These days, Hollywood studios often farm out their productions to smaller companies, or distribute films produced by other companies that they find at film festivals and the like.
That wasn't the case with Out of Africa.
Universal Studios was one of the big boys, and they were going to pull out all the stops on this one. This is exactly the kind of movie that big studios do really well, and Universal had the resources to make it happen.
Universal Pictures started out very early in the movie game—1912, in fact, when it was known as Universal Film Manufacturing Company. That makes it the oldest U.S. studio still in operation. Its founder, Carl Laemmle, started out buying nickelodeons—those old-timey single-viewer devices that were big right about the time that the real-life Karen Blixen was finding out what a cad her husband was.
At the time, Thomas Edison had a patent on movie production. Laemmle didn't like that; he wanted to make movies of his own to show on his own machines. Like a lot of filmmakers at the time, he was based in New York, but Hollywood beckoned. Those mild SoCal winters meant you could shoot all year, whereas in New York, you had to shut down whenever the snow started to fall.
Laemmle opened up Universal Studios just over the pass from the famous Hollywood sign. It's still there today, and you can even take a tour. (And as the end of Animal House reminds us, "Ask for Babs!")
The Horror of it All
The studio had its ups and downs in the early years, but hit upon a formula in the 1920s that really made its fortunes: monster movies. Starting with silent films like The Phantom of the Opera in 1926, Laemmle (and his son Carl Laemmle, Jr.) gave us a whole slew of chillers that lasted for the next three decades.
Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolfman, the Creature from the Black Lagoon… they all hit the box office like a ton of bricks, and set the pop culture standard for those characters that has yet to be topped. Seriously, if we say, "Frankenstein's monster," chances are, you'll instantly think of Boris Karloff, image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
P.S. That's not what he looked like in the original.
Unfortunately, the monsters couldn't hold them up forever, and while they had their share of other hits, it came with a lot of failures as well. They did best with low-budget films, and their larger efforts tended to be a disaster.
The Laemmles lost control of the studio in the 1930s (Carl, Jr. liked spending money a bit too much), and the company also invested a lot in actual theaters. Studios could do that back then until a landmark Supreme Court decision, U.S. vs. Paramount Pictures, ruled that studios couldn't own theater chains, too. They thought it stifled free trade.
That cost Universal its theater chain. With television arriving in the 1950s, the face of the industry was changing. Their horror films still did okay, since they switched pretty swiftly from the old-fashioned Gothic castle stuff to giant bugs and invaders from space (which was the new hotness in the 1950s).
But the owners began shifting more and more towards television, and the movies looked to be a thing of the past.
Changes, Upgrades, and a Cat Named Spielberg
In 1962, MCA (The Music Corporation of America) finalized a long takeover of Universal. It kept the studio and the name of the film production company. It aimed bigger and scored a few hits, but the 1960s and early '70s were still pretty lean for the studio.
Then an earthquake hit.
In 1973, Universal handed the adaptation of a potboiler of a book to an untested young filmmaker who oversaw a troubled shoot full of cost overruns. It looked to be a complete disaster from a studio that wasn't entirely unfamiliar with them—except that the 26-year-old filmmaker's name was Steven Spielberg, and the movie was Jaws (1975).
The "disaster" turned into one of the biggest hits of all time and pretty much invented the summer blockbuster movie. That set Universal up on much firmer footing, a spot they've enjoyed ever since.
Out of Africa showed up in the midst of the studio's renaissance that included big hits like Animal House, Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, and E.T., as well as arty "prestige" films like The Deer Hunter, Sophie's Choice, and Gorillas in the Mist. (Okay, yeah, there were some serious stink bombs in there too: Howard the Duck, we're looking at you…)
Out of Africa was, to use a Hollywood term, the total package: a high-falutin' "serious" movie that audiences were ready for and which pulled in the big bucks, too.
And Robert Redford.
Universal's still going strong, putting out hits like Jurassic World, Despicable Me, and the Fast and Furious movies. Thanks to Out of Africa's success, they have some shiny gold hardware in the old trophy case that they can be very proud of.