept, ran errands, and did chores. He attended night school twice a week. Zukor got paid nothing for his work, but received clothes and shoes from an orphans' fund. Learning of America from letters sent by immigrants, Zukor decided that he wanted to travel there. In 1888, he asked the orphans' fund for money to travel to America. He received enough for a steamship ticket and $40.
In 1889, at the age of 16, he emigrated to America. In New York City, Zukor found work as an apprentice in a fur shop for $4 a week. Zukor stayed there for two years. When he left to become a "contract" worker, sewing fur pieces and selling them himself, he was nineteen years old and an accomplished designer. But he was young and adventuresome, and the 1892 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, commemorating Christopher Columbus' discovery of America, drew him to the Midwest. Once there, he started a fur business. In the second season of operation, Zukor's Novelty Fur Company expanded to twenty-five men and opened a branch. Over the years, he saved several thousand dollars. Around age 21, he returned to Hungary for a visit.
He married Lottie Kaufman, also a Hungarian immigrant, in 1897. The couple had two children, Mildred and Eugene.
With his wife's uncle, Morris Kohn, as a business partner they moved their company to New York City in 1900. They got involved in running a penny arcade that featured phonographs and short movies as well as peep machines, a shooting gallery, punching bags, stationary bicycles, and candy. He built his penny arcade business, the nucleus of his cinema empire, with the money he had made from inventing a patent snap for furs.
The business did very well, bringing in $500 to $700 a day. Zukor decided to get out of the fur business and devote all his time to the arcade. He also invested in a nickelodeon theater, "Hales' Tours of Kansas City." Initially, the idea was extremely popular, but the novelty wore off, and Zukor lost money on the venture. But the loss was only a slight setback and he continued to open nickelodeon theaters with a fellow fur merchant, Marcus Loew.
He became involved in the motion picture industry in 1903 when his cousin, Max Goldstein approached him for a loan. Mitchell Mark needed investors in order to expand his chain of theaters that began in Buffalo, New York with Edisonia Hall. The arcade salon was to feature Thomas Edison's marvels: Phonographs, electric lights, and moving pictures. Zukor not only gave Goldstein the money but insisted on forming a partnership to open another one. Another partner in the venture was Marcus Loew.
Loew's and Zukor's company, Loew's Enterprises, adapted ordinary shops to serve as film exhibition halls. The makeshift theaters attracted audiences, but Zukor faced innumerable challenges in getting the exhibition rights to films. His frustrations led him to a single conclusion: He would have to produce films himself.
A perceived obstacle to his ambitions was the fact that movies, or "flickers" as they were called, were very short, usually no more than 12 minutes. Others in the industry felt that American audiences would not want to see anything longer. Zukor felt that audiences would sit through a movie for an hour or more, if it had a good story. Zukor tested his theory by buying the rights to a three-reel European religious movie, Passion Play. Zukor described the audience's reaction in his autobiography: "The scene was one of the most remarkable I have ever witnessed. Many women viewed the picture with religious awe. Some fell to their knees. I was struck by the moral potentialities of the screen." The film had a good run and proved to Zukor that Americans would sit through longer pictures.
Soon afterward, Zukor learned of a French producer, Louis Mercanton, who wanted to make a four-reel movie starring the famous French actress Sarah Bernhardt, in her successful play Queen Elizabeth. Mercanton's project was being delayed for lack of funds. Zukor advanced Mercanton $40,000 to secure the North American rights to the movie. It was the first test of his theory that American audiences sit through a film of this length.
On July 12, 1912, the movie premiered and their investment paid off when New York society elites attended the premiere at the Lyceum Theater.
A handsome profit from the film's tour helped the partners launch their own production company, The Famous Players Film Company, in 1912, which shot plays for the screen. The following year Zukor obtained the financial backing of the Frohman brothers, the powerful New York City theater impresarios. Their primary goal was to bring noted stage actors to the screen.
