I was surprised to learn from Alexander Payne’s casting director last week that Payne’s next movie, “Nebraska,” will not be distributed by Fox Searchlight, as were his previous films “Sideways” and “The Descendants.”
Instead, that pleasure goes to Paramount Studios, one of the three oldest continuously operating movie studios in the world — and the only major studio that is still actually located in Hollywood.
Paramount is celebrating its 100th birthday this year along with Universal, which claims the title of oldest American studio because it was founded six weeks before Paramount.
You may have seen the glitzy photo in Vanity Fair magazine earlier this year that included more than 100 big-name actors, directors and producers posed for a Paramount centennial photo.
It reminded me of the studios’ golden age in the 1930s and ’40s when MGM used to boast “more stars than there are in the heavens.”
Well, Paramount has some significant bragging rights of its own on that score.
From its beginning, founder Adolph Zukor believed in the drawing power of established stars. In the silent era of the teens and 1920s, he signed the leading theatrical players of the time: Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Gloria Swanson, Rudolph Valentino and Clara Bow. His early director Cecil B. DeMille (“The Ten Commandments”) had virtually no film experience.
The first best-picture Oscar winner, 1927’s “Wings,” is a Paramount movie.
When the talkies hit in the 1930s, the star list expanded to include Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, Gary Cooper, Claudette Colbert, Carole Lombard and the Marx Brothers. The studio churned out 60 movies a year in an era when it had become the first coast-to-coast distributor. That’s thanks to the chain of Publix Theatres that Zukor built, giving his titles access to 2,000 screens.
A poll indicated Paramount’s Popeye the Sailor cartoons were more popular in the mid-1930s than Mickey Mouse.
But Zukor’s overexpansion and the Depression led to bankruptcy in 1935. A bank-mandated reorganization team pulled Paramount out of red ink.
In the ’40s, new talent like Bob Hope, Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Paulette Goddard and Betty Hutton found a home at Paramount. Alfred Hitchcock classics “Rear Window,” “Vertigo” and “Psycho” are Paramount pictures. So are the Jerry Lewis movies.
With the advent of television in the 1950s and the loss of the theater chain, Paramount went into decline and let its contract players go. In 1966 Paramount was sold to Gulf + Western, an industrial conglomerate that hired a then-unknown producer, Robert Evans. He scored some successes with “The Odd Couple,” “The Godfather,” “Love Story,” “Chinatown” and “Rosemary’s Baby.” Paramount bought Lucille Ball’s neighboring Desilu television studio, which had once been RKO Pictures’ home.
Barry Diller took over in 1976, presiding over “Saturday Night Fever” and “Grease.”
Hit Paramount movies in the 1980s and ’90s included popular and prestigious titles like “Ordinary People,” “An Officer and a Gentleman,” “Terms of Endearment,” “Fatal Attraction,” “Reds,” “Witness” and “Children of a Lesser God.”
In 1993, entertainment conglomerate Viacom bought Paramount for $10 billion. Viacom’s parent company, National Amusements, owns a controlling stake in CBS, Showtime, Simon & Schuster, MTV, BET, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central and many more.
Since then, Paramount has produced or co-produced best-picture Oscar winners “Titanic,” “Braveheart” and “Forrest Gump,” along with contender “Saving Private Ryan.”
Lucrative Paramount franchises have included “Star Trek,” Indiana Jones, “Beverly Hills Cop,” “Friday the 13th,” “Mission: Impossible,” “Transformers” and “Iron Man.” There’s a long list of Paramount television hits, too, including today’s “Glee.”
Paramount’s 1926 wrought iron front gate, made famous in “Sunset Boulevard,” is a landmark. Its corporate logo, a snowcapped mountain peak with a halo of stars, is known around the world.
Payne’s next movie appears to be in good hands.