Independent (privately held) (1918–1926)
Independent (publicly traded) (1926–1982) The Coca-Cola Company (1982–1987)
Columbia Pictures Entertainment, Inc. (publicly traded) (1987–1989) Sony (1989–present)
The studio, founded in 1918 as Cohn-Brandt-Cohn Film Sales by brothers Jack and Harry Cohn and Joe Brandt, released its first feature film in August 1922. It adopted the Columbia Pictures name in 1924 and went public two years later. The name is derived from "Columbia", a national personification of the United States, which is used as the company's logo.
In its early years a minor player in Hollywood, Columbia began to grow in the late 1920s, spurred by a successful association with director Frank Capra.
In 1982, the studio was purchased by Coca-Cola; that same year it launched TriStar Pictures as a joint venture with HBO and CBS. Five years later, Coca-Cola spun off Columbia, which was sold to Tri-Star as the latter became Columbia Pictures Entertainment. After a brief period of independence with Coca-Cola maintaining a financial interest, the combined studio was acquired by Japanese company Sony in 1989.
The original CBC Film Sales logo used from 1919 through 1924
The predecessor of Columbia Pictures, CBC Film Sales Corporation, was founded in 1918 by Harry Cohn, his brother Jack Cohn, and Joe Brandt.
Brandt was president of CBC Film Sales, handling sales, marketing and distribution from New York along with Jack Cohn, while Harry Cohn ran production in Hollywood. The studio's early productions were low-budget short subjects: "Screen Snapshots", the "Hall Room Boys" (the vaudeville duo of Edward Flanagan and Neely Edwards), and the Chaplin imitator Billy West. The start-up CBC leased space in a Poverty Row studio on Hollywood's famously low-rent Gower Street. Among Hollywood's elite, the studio's small-time reputation led some to joke that "CBC" stood for "Corned Beef and Cabbage".
Reorganization and new name
Brandt eventually tired of dealing with the Cohn brothers, and sold his one-third stake to Harry Cohn, who took over as president. In an effort to improve its image, the Cohn brothers renamed the company Columbia Pictures Corporation on January 10, 1924. Cohn remained head of production as well, thus concentrating enormous power in his hands. He would run Columbia for the next 34 years, the second-longest tenure of any studio chief, behind only Warner Bros.' Jack Warner. In an industry rife with nepotism, Columbia's was particularly notorious. Humorist Robert Benchley called it the Pine Tree Studio, "because it has so many Cohns".
Columbia's product line consisted mostly of moderately budgeted features and short subjects including comedies, sports films, various serials, and cartoons. Columbia gradually moved into the production of higher-budget fare, eventually joining the second tier of Hollywood studios along with United Artists and Universal. Like United Artists and Universal, Columbia was a horizontally integrated company that only controlled production and distribution.
Helping Columbia's climb was the arrival of an ambitious director, Frank Capra. Between 1927 and 1939, Capra constantly pushed Cohn for better material and bigger budgets. A string of hits he directed in the early 1930s solidified Columbia's status as a major studio. In particular, It Happened One Night, which nearly swept the 1934 Oscars, put Columbia on the map. Until then, Columbia's very existence had depended on theater owners willing to take its films, since it did not own any theaters itself. Other Capra-directed hits followed, including the original version of Lost Horizon (1937), with Ronald Colman, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), which made James Stewart a major star.
Columbia could not afford to keep a huge roster of contract stars, so they usually borrowed them from other studios. At MGM, Columbia was nicknamed "Siberia", as Louis B. Mayer would use the transfer to Columbia as a way to punish his less obedient signings. In the 1930s they signed Jean Arthur to a long-term contract, and after The Whole Town's Talking (1935), Arthur became a major comedy star. Ann Sothern's lustrous career was launched when Columbia signed her to a contract in 1936. Cary Grant signed a contract in 1937 and soon after it was altered to a non-exclusive contract shared with RKO.
Columbia also produced musical shorts, sports reels (usually narrated by sportscaster Bill Stern), and travelogues. Its "Screen Snapshots" series, showing behind-the-scenes footage of Hollywood stars, was a Columbia perennial; producer-director Ralph Staub kept this series going through 1958.