Zukor also formed a partnership with Edwin S. Porter, a screen director who agreed to furnish his experience, talent, and prestige, but no money. With him, in their Manhattan studio, the Famous Players Film Company made their first feature-length film, The Prisoner of Zenda, which opened successfully in 1913, with James K. Hackett starring. This was followed by The Count of Monte Cristo starring James O'Neill in 1913, father of the famous playwright Eugene O'Neill, and Tess of the D'Urbervilles starring Minnie Maddern Fiske (1916).
The early stars of their films were drawn from the stage, but soon Zukor realized that he would have to create his own stars.
One of Zukor's shrewdest decisions was to offer an up-and-coming vaudeville actress, Mary Pickford, a contract. The combination of her popularity and his business acumen increased their collective influence. She instantly attracted a devoted following, appearing in such comedy-dramas as In the Bishop's Carriage (1913) and Hearts Adrift (1914). Her appearance in 1914's Tess of the Storm Country, a film shown on four continents, brought her international recognition.
W. W. Hodkinson established the Paramount Pictures Corporation in 1914 to act as a distributor for multiple film producers. Paramount advanced Frohman and Zukor production funding in exchange for a steady stream of films for distribution. Famous Players fell under Paramount's jurisdiction, along with another major producer, Jesse Lasky's Feature Play Company. In 1916 Famous Players merged with Lasky's business to become Famous Players-Lasky Corporation with Zukor president, Lasky vice president, Samuel Goldwyn chairman and Cecil B. DeMille director-general.
While most theater owners consolidated their holdings by creating theater chains Zukor kept a hand in both sides of the business. His company invested in the chains, which empowered him to present his own films in the theaters, and he purchased stock in Paramount to protect his interests.
Because he alone could deliver the biggest stars in Hollywood Zukor learned to exploit theater owners by "block booking." If a theater owner wanted to show the films of Pickford, he or she had to take motion pictures with less well known, up-and-coming Famous Players-Lasky stars. In turn, Famous Players-Lasky used these guaranteed bookings to test and develop new stars.
Theater owners eventually caught on and formed their own "booking cooperatives." Zukor's response was to purchase theaters. He could not finance such a large set of takeovers so he became the first movie company to approach Wall Street bankers. Famous Players-Lasky borrowed $10 million through Wall Street's Kuhn, Loeb & Co. and became the first motion picture company listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
Zukor seized the momentum from profit-bearing mergers and proposed to Paramount's board that Famous Players-Lasky join Paramount to form an even stronger entity. His idea fell on receptive ears, and he became the new president of the conglomeration, which was now a subsidiary of Famous Players-Lasky.
By the mid-point of 1921, he owned 300 theaters. Four years later, he merged his theaters with Balaban and Katz, the most innovative theater chain in the United States. In 1927, they dropped the name Famous Players-Lasky and renamed the enterprise Paramount, which up to then had been the name of his distribution arm. The theaters were called the Paramount-Publix theater chain.
In 1928, the first all-talking movie was released. Paramount began using a sound system called Photophone for some of its films. Since it took a while for movie theaters to acquire and install sound systems, Paramount continued to make silent pictures, which were often made into talkies later.
By 1931, Paramount's Publix theater circuit had become the largest in the world, double the size of its nearest competitor. Paramount Pictures produced many of the most popular films of the silent film era, including The Covered Wagon, The Ten Commandments, Beau Geste, and Wings. Zukor's star system continued to produce stars for the talkie era with the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, Gary Cooper, Claudette Colbert, the Marx Brothers, Dorothy Lamour, Carole Lombard, and Bing Crosby.
Zukor orchestrated another major change in movie industry practice. It was not enough that the Hollywood companies simply control all the movie stars and studios. Their long-run economic security depended on the construction and maintenance of networks for national and international distribution. Once a feature film was made, the majority of its cost had been accumulated. It then cost relatively little to market it throughout the world. If somehow the producer could expand the territory to include greater and greater world markets, the additional revenues overwhelmed any extra costs.
