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Monday, September 02, 2019

American-International This Week

Exploitation Brought To a 50's Boil --- Part One

Glenn Erickson (Cine-Savant) recently did an update on whereabouts of AIP horror/sci-fi backlog from the 50’s, a topic dear to narrowing number who value I Was a Teenage Werewolf, The Amazing Colossal Man, others of the sort. To paraphrase DVD cartoon warnings, They Weren’t Good Then, They Aren’t Good Now, unless we lower standards in tribute to The Brain Eaters or She-Gods of Shark Reef. A current generation is spared these and 67 others of AIP origin that have been, and remain, out of circulation thanks to vagaries of split ownership, sort of a Selznick package of cheap chillers, actioners, teen travails, what not (DOS backlog similarly divided up among present owners). If Sam Arkoff were around and told his library has sustained interest for sixty years, he would not believe it. In fact, they did tell him that at a point when the pics were still gathering acorns after forty years, and he barely believed it then. Thing is, Sam and Jim Nicholson, plus everyone who drew checks, knew well how down-market AIP was, being joke of an industry that valued them nonetheless because this shop knew how to package for profit. Upper-rung producers sneered, showmen snickered (as they ripped off Jim-Sam on percentages), and mainstream mags mocked (TIME thought them junk peddlers, good for a laugh, while the NYT marveled at kids piddling allowance away on such rubbish). AIP wanted respect but got too little; when they tried for it, things came a cropper (Wuthering Heights, De Sade). I was raised on AIP and revere them, having re-watched the following, some after a gap of fifty years: War of the Colossal Beast, The Spider, Attack of the Puppet People, Blood of Dracula, none so dire as some would tell us, in fact, all fun taken in a right spirit. I cite them as warning that each may surface over this week dedicated to Nicholson-Arkoff, a pair of faces I’m for putting on a Rushmore of show-world giants.

Cellar placement irked Sam especial, showmen of shared opinion that since he made cheese pictures, they should pay accordingly, if at all. Fat circuits would agree on, say 35%, then withhold it knowing AIP would come begging and accept less, 25% maybe. “House nuts,” that portion raked off a top to cover base expense to “fairly” compensate a theatre for operating expenses, a figure set by conniving management to flog a weak opponent, was exhibition’s way of saying nuts to you, AIP, try and get it. Craven crooks nested up and down the line, to whom Sam bitterly complained, but whoa, look at partners of his own that made pics for AIP release and never got agreed-upon fees and/or back-end dough. Well heck, Sam said, you haven’t got it coming, or we’re not in profit yet, or the argument he used most, you guys are just soreheads. Tell that to Alex Gordon, Bert I. Gordon, Herman Cohen, among producers, or Touch Connors, Alex Nicol, among trimmed actor ranks. Latter plus others raised cash of their own to make mellers that Sam sent out, took his licks from exhib ranks, then figured, by gad, I’ll keep what those bastards didn’t steal and to hell with greedy partners who think they ought to be paid (Sam was a pro-fane talker --- read his interviews with ear muffs). A barrel of snakes, you see, a question only of whose fangs sunk deeper, Sam or guys stealing from him, or ones he stole from. Of Arkoff and AIP it was often said, I’ll never work for that bunch again!, until of course, they’d go work for him/them again. Honestly, how can we help but idolize such men?

Arkoff tried to minimize Nicholson’s contribution, a perk of living longer (Jim passed in 1972, Sam 2001). There was a book Arkoff wrote that AIP vets call a tissue, in fact toilet tissue, of lies. I like it however, and have drummed many of sections into lasting memory, like how the boys hustled crap movies to pals with screens spread across a US speckled with hardtops and drive-ins ideal for The Fast and the Furious or Five Guns West, movies a flagship downtown house wouldn’t sweep up with spilled popcorn. Here was the miracle, though … Jim and Sam did get their splatter onto palace walls, breakthrough I Was a Teenage Frankenstein scoring Thanksgiving 1957 play with a Texas chain that would not have spit on it or AIP a year earlier. That’s how fast and furious this team operated, and yes, they closed deals right in manager’s offices, or gin-mills across the street, wherever hands could be shook. What does it matter then, if I Was a Teenage Frankenstein was or is any good? (it’s plenty fine, if you can locate it) Enough, I argue, that Teen Frank moved mountains and showed high-horse majors that their dominance was done, for here’s truth of AIP at AI-Peak --- no one did what they did so well, but by gum, competitors tried. Paramount, Columbia, MGM --- all went an exploitation route that hit a bog of over-spend, overhead out of control, and pictures that preached rather than pleased the desired kid audience (Mom and Dad know best in the end, said The Invisible Boy, from Metro, The Space Children, via Para, too many others). Sam just laughed at rivals, knowing they all had heads up their … well, let that pass.

Jim was a speech-maker, a visionary if you will, and no, I mean that. What a shame he died young, for I would treasure a three-volume oral history conducted by Tom Weaver, if we lived in such a perfect world. There are transcripts of Jim talking to showmen at conferences where he saw trends coming, warning of cycles played out (black-and-white combos kaput, he argued in 1958). Deathless Jim moment I’ve noted before: the time fat-cat Jerry Wald crashed an AIP luncheon and insulted their product, to which Nicholson invited the loudmouth to settle hash in the hotel parking lot. Wald had weight, but Jim I bet was quicker, even if both were mid-day hobbled by multiple martinis, two-three packs of Chesterfields, and twelve-ounce steaks. What became of those days? I want them back! Nicholson plead that AIP was conducting “a campaign against fear,” whatever that precisely means. Maybe he but faintly knew himself. Fear of empty seats, I’d guess, and all shared that in an era where TV made monkeys out of theatre operators everywhere. Look at AIP films this way: They were basically tube-fare blown up big that you need not pay much mind to, which meant closer ties to the canteen or sweets counter, where venues got the real money, popcorn proceeds not shared with AIP, a thing that riled Sam no end. Well, he wasn’t alone there. Walt Disney had a same rock in his shoe, and actually tried to increase grab around the time of Peter Pan, till exhibition protested en masse. Ask yourself next time: Should producers get a chunk of that Snickers bar you’re eating?

