Prefacing this now, this is a long post that is basically my research findings on an old Hollywood studio and is followed by my own personal introspection on what could have been. If movie spec and stats or movie history isn’t your interest, then I would move along.
The Story of RKO
So today I had some movie super sleuthing fun. I was looking at the box office numbers and stuff (cuz i’m a nerd and i love that stuff) and I was looking at inflation numbers and noticed a studio name I had never seen before…RKO Radio Productions. So I went to look up the big six (movie studios that were the originals) when I noticed there were actually eight major studios in the beginning, RKO being one of them, along with Paramount, MGM, 20th Century Fox, Columbia (Sony), Warner Bros, and Universal. The other two were United Artists and RKO. United Artists was merged into MGM and RKO went defunct in the late 1950’s leading into the 60’s, before going away entirely in a movie studio sense in the 1990’s. This led me to wonder what caused this and what movies were they famous for making. I did my research. RKO started in 1930 and in 1935 struck a distribution deal with a new young animator named Walt Disney. Walt Disney Pictures was merely a production company at the time and did not have the legs to stand up on its own or to distribute its own movies to the reaches of which major studios could. RKO secured the distribution rights and would slap their names on Disney products and ship them off. This was a normal occurrence for RKO, who distributed films by Samuel Goodwyn Productions and others. RKO would release about 30 movies per year and only 15 would be actually produced in house. These films did not succeed well against competitors like MGM or Paramount. The most successful film they produced in house was Citizen Kane, which failed at the box office. Disney was their only reliable source of revenue. After about twenty years of distributing Disney films, Walt decided he had accumulated enough money and popularity to open up Walt Disney Studios, including Walt Disney Animation Studios and Walt Disney Pictures. Disney left mainly because RKO was failing. The studio was bought out in shares by Howard Hughes in 1954, after a plethora of lawsuits ruined the company in 1953. The company suffered its biggest blow when Disney left in 1953, though RKO fought to keep them, but lost. They could not make back the money they were spending on production, leading to them shutting down production and rely solely on distribution deals. In 1955, they distributed Oklahoma! which saved them temporarily. In 1957, they effectively went defunct, releasing the remainder of their films between 1958 and 1960, leaving distribution to be handled by Universal International. In 1959, RKO dissolved, but was reconstituted in 1978 by RKO General, its parent company. In the 1980’s, they were rebranded RKO Pictures Inc, and dealt mainly in remakes of their old films. In 1989, RKO was sold in its entirety to Pavillion Communications, which renamed it RKO Pictures, LLC. In 1990, they began production on original films, however, they had lost all popularity and pull in Hollywood. After 1991, it took them five years to get distribution aid for their next three films: a documentary, a co-produced film, and a TV movie. After 1998, they began dealing in TV movies and would often seek co-production. They released a 2002 TV Movie, a 2006 direct-to-cable film, and a 2003 TV movie. In 2006, they released their first feature length film in over ten years, Laura Smiles. In 2007, they remade on of their classic films, getting distribution and production aid from Revolution Studios, Cube Vision, and Columbia Pictures (Sony). The film was called Are We There Yet?. It took them five years to release another film, in co-production with Entertainment One, called A Late Quartet. In 2015, they released their first totally independent film with wide release, Barely Lethal, starring Hailee Steinfeld. This is last bit of information I could find on RKO. Currently, RKO is an independent film company, but was formerly known as one of the “Big 8” of Hollywood Studios, thanks to Walt Disney Pictures.
I find it interesting that RKO didn’t lock down the rights to Disney and their films after the first few movies made them serious bank. If they had, RKO would most likely still own Disney, be a top seven studio, and have the name recognition that Disney has today. If they had made the same business moves as Disney, you would be seeing “RKO’s Captain America: Civil War” or “RKO’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens”. I believe that RKO’s business missteps are what led Disney to make the smart decisions they do today, in buying the rights to Marvel, Lucasarts, and Pixar, knowing that if RKO had done that to them, they would still be a dominant company.
I don’t know, I thought this was just fun to find. Do you have any ideas on movie studios or film-related search topics to find? Let me know in the comments below.