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The Skouras Brothers, the Greek Magnates of Hollywood

Spyros Skouras and Alan E. Freedmann
The Skouras Brothers, the Greek Magnates of Hollywood. Credit: Mbarrach/Wikimedia commons

It was August 16, 1971 when Spyros Skouras, one of the three brothers who had heavily influenced Hollywood’s film industry, passed away. Charles, George, and Spyros Skouras all rose from an impoverished background to become top movie executives in Hollywood during the 20th century.

Early Life of Skouras Brothers

The Skouras brothers emigrated from Greece to St. Louis in the early 1900s. They were the sons of a poor sheep herder from Skourohorion, Greece. They saved their money working as busboys and bartenders in downtown hotels, so that by 1914, they were able to invest in a nickelodeon theater in St. Louis. This initial property was named the Olympia and was quickly followed by the acquisition of other theaters. They owned thirty local theaters by 1924.

Five years later, they sold out to Warner Brothers and moved to the West Coast. Between 1930 and 1932, Spyros worked with Paramount but left to save the Fox Metropolitan chain from its demise. In 1932, the Skouras Brothers took over the management of over five hundred Fox-West Coast theaters.

Spyros Skouras Becomes President of 20th Century Fox

During the 1930s, Spyros played a significant role in the merger between Fox and 20th Century Pictures. He was appointed president of the new company, namely 20th Century Fox, in 1942, and with the assistance of Darryl Zanuck, turned it into one of Hollywood’s most powerful studios. He would serve as president for the next twenty years.

During Spyros’ tenure, he worked to rescue the faltering movie industry from television—its new competitor. 20th Century Fox’s famous advertising slogan, “Movies are Better than Ever,” gained credibility in 1953 when Spyros introduced CinemaScope in the studio’s groundbreaking feature film, The Robe. The CinemaScope process of wide-screen projection started a new, yet short-lived trend in colorful epic films.

Meanwhile, Spyros’ brother, George, became president of United Artists Theaters (now Regal Entertainment Group, owners of the Regal, Edwards, and United Artists theater chains). While head of United Artists Theaters, George was part of the Magna Theater Corporation formed in 1953, which introduced the world to the Todd-AO high definition wide screen film format. He died in 1964 at the age of 68.

Helping the Greek Community

Charles Skouras went on to become president of National Theaters, which, at the time, owned 650 theaters across the nation. Giving back to the Greek community, Charles built the Saint Sophia Cathedral in Los Angeles which opened in 1952. It was a beautiful Greek church that still stands to this day. He died two years later at the age of 65. In the same manner, during World War II, Spyros was head of the Greek War Relief Agency.

Spyros was known throughout Hollywood to have a thick, Greek accent. “He has been here twenty years but he still sounds as if he’s coming next week,” Bob Hope, the British-American comedian, had once said.

High-Budget Epic Film “Cleopatra” causes Destruction

During his reign as president of 20th Century Fox, Spyros Skouras oversaw the production of many successful movies. However, his tenure ended in 1962 after the disastrous overspending on the budget of Cleopatra, the epic starring Rex Harrison, Elizabeth Taylor, and Richard Burton. The film was originally budgeted for $2 million but was made at a cost of $44 million. Widely regarded as one of the biggest flops of all time, the film’s box office failure almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox, and Skouras was blamed for the fiasco. He was replaced by Daryl Zanuck.

As a result, Spyros was re-assigned to the position of board chairman, and his control over films was largely removed. In 1969, he left 20th Century Fox to nurture his other investments which included his own shipping line. He died in 1971 at the age of 78.

Ironically, Cleopatra recouped its investment after several years from box office receipts and television sales. Yet, it still remains the most expensive film ever made (adjusting for inflation).

Plato Skouras, son of Spyros and Sara, followed in his father’s footsteps in the movie industry. He formed his own independent film company and produced several independent films. Plato died in 2004. At the time of his death, he was working on a biography about his father.

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