Adolph Zukor, the Hungarian founding father of Hollywood, was born 150 years ago. He laid the foundations of the celebrity system in the American “dream factory”. The Hungarian man who made cinema popular and profitable was born in a small village in Zemplén on 7 January 1873.
Adolph Zukor was born in Ricse, Zemplén County. There, his father ran a grocery shop. His mother came from a German-educated, nouveau-riche family. He completed four years of elementary school in Mátészalka and then worked as a valet in a grocery in Abaújszántó. Orphaned at an early age, he arrived in America at the age of fifteen with twenty-five dollars up his sleeve and no language skills to start a new life, kultura.hu writes. Initially working in fur traders’ shops in New York and Chicago, he opened his own furrier’s shop.
In 1904, while maintaining his own shop, he joined a penny booth, the rudimentary predecessor of the cinema, which screened a few minutes of films. Over time, in partnership with later cinema director Marcus Loew, he built up a network of these.
He went into business on a larger scale in 1912 with the acquisition of the American rights to the French film Queen Elizabeth, starring Sarah Bernhardt. Risking USD 25,000 of his own money, he screened the then unprecedented three-quarter-hour film despite the opposition of his business partners. He made huge profits as an exclusive distributor.
Buoyed by this success, that same year he formed the predecessor of Paramount Pictures, the Famous Players in Famous Plays Company. The company brought together leading Broadway actors to make films based on current stage successes and classic novels, the first being The Count of Monte Cristo in 1912 and The Prisoner of Zenda in 1913.
In 1914, he assembled a group capable of making thirty films a year, and at the same time opened a 3,500-seat movie palace on Broadway called the Standard. He hired well-known names such as Gloria Swanson, Mary Pickford, Pola Negri, John Barrymore and Gary Cooper, but forbade them from working for other companies.
It merged with Jesse L. Lasky’s feature film company in 1916 and then absorbed Paramount Pictures, the distribution company, to form Paramount Pictures Corporation, chaired by Zukor, which worked with Hollywood’s top directors, notably Cecil B. deMille, and later Billy Wilder and producer David Selznick.
The First World War brought the company’s development to a halt, and by the time work resumed in 1919, rising production costs and rising gas prices forced Zukor to turn to the banks. He was the first to issue bonds and soon had five hundred cinemas under his control. Paramount also began to look to Europe, setting up a subsidiary in Paris, where it produced films in six languages (including Hungarian: A kacagó asszony [The Laughing Woman], Az orvos titka [The Doctor’s Secret]).
The release of the talkies rocked Paramount’s position, turning an USD 18 million profit in 1930 into a USD 21 million deficit in two years. After a three-year forced hiatus, the business was relaunched as Paramount Pictures Inc. and, although Zukor remained chairman, effective control was taken over by the Morgan banking house. Zukor held the post until his death as retired chairman.
In 1949, with the entry into force of the new distribution law, the company was forced to separate its activities in production and rental and operation. At the same time, television was introduced, which also affected the company.
In order to turn the new situation to their advantage, they first became involved in the manufacture of television equipment and then formed an alliance with ABC, one of the four major television companies. In 1966, the studio was merged into the Gulf and Western Industries group, but retained its well-known name.
Paramount was the first of the major studios to become a one-stop shop, able to control the film from production to distribution and operation. Zukor was the first businessman to introduce all-night movies in America. He was nominated four times for an Academy Award from the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In 1948, he received an honorary Oscar for his work. His star adorns the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and his autobiography was published in 1953 under the title The Public is Never Wrong. Adolph Zukor died in Los Angeles on 10 June 1976, aged 103.
His memory is preserved in the Zukor Adolph Culture House and the Zukor Tavern in his home village, and in 2016 his memorial plaque was unveiled in Ricse and in 2017 in Mátészalka. His birthday was declared Zukor Adolph Memorial Day by the Hungarian Hollywood Council in 2019. In 2017, young Hungarian filmmakers were the first to make a film about the founder of Hollywood film production, the short film 25 Dollars was shown at the Cannes Film Festival.
In 2020, Zukor’s name was included on the Hungarian Star Trail, which was inaugurated at the Origo Film Studio in Budapest. In the same year, the Hungarian Hollywood Council made a film about his career, entitled From Ricse to Hollywood, which was awarded the Adolph Zukor Prize. Last August, the first Adolph Zukor International Film Festival was held in the cinema in Mátészalka.