In 1914, W. W. Hodkinson had merged eleven regional distributors to create the Paramount distribution network. When Hodkinson sold out to Zukor he quickly took over other national distributors and soon had a stranglehold on the marketplace for film distribution throughout the United States. Zukor then turned his attentions to world distribution. World War I had curtailed distribution powers of rival European movie makers so Zukor stepped into the gap.
In the spring of 1927, second-year Harvard Business School students were required to attend a lecture series featuring Zukor, William Fox, Marcus Loew, Harry Warner, Cecil B. DeMille, and other powerful heads of film studios such as Paramount, Fox, and MGM. The studio chiefs were men from immigrant, working-class roots who were making millions on 25-cent picture shows, and Harvard, brokered by Joseph Kennedy, began a lecture series that was the first university-sponsored event of its kind.
During the Great Depression, the company fell on hard times and many failed attempts were made to get rid of Zukor. Paramount-Publix went bankrupt in 1933, and was reorganized as Paramount Pictures, Inc. He was then forced out as part of the reorganization, but after Barney Balaban became Paramount president in 1936, he appointed Zukor chairman of the board. They served together 28 years, until Balaban was forced out of Paramount in 1964, after the failure of the big-budgeted The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964).
He retired from Paramount Pictures in 1959, and thereafter assumed Chairman Emeritus status, a position he held up until his death in 1976 at the age of 103, in Los Angeles.
He is buried at the Temple Israel Cemetery, Hastings-on-Hudson, Westchester County, New York.
Perhaps no weapon in America’s media arsenal has proven as lasting as the Hollywood movie. What began as a low-grade form of entertainment, a somewhat disreputable venture at the turn of the nineteenth century, became the most powerful international tool of American cultural power. Zukor was a pioneer in creating one of America's most enduring cultural legacies.
Famed theater architects Rapp & Rapp designed a skyscraper in 1926, at a cost of $13.5M as offices for Paramount Pictures, as a home for the Paramount Theater (since demolished) and as an advertisement for the Paramount Corporation. The Paramount Building was designated a landmark by the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1982, and its interior was designated separately in 1987.
- Mary Pickford, Adolph Zukor (1873-1976) PBS. Retrieved August 15, 2018.
- Albin Krebs, Adolph Zukor Is Dead at 103; Built Paramount Movie Empire Nytimes.com, June 11, 1976. Retrieved August 15, 2018.
- Pamela Melnikoff, The History of Jewish Film, Somethingjewish.co.uk, August 30, 2003. Retrieved August 15, 2018.
- Adolph Zukor and Dale Kramer, The Public is Never Wrong: The Autobiography of Adolph Zukor (G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1953).
- Brian Gallagher, Some Historical Reflections on the Paradoxes of Stardom Images. Retrieved August 15, 2018.
- International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Adolph Zukor. Encyclopedia.com. Retrieved August 15, 2018.
- Douglas Gomery, What Was Adolph Zukor Doing in 1927? Film History 17(2/3) (2005): 205-216.
- Biography of Adolph Zukor IMDb. Retrieved August 15, 2018.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Gabler, Neal. An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood. New York: Crown Publishers, 1988. ISBN 051756808X.
- Irwin, Will. The House That Shadows Built. New York: Arno Press, 1970. ISBN 0405016182.
- Zukor, Adolph, and Dale Kramer, The Public is Never Wrong: The Autobiography of Adolph Zukor. G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1953. ASIN B0007DX2RI
All links retrieved June 15, 2023.
- Adolph Zukor (1873-1976) American Experience, PBS.com.
- Krebs, Albin. 1976. Adolph Zukor Is Dead at 103; Built Paramount Movie Empire Nytimes.com.
- Adolph Zukor IMDb.com.
- Adolph Zukor Encyclopedia.com.
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