Harry Cohn monitored the budgets of his films, and the studio got the maximum use out of costly sets, costumes, and props by reusing them in other films. Many of Columbia's low-budget "B" pictures and short subjects have an expensive look, thanks to Columbia's efficient recycling policy. Cohn was reluctant to spend lavish sums on even his most important pictures, and it was not until 1943 that he agreed to use three-strip Technicolor in a live-action feature. (Columbia was the last major studio to employ the expensive color process.) Columbia's first Technicolor feature was the western The Desperadoes, starring Randolph Scott and Glenn Ford. Cohn quickly used Technicolor again for Cover Girl, a Hayworth vehicle that instantly was a smash hit, released in 1944, and for the fanciful biography of Frédéric Chopin, A Song to Remember, with Cornel Wilde, released in 1945. Another biopic, 1946's The Jolson Story with Larry Parks and Evelyn Keyes, was started in black-and-white, but when Cohn saw how well the project was proceeding, he scrapped the footage and insisted on filming in Technicolor.
In 1948, the United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc.anti-trust decision forced Hollywood motion picture companies to divest themselves of the theatre chains that they owned. Since Columbia did not own any theaters, it was now on equal terms with the largest studios, and soon replaced RKO on the list of the "Big Five" studios.
In 1946, Columbia dropped the Screen Gems brand from its cartoon line, but retained the Screen Gems name for various ancillary activities, including a 16 mm film-rental agency and a TV-commercial production company. In November 1948, Columbia adopted the Screen Gems name for its television production subsidiary when the studio acquired Pioneer Telefilms, a television commercial company founded by Harry Cohn's nephew, Ralph Cohn. Pioneer was later reorganized as Screen Gems. The studio opened its doors for business in New York on April 15, 1949. By 1951, Screen Gems became a fully-fledged television studio and became a major producer of situation comedies for TV, beginning with Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show, The Partridge Family, Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, and The Monkees followed.
On July 1, 1956, studio veteran Irving Briskin stepped down as stage manager of Columbia Pictures and form his production company Briskin Productions, Inc. to release series through Screen Gems and supervise all of its productions. On December 10, Screen Gems expanded into television syndication by acquiring Hygo Television Films (a.k.a. Serials Inc.) and its affiliated company United Television Films, Inc. Hygo Television Films was founded in 1951 by Jerome Hyams, who also acquired United Television Films in 1955 founded by Archie Mayers.
In 1960, the studio became a publicly traded company under the name Screen Gems, Inc., when Columbia spun off an 18% stake.
By 1950 Columbia had discontinued most of its popular series films (Boston Blackie, Blondie, The Lone Wolf, The Crime Doctor, Rusty, etc.) Only Jungle Jim, launched by producer Sam Katzman in 1949, kept going through 1955. Katzman contributed greatly to Columbia's success by producing dozens of topical feature films, including crime dramas, science-fiction stories, and rock-'n'-roll musicals. (For details about these Columbia releases of the 1950s, see the Sam Katzman entry.) Columbia kept making serials until 1956 and two-reel comedies until 1957, after other studios had discontinued them.
As the larger studios declined in the 1950s, Columbia's position improved. This was largely because it did not suffer from the massive loss of income that the other major studios suffered from the loss of their theaters (well over 90 percent, in some cases). Columbia continued to produce 40-plus pictures a year, offering productions that often broke ground and kept audiences coming to theaters such as its adaptation of the controversial James Jones novel, From Here to Eternity (1953), On the Waterfront (1954), and The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) with William Holden and Alec Guinness. All three films won the Best Picture Oscar.
By 1966, the studio was suffering from box-office failures, and takeover rumors began surfacing. Columbia was surviving solely on the profits made from Screen Gems, whose holdings also included radio and television stations. On December 23, 1968, Screen Gems merged with Columbia Pictures Corporation and became part of the newly formed Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. for $24.5 million.
Nearly bankrupt by the early 1970s, the studio was saved via a radical overhaul: the Gower Street Studios (now called "Sunset Gower Studios") were sold and a new management team was brought in. In 1972, Columbia and Warner Bros. formed a partnership called "The Burbank Studios" in which both companies shared the Warner studio lot in Burbank. While fiscal health was restored through a careful choice of star-driven vehicles, the studio's image was badly hurt by the David Begelman check-forging scandal. Begelman eventually resigned (later ending up at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer before committing suicide in 1995), and the studio's fortunes gradually recovered.
From 1971 until the end of 1987, Columbia's international distribution operations were a joint venture with Warner Bros., and in some countries, this joint venture also distributed films from other companies (like EMI Films and Cannon Films in the UK). Warners pulled out of the venture in 1988 to join up with Walt Disney Pictures.
