Photo ©2008 Mattbr. Used under Attribution 2.0 Generic license, via Wikimedia Commons
On June 24, 1916, Mary Pickford signed an agreement rivaling the best that any modern Hollywood dealmaker could negotiate. Adjusted for inflation, the $10,000 per week in compensation that her motion picture contract with Paramount Pictures co-founder Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players Film Company provided for is equal to about $270,682 today. On top of that, profit participation gave her 50% from each film, with guaranteed compensation equal to about $19,600,000.
One of, if not the, most powerful women ever to work in the business, Miss Pickford also commanded a deal that gave her full authority to produce her films—creative control that was unheard of in those early years in the motion picture industry. In Mr. Zukor’s 1976 obituary, the New York Times quoted his description of her business acumen and leverage: “Mary was a terrific businessman,” Zukor said. For years he “was forced to renegotiate [her] contract every time Miss Pickford heard that Rudolph Valentino . . . had gotten a salary raise. At one point Miss Pickford told Mr. Zukor: ‘You know, for years I’ve dreamed of making $20,000 a year before I was 20, and I’ll be 20 very soon.’ ‘I could take a hint,’ Mr. Zukor recalled wryly. ‘She got the $20,000, and before long I was paying her $100,000 a year.’”
Mary Pickford negotiated for—and received—creative control that went far beyond any mere consultation right. She approved the scripts, directors, talent, and crew on the pictures in which she appeared. Under her Famous Players contract, she set up her own production company, making and starring in 13 films through the Mary Pickford Film Corporation.
Several years after the contract ended, Miss Pickford with Charlie Chaplin, D. W. Griffith, and Douglas Fairbanks would go on to co-found the legendary United Artists. The independent studio empowered actors with more creative control and greater shares of film profits. With Jenie Macpherson and Bess Meredyth, the “Queen of the Movies” also became one of only three women founding members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Almost her entire screen career was performed in silence. In 1930, Miss Pickford became the second winner of an Oscar for best actress for incredibly moving and critically acclaimed work in her first sound film, Coquette. In 2022 dollars, the picture grossed about $24.6 million.