Filmmaker William Fox was the oldest of a large family of immigrants from Austria-Hungary, where he was born. Growing up on New York's Lower East Side, Fox held down a series of jobs before setting up his own business in 1900: the Knickerbocker Cloth Examining and Shrinking Company. When his profits reached $50,000 in 1904, Fox sold the company in order to realize even more capital. Two years later, he bought a failing nickelodeon from British film pioneer J. Stuart Blackton, bolstering business by hiring live acts to entertain the audience between movies. He then set up his own film exchange, the Greater New York Rental Company, in defiance of the monopolistic Motion Pictures Patent Company; he earned the respect of his fellow exchange executives by winning a long legal battle against the Patents trusts.
Entering the production end of the business with Box Office Attractions in 1913, Fox eventually merged his theatrical, exchange and studio operations into the Fox Film Corporation, which opened for business in 1914. Banking on the popularity of his biggest stars, including Theda Bara and Tom Mix, Fox maintained one of the most successful and prolific studios in Hollywood; he also accumulated a theatre chain numbering 1000 movie houses by 1927. His bread-and-butter product, directed by such dependables as John Ford and Frank Borzage, enabled Fox to engage such "artistic" directors as F. W. Murnau, who wouldn't bring in much at the box office but could be counted upon for the prestige items which won awards and gained critical adulation. In 1927, Fox acquired the Movietone sound-on-film process, far superior to the competing sound-on-disc Vitaphone, which enabled his studio to make a smooth transition to talkies. He also pioneered the wide-screen film with such productions as The Big Trail, but this innovation was not as successful as Movietone.