As the Academy Award-winning "Dances With Wolves" dragged a month behind schedule during its filming, detractors probably said, "This is what happens when you put the artist in charge."

But Kevin Costner wasn't doing anything revolutionary when he decided to play directer and star and co-producer. Rather, he was simply continuing what started in 1919 when Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith shook up the movie industry by stepping outside a rigid studio system and taking control of their work.The cries of "Kevin's Gate" that greeted Costner's epic Western, which went on to win seven Oscars, echoed one Hollywood wag's insistence that the "lunatics have taken over the asylum" after Chaplin and company founded United Artists - a studio that ironically collapsed under the wreckage of another Western, "Heaven's Gate."

Imagine Costner, Julia Roberts, Eddie Murphy, Woody Allen and Tom Cruise forming their own studio. Imagine them financing and distributing their own films and collecting all the profits.

That was the concept of UA, and the result was both a great success and an agonizing failure.

UA was home to the biggest stars of the silent era, Chaplin, Fairbanks, Buster Keaton, Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino, and to future industry giants such as Walt Disney, Samuel Goldwyn and Darryl Zanuck.

Its pictures pulled in 11 Oscars. Billy Wilder directed "The Apartment." Milos Forman contributed "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Allen made "Annie Hall." Other Oscar winners include "Rocky," "Midnight Cowboy," "In the Heat of the Night" and "Marty." It also made a string of James Bond movies, starring Sean Connery, and "The Pink Panther" cartoons.

The studio's respect in the industry was such that a management shake-up in 1978 prompted an open letter from Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and more than 60 others worrying that "the loss of this leadership will not only be felt by United Artists but by us all."

But it's an unhappy history as well, marked by disappointments, dry spells and disaster, notably "Heaven's Gate," the big-budget flop that forced the studio in the early 1980s to merge with MGM.

"They were nice people, which is good enough for anybody," recalled Irwin Winkler, who produced "Rocky" and "Raging Bull" for UA.

"They gave the artists complete freedom. Basically, they gave you a check and said, `Here, bring back the film.' Those days are gone forever. `Heaven's Gate' eliminated that kind of filmmaking completely."

The studio's history began in 1918, a time when the industry was dominated by such biggies as Fox Film Corp., First National (later Warner Bros.) and Adolph Zukor's Paramount Pictures.

With the United States in World War I, Chaplin, Fairbanks and Pickford toured the country to support Liberty Bonds. When they arrived in Washington, a press agent noted the impressive collection of stars and suggested, "Why don't you fellows get together and distribute your own pictures?"

Meanwhile, Hiram Abrams and B.P. Schulberg, two associates of Zukor, became frustrated with their lack of influence and wanted a company of their own, not one controlled by businessmen.

What they had in mind was a studio financed by the artists themselves. Names were needed, the biggest in Hollywood: Chaplin, who used a hat, a cane and some tattered clothes to earn millions of dollars; the exuberant, dynamic Fairbanks; Pickford, the curly haired "America's Sweetheart"; Thomas Hart, the stone-faced cowboy; and Griffith, the industry's most acclaimed director.

By the beginning of 1919, Schulberg had put together a manifesto called "89 Reasons for United Artists" and went to work on the idea.

He started with Chaplin, who needed little convincing. Unable to get First National to advance him more money for films, the comedian was intrigued by the idea and discussed it with his close friend, Fairbanks, who in turn talked to Pickford, his future wife.

Within days the stars, joined by Hart and Griffith, were seated around a table at Hollywood's Alexandria Hotel. It was all talk at first, but the idea was as exciting to the artists as it was to outsiders, and they quickly put a plan together.

On Feb. 5, 1919, the formation of the United Artists Distributing Association was announced, with each of the principals owning equal shares of stock in the company and agreeing to make three films a year (Hart had already dropped out).

By 1924, everything was in place. Fairbanks turned out marvelous adventure films such as "The Thief of Baghdad" and "The Mark of Zorro." Chaplin made his classic "The Gold Rush." Griffith's contributions included "Broken Blossoms" and "Way Down East," some of his most beautiful work. Pickford won an Oscar for "Coquette."

The idea was for the stars to provide the capital, but it didn't work out that way. Their own money wasn't enough to keep the studio going. They needed outside help. Also, Chaplin and company were artists. To run the business, to shake all the necessary hands and cut all the necessary deals, they hired bus-iness-men.

For much of the 1920s, Joseph Schenck was production manager and brought in such stars as Keaton, Swanson and Valentino as well as Goldwyn, Disney and Howard Hughes.

After World War II, when the studio was near bankruptcy and Chaplin and Pickford were feuding, attorneys Robert Benjamin and Arthur Krim took control and UA got back on its feet with "The African Queen" and "High Noon."

Otto Preminger's "The Moon Is Blue" (1953) epitomized the Krim-Benjamin approach. UA provided the financing and a low distribution fee and gave the director complete artistic freedom. Preminger and star William Holden agreed to defer their salaries, accepting a percentage of the gross instead.

"The only people who really know how to make movies are moviemakers," insisted Steven Bach, a former UA production chief and author of the best-seller "Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of `Heaven's Gate.' "

Although the studio turned out Oscar winners well into the '70s, the downfall may already have been in place in 1967 when Transamerica Corp. bought out UA. The studio kept its name, but Krim and Benjamin feuded with the parent company and left in 1978 for Orion Pictures, which released "Dances With Wolves."

UA then took on a project by Michael Cimino, a hot young director coming off the Academy Award-winning "The Deer Hunter." Cimino's plan for a modest Western, however, turned into the red-ink colossus "Heaven's Gate."

As "Final Cut" painfully details, the film started as a $7.5 million movie and exploded into a $44 million boondoggle.

Although visually beautiful with set-pieces and camera work almost worth the price, the plot is virtually impossible to follow. "Heaven's Gate" was greeted by critics and moviegoers with blockbuster rejection.

It spelled the death of UA, which then was absorbed by MGM.

But the concept lives on. Many stars (Warren Beatty and Goldie Hawn among them) produce their own films, while "Dances With Wolves" has proved the artist can take on a major project and succeed.