HistoryThe studio was founded by German immigrant Carl Laemmle on June 8, 1912. In 1929, Carl Laemmle Jr. took over the helm and tried to lift the reputation of the low-budget company by spending more on production and talent. The Universal horror classics like Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Mummy were the result of this move, but they were not financially successful for the company, and they returned to mass-produced dreck for some time thereafter. By the late 1930s the Laemmle family were no longer in control.
In 1952, the studio was acquired by the record company Decca. Decca later sold the Universal City lot to MCA in 1958, and merged completely with MCA in 1962. Universal finally began to prosper, with the leadership of Lew Wasserman. This also marked Universal's entry into the television programming business; MCA owned Revue Studios, one of the biggest TV studios in Hollywood, which at the time produced such hits as Leave It to Beaver, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Wagon Train. The studio was renamed Universal Television, and made its name producing crime dramas and action/adventure series, such as the 1960s Dragnet revival, Adam-12, Emergency!, Columbo, Baretta, Knight Rider, Quantum Leap, and Law & Order. Another television division, EMKA, Ltd., owns the rights to a majority of Paramount Pictures' pre-1950 film library.
Three decades of steady success, with the occasional blockbusters like Jaws and E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial, seemed to poise the studio for great future potential. However, the era of huge media mergers that began in the 1980s and continued in the 1990s put pressure on the firm. Wasserman sought and shepherded an alliance with Matsushita Electric (parent of Panasonic and other brands). The cash infusion was helpful, but the corporate culture of the Japanese firm did not mesh easily with the headstrong old Hollywood veterans. Matsushita tired of the battle and sold a controlling share of the studio to the Seagram company in 1995.
Seagram went on to acquire Polygram and other entertainment properties in order to build a media empire centered on Universal, but stock prices never took off the way they expected. In 1998, Universal's TV studios were spun off to USA Networks, and renamed Studios USA; in 2002, Universal bought back USA's cable and studio holdings, thus reinstating the Universal Television name; Universal retained its pre-1998 TV back catalog through all of this period.
In June 2000, Universal was acquired by the French company Vivendi, now Vivendi Universal. During this period, the studio was under the leadership of Ron Meyer, Stacey Snider, and Barry Diller.
In October 2003, it was announced that Vivendi would be selling the majority of Universal's holdings (including the studio and theme parks) to General Electric, parent of television network (and longtime Universal Television customer) NBC. The merger cleared regulatory approval in April 2004, and closed on May 12, 2004. As of the closing, GE owns 80% of the combined NBC Universal, with the remaining 20% kept by Vivendi; Vivendi will have the option to sell its share starting in 2006. Vivendi Universal retained Universal Music Group and StudioCanal; there were rumors of Universal Music being up for sale during the early days of the NBC-Universal merger talks, but no solid deal ever surfaced.
Universal Studios Theme ParksUniversal Studios has long hosted tours of its studios to eager tourists. In 1964, the humble tram tour became a full-blown theme park -- the narrated tram tour still runs through the studio's backlot, showing off the sets and props from a huge variety of Universal movie and TV productions, but the Universal Studios Hollywood and Universal Orlando Resort theme-parks have added some high-tech rides, stunt shows, and attractions.
Universal Studios has since opened theme parks in Hollywood, California, Orlando, Florida, Japan (Osaka), and Spain (although without the working studio attached).