On May 6, 1974, Columbia retired the Screen Gems name from television, renaming its television division Columbia Pictures Television. The name was suggested by David Gerber, who was then-president of Columbia's television division. The same year, Columbia Pictures acquired Rastar Pictures, which included Rastar Productions, Rastar Features, and Rastar Television. Ray Stark then founded Rastar Films, the reincarnation of Rastar Pictures and it was acquired by Columbia Pictures in February 1980. On February 19, 1979, Columbia Pictures Television acquired TOY Productions; the production company founded by Bud Yorkin and writers Saul Turteltaub and Bernie Orenstein in 1976.
In fall 1978, Kirk Kerkorian, a Vegas casino mogul who also controlled Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, acquired a 5.5% stake in Columbia Pictures. He then announced on November 20, to launch a tender offer to acquire another 20% for the studio. On December 14, a standstill agreement was reached with Columbia by promising not to go beyond 25% or seeking control for at least three years.
On January 15, 1979, the Justice Department filed an antitrust suit against Kerkorian, to block him from holding stake in Columbia, while controlling MGM. In May, Kerkorian acquired an additional 214,000 shares in Columbia, raising his stake to 25%. On August 2, the suit trial opened at the Justice Department, however, on August 14, the court ruled in favor for Kerkorian.
1980s: Coca-Cola, Tri-Star, and other acquisitions and ventures
On September 30, 1980, Kerkorian sued Columbia for ignoring shareholders' interest and violating an agreement with him. Columbia later accused him on October 2, for scheming with Nelson Bunker hunt to gain control of Columbia.
In 1981, Kerkorian sold his 25% stake in Columbia back to CPI. Columbia Pictures later acquired 81% of The Walter Reade Organization, which owned 11 theaters; it purchased the remaining 19% in 1985.
With a healthier balance-sheet (due in large part to box office hits like Stir Crazy, The Blue Lagoon, and Stripes) Columbia was bought by Coca-Cola on June 22, 1982 for $750 million, after having considered buying the struggling Walt Disney Productions. Studio head Frank Price mixed big hits like Tootsie, The Karate Kid, The Big Chill, and Ghostbusters with many costly flops. To share the increasing cost of film production, Coke brought in two outside investors whose earlier efforts in Hollywood had come to nothing. In 1982, Columbia, Time Inc.'s HBO and CBS announced, as a joint venture, "Nova Pictures"; this enterprise was to be renamed Tri-Star Pictures. In 1983, Frank Price left Columbia Pictures after a dispute with Coca-Cola and went back to Universal.
Lots of changes took place in 1986. Expanding its television franchise, on May 5, Columbia also bought Merv Griffin Enterprises, notable for successful shows: Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy!, Dance Fever, and The Merv Griffin Show for $250 million. Months later on August 28, the Columbia Pictures Television Group acquired Danny Arnold's Danny Arnold Productions, Inc. including the rights to the successful sitcom Barney Miller (Four D Productions) among other produced series such as Fish (The Mimus Corporation), A.E.S. Hudson Street (Triseme Corporation), and Joe Bash (Tetagram Ltd.), after Arnold dropped the federal and state lawsuits against the television studio accusing them for antitrust violations, fraud, and breach of fiduciary duty. Coca-Cola sold the Embassy Pictures division to Dino de Laurentiis, who later folded Embassy Pictures into Dino de Laurentiis Productions, Inc. and became De Laurentiis Entertainment Group. Coca-Cola also sold Embassy Home Entertainment to Nelson Entertainment. Coke however, retained the Embassy Pictures name, logo, and trademark. HBO was the last partner drop out of the Tri-Star venture and sold its shares to Columbia Tri-Star later expanded into the television business with its new Tri-Star Television division. The same year, Columbia recruited British producer David Puttnam to head the studio. Puttnam attempted to defy Hollywood filmmaking by making smaller films instead of big tentpole pictures. His criticism of American film production, in addition to the fact that the films he greenlit were mostly flops, left Coke and Hollywood discerned[clarification needed] that Puttnam was ousted from the position after only one year.
