William Fox (born Vilmos Fuchs; January 1, 1879 – May 8, 1952) was a Hungarian-American motion picture executive, who founded the Fox Film Corporation in 1915 and the Fox West Coast Theatres chain in the 1920s. Although he lost control of his movie businesses in 1930, his name continues to be used in the trademarks of Fox Corporation. He is often credited as one of the founders of 20th Century Fox.
Fox was born in Tolcsva, Hungary and originally named Vilmos Fuchs. His parents, Michael Fuchs and Hannah Fried, were both Hungarian Jews. The family immigrated to the United States when William was nine months old and settled in New York City, where they had twelve more children, of whom only six survived. Wilhelm once sold candy in Central Park, worked as a newsboy, and worked in the fur and garment industry as a youth.
In 1900, Fox started his own company, which he sold in 1904 to purchase his first nickelodeon. Always more of an entrepreneur than a showman, he concentrated on acquiring and building theaters. Beginning in 1914, New Jersey-based Fox bought films outright from the Balboa Amusement Producing Company in Long Beach, California, for distribution to his own theaters and then for rental to other theaters across the country. He formed the Fox Film Corporation on February 1, 1915, with insurance and banking money provided by the McCarter, Kuser and Usar families of Newark, New Jersey, and the small New Jersey investment house of Eisele and King. The company's first film studio was leased in Fort Lee, New Jersey, where many other early film studios were based at the beginning of the 20th century. He now had the capital to acquire facilities and expand his production capacity.
In 1925–26, Fox purchased the rights to the work of Freeman Harrison Owens, the U.S. rights to the Tri-Ergon system invented by three German inventors (Josef Engl (1893–1942), Hans Vogt (1890–1979), and Joseph Massolle (1889–1957)), and the work of Theodore Case to create the Fox Movietone sound-on-film system, introduced in 1927 with the release of F. W. Murnau's Sunrise. Sound-on-film systems such as Movietone and RCA Photophone soon became the standard, and competing sound-on-disc technologies, such as Warner Bros.' Vitaphone, became obsolete. From 1928 to 1964, Fox Movietone News was one of the major newsreel series in the U.S., along with The March of Time (1935–1951) and Universal Newsreel (1929–1967).
After the death of Marcus Loew, head of rival studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, in 1927, control of MGM passed to his longtime associate, Nicholas Schenck. Fox saw an opportunity to expand his empire, and in 1929, with Schenck's assent, bought the Loew family's MGM holdings, unbeknownst to studio bosses Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg who were outraged, since, despite their high posts at MGM, they were not shareholders. Mayer used his strong political connections to persuade the Justice Department to sue Fox for violating federal antitrust laws. During this time, in the middle of 1929, Fox was badly hurt in an automobile accident. By the time he recovered, the stock market crash in October 1929 had wiped out virtually his entire fortune, ending any chance of the Loews-Fox merger going through even if the Justice Department had approved it.
Fox lost control of his Fox Film Corporation in 1930 during a hostile takeover. In 1935, Fox Film Corporation would merge with 20th Century Pictures, becoming 20th Century-Fox, which was later renamed "20th Century Fox" and, after the 2019 spin-off of Fox Corporation, "20th Century Studios." William Fox never had any involvement with the film studio that famously bore his name. A combination of the stock market crash, Fox's car accident injuries, and government antitrust action, forced him into a protracted seven-year legal battle to stave off bankruptcy. At his bankruptcy hearing in 1936, he attempted to bribe judge John Warren Davis and committed perjury. In 1943, Fox served a five-month and seventeen day sentence on charges of conspiring to obstruct justice and defraud the United States, in connection with his bankruptcy. After serving his time, a disgraced and embarrassed Fox retired from the film business.
For many years, Fox resented the way that Wall Street had forced him from control of his company. In 1933, he collaborated with the writer Upton Sinclair on a book Upton Sinclair Presents William Fox in which Fox recounted his life, and stating his views on what he considered to be a large Wall Street conspiracy against him.
His death in 1952 at the age of 73 went largely unnoticed in New York City. No one from Hollywood attended his funeral. Fox is interred at Salem Fields Cemetery, Brooklyn.
Fox personally oversaw the construction of many Fox Theatres in American cities including Atlanta, Detroit, Oakland, San Francisco and San Diego.
His companies had an estimated value of $300,000,000 and he personally owned 53 percent of Fox Film and 93 percent of the Fox Theaters.
Fox was married to Eva Leo (1881–1962) and had two daughters.