The volatile film business made Coke shareholders nervous, and following the box-office failure, Ishtar, Coke spun-off its entertainment holdings on December 21, 1987 and sold it to Tri-Star Pictures for $3.1 billion, also creating Columbia/Tri-Star by merging Columbia and Tri-Star. Tri-Star Pictures, Inc. was renamed to Columbia Pictures Entertainment, Inc.(CPE), with Coke owning 49% of the company. Both studios continued to produce and distribute films under their separate names. Puttnam was succeeded by Dawn Steel, the first woman to run a Hollywood motion picture studio. Other small-scale, "boutique" entities were created: Nelson Entertainment, a joint venture with British and Canadian partners, Triumph Films, jointly owned with French studio Gaumont, and which is now a low-budget label, and Castle Rock Entertainment. On January 4, 1988, Columbia/Embassy Television and Tri-Star Television were formed into the new Columbia Pictures Television and Embassy Communications was renamed to ELP Communications. On April 13, 1988, CPE spun-off Tri-Star Pictures, Inc. as a reformed company of the Tri-Star studio.
On February 2, 1989, Columbia Pictures Television formed a joint-venture with Norman Lear's Act III Communications called Act III Television to produce television series instead of managing.
The Sony years to present
The Columbia Pictures empire was sold on September 28, 1989 to electronics giant Sony for the amount of $3.4 billion, one of several Japanese firms then buying American properties. The sale netted Coca-Cola a handsome profit from its investment in the studio. Sony then hired two producers, Peter Guber and Jon Peters, to serve as co-heads of production when Sony also acquired the Guber-Peters Entertainment Company (the former game show production company, Barris Industries, Inc.) for $200 million on September 29, 1989. Guber and Peters had just signed a long-term contract with Warner Bros. in 1989, having been with the company since 1983. To extricate them from this contract, Steve Ross, Warner Bros.'s boss sued Sony for $1 billion. Sony completed CPE's acquisition on November 8 and the Guber-Peters acquisition was completed on the following day.
On December 1, 1989, Guber and Peters hired longtime lawyer of GPEC Alan J. Levine, to the post of president and COO of Columbia's newly formed company Filmed Entertainment Group (FEG). FEG consisted of Columbia Pictures, Tri-Star Pictures, Triumph Releasing, Columbia Pictures Television, CPTD, Merv Griffin Enterprises, RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video, Guber-Peters Entertainment Company, and ancillary and distribution companies.
Columbia Pictures painting on the outer wall of Sony Pictures Studios after the 1993 change.
In 1990, Sony ended up paying hundreds of millions of dollars, gave up a half-interest in its Columbia House Records Club mail-order business, and bought from Time Warner the former Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio in Culver City, which Warner Communications had acquired in its takeover of Lorimar-Telepictures in 1989, thus ending the Burbank Studios partnership. Initially renamed Columbia Studios, Sony spent $100 million to refurbish the rechristened Sony Pictures Studios. Guber and Peters set out to prove they were worth this fortune, but though there were to be some successes, there were also many costly flops. The same year, Frank Price was made as the chairman of Columbia Pictures. His company Price Entertainment, Inc. that he founded in 1987, was merged with Columbia in March 1991. Price left Columbia on October 4, 1991 by Warner Bros. executive Mark Canton and reactivated Price Entertainment as Price Entertainment Company with a non-exclusive deal with SPE. Peters was fired by his partner Guber in 1991, but Guber later resigned in 1994 to form Mandalay Entertainment the following year. The entire operation was reorganized and renamed Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE) on August 7, 1991, and at the same time, TriStar (which had officially lost its hyphen) relaunched its television division in October. In December 1991, SPE created Sony Pictures Classics for arthouse fare and was headed by Michael Barker, Tom Bernard, and Marcie Bloom, whom previously operated United Artists Classics and Orion Classics. Publicly humiliated, Sony suffered an enormous loss on its investment in Columbia, taking a $2.7 billion write-off in 1994. John Calley took over as SPE president in November 1996, installing Amy Pascal as Columbia Pictures president and Chris Lee as president of production at TriStar. By the next spring, the studios were clearly rebounding, setting a record pace at the box office. On December 7, 1992, Sony Pictures acquired the Barry & Enright game show library.
In the 1990s, Columbia announced plans of a rival James Bond franchise, since they owned the rights of Casino Royale and were planning to make a third version of Thunderball with Kevin McClory. MGM and Danjaq, LLC, owners of the franchise, sued Sony Pictures in 1997, with the legal dispute ending two years later in an out-of-court settlement. Sony traded the Casino Royale rights for $10 million, and the Spider-Man filming rights. The superhero has since become Columbia's most successful franchise, with the first movie coming out in 2002 and having since gained two sequels, with plans for two more. Ironically, between the releases of the first and second sequels, Sony Corporation led a consortium that purchased MGM – giving it distribution rights to the James Bond franchise.
In 1997, Columbia Pictures ranked as the highest grossing movie studio in the United States with a gross of $1.256 billion. In 1998, Columbia and TriStar merged to form the Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group (a.k.a. Columbia TriStar Pictures), though both studios still produce and distribute under their own names. Pascal retained her position as president of the newly united Columbia Pictures, while Lee became the combined studio's head of production. In 1999, Sony Pictures Entertainment relaunched the Screen Gems brand as a horror and independent film distribution company and TriStar Television was folded into CTT. Two years later, CPT was folded into CTT as well.
In the 2000s, Sony broadened its release schedule by backing Revolution Studios, the production/distribution company headed by Joe Roth. On October 25, 2001 CTT and CTTD merged to form Columbia TriStar Domestic Television. On September 16, 2002, Columbia TriStar Domestic Television was renamed to Sony Pictures Television. Also in 2002, Columbia broke the record for biggest domestic theatrical gross, with a tally of $1.575 billion, coincidentally breaking its own record of $1.256 billion set in 1997, which was raised by such blockbusters as Spider-Man, Men in Black II and xXx. The studio was also the most lucrative of 2004, with over $1.338 billion in the domestic box office with movies such as Spider-Man 2, 50 First Dates, and The Grudge, and in 2006, Columbia, helped with such blockbusters as: The Da Vinci Code, The Pursuit of Happyness, Casino Royale, and Open Season, not only finished the year in first place, but it reached an all-time record high sum of $1.711 billion, which was an all-time yearly record for any studio until Warner Bros. surpassed it in 2009.
On October 29, 2010, Matt Tolmach, the co-president of Columbia Pictures, stepped down to produce the next installment of Spider-Man. Doug Belgrad, the other co-president of Columbia was promoted as sole president of the studio. Belgrad and Tolmach had been co-presidents of the studio since 2008 and had been working together as a team in 2003. The same day, Hanna Minghella was named president of production of Columbia.
The Columbia Pictures logo, a woman carrying a torch and draped in the American flag (representing Columbia, a personification of the United States), has gone through five major revisions.
In 1924, Columbia Pictures used a logo featuring a female Roman soldier holding a shield in her left hand and a stick of wheat in her right hand. The logo changed in 1928 with the figure wearing a the draped flag and torch. The lady wore a toga, and above her were the words "A Columbia Production" ("A Columbia Picture" or "Columbia Pictures Corporation") written in an arch. The illustration was based upon the actress, Evelyn Venable, known for providing the voice of The Blue Fairy in Walt Disney's Pinocchio.
In 1936, the logo was changed: the lady now stood on a pedestal, wore no headdress, and the text "Columbia" appeared in chiseled letters behind her. There were several variations to the logo over the years—significantly, a color version was done in 1943 for The Desperadoes, and the flag became just a drape with no markings – but it remained substantially the same for 40 years. 1976's Taxi Driver was one of the last films to use the figure in her classic appearance.
From 1976–1993, Columbia Pictures was using two logos. The first one was used from 1976–1981, and the second one was used from 1981–1993. The first logo's score was composed by Suzanne Ciani. Visual effects pioneer Robert Abel was hired by the studio for the first logo's animation.
The current logo was created in 1992, when the logo was repainted digitally by New Orleans artist, Michael Deas, who was commissioned to return the lady to her "classic" look. Michael Deas hired Jenny Joseph, a graphics artist for The Times-Picayune, as a model for the logo. Due to time constraints, she agreed on her lunch break to help out. The animation was created by Synthespian Studios in 1993 by Jeff Kleiser and Diana Walczak, who used 2D elements from the painting and converted it to 3D. In 2012, Jenny Joseph gave an interview to WWL-TV: “So we just scooted over there come lunchtime and they wrapped a sheet around me and I held a regular little desk lamp, a side lamp,” she said, “and I just held that up and we did that with a light bulb." Artist Michael Deas went on to say, "I never thought it would make it to the silver screen and I never thought it would still be up 20 years later, and I certainly never thought it would be in a museum, so it’s kind of gratifying.”
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Robert Abel and Associates
Michael Deas, Columbia Pictures Logo, oil on panel, 18 x 32.