Trades reported AIP scoring 7000 bookings per pic, this in October, 1958. Neg costs were generally $100K and up, $200K the most you’d want to tickle. Roger Corman did his for less, which made him a Jim-Sam pet. Roger, in fact, was one, perhaps an only one, they did not habitually cheat. Corman movies also tended to be better. I looked at two that were distributed by Allied Artists, but done cut-rate AIP way, Attack of the Crab Monsters and Not of This Earth. I’m not ashamed to say I enjoyed both. Well, maybe I should be ashamed. So how did AIP end up so far as accounts receivable? The Day the World Ended copped $464K, mighty good for a show that cost nickels. Dragstrip Girl did $424K. Jim/Sam ate, in fact got eventually rich. Their trick was to pour dollars back into production, which was largely why they ran independent suppliers like Alex Gordon and Bert I. Gordon round and round the hamster cage. When either complained, Sam laid manhood impugn that both were hen-pecked flunkies for shrew wives. If only they listened to Sam rather than harpies at home (Herman Cohen wasn’t married, so Arkoff just said he was “pompous”). Alex Gordon told of Arkoff pushing him down on pavement after a restaurant set-to, Sam denying the smear. One thing I’ve learned is that the history of AIP is, one claims this, sometimes forty years after it allegedly happened, then the other calls him a damn liar, again forty years past the fact, or allegation. Tom Weaver’s interview books are repository of such lore, so forget the Rise and Fall Of The Roman Empire. Read Weaver’s oeuvre instead.

Back to Jim sensing a downturn: that sure enough came when everybody jumped in the cheapie pool and it got fetid. Double-features sprung like weeds, running gamut from majors, to minors, to who-dat? Opportunists seemed to come from nowhere. You couldn’t tell pearls from swine without sitting through the lot, and that was duty even ten-year-olds shrank from. Let’s say the choice was Enemy From Space rather than War Of The Satellites, one a near-masterpiece, the other a wet smack. Well, that was dumb luck, because how could we know from posters outside? In fact, Satellite art was lots more attractive than ugly sheets UA did for Enemy. Here’s the awful truth: Sharp as they were, Jim and Sam didn’t have an AIP title on Variety’s Hit Parade until 1960 and Sign of the Gladiator ($1.25 million), House of Usher ($1.45 million), and Goliath and the Barbarians ($1.6 million), and two of those traded on Joe Levine’s Hercules success, not anything Arkoff-Nicholson originated. Well, hadn’t enough copy-cats poached off them? Genre leaders, according to Variety million-dollar rental charts (published annually in January) were the following between 1957 and 59: The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Fly, Macabre, The Blob, Horror of Dracula, House On Haunted Hill, and The Mysterians. None were from AIP. If there was a genius making exploitation horror, his name was William Castle. But Bill wasn’t so prolific as Jim-Sam, and he didn’t labor under a release schedule theatres depended on. That’s where Arkoff and Nicholson got their greatness, and actually kept it for years after Castle played out.

Part Two on AIP is HERE.


Blogger Mike Cline said...

Incredible article.

"Should producers get a chunk of that Snickers bar you’re eating?"

Hell, no.

Exhibitors often got only a 10% fraction of each ticket they sold.

11:17 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Most theaters make their money from concessions. That's why nobody much cares if you slip from auditorium to auditorium, from movie to movie. But, don't let them catch you trying to sneak food in; that's no-no and I agree. If they can't have a cash cow, more theaters will close.

4:51 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Volume XXXIV of Mystery Science Theater 3000 includes an interesting and snarkless hour-plus history of AIP.
(I know and respect that some here are not fans of MST. I happen to like it AND the films it heckles.)

Two of my favorite AIPs are probably nobody else's. They're both bids for mainstream success:
-- "Master of the World", a would-be spectacle. On the plus side, Vincent Price and a pretty smart script (I'd bet it was even smarter before budget realities set in). On the minus side, the effects, giddy set colors, and too obviously a clone of Disney's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea". Going in, AIP had visions of a roadshow attraction.
-- "Those Fantastic Flying Fools", actually a Harry Alan Towers epic AIP distributed here. A wide-of-the-mark follow-up to "Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines". Lots of talent and witty ideas on display, but deployed poorly and ending with a disappointing gag.

The MST documentary claims that "Doctor Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine" was planned as a much bigger film, but offscreen events caused a rift between the partners and a drastically reduced budget.

Love that "The Top Shock Show of All Time" is presented as a Kiddie Show. Eons ago read a Reader's Digest piece about a matinee of "Night of the Living Dead" -- the first one. The author was full of righteous outrage, describing traumatized kids who expected old-fashioned creepy chills rather than a grim downer.

4:54 PM  
Blogger Joe Dante said...

As I recall that Readers Digest condemnation of NOTLD was written by... Roger Ebert.

7:59 PM  
Blogger MikeD said...

Wow, thanks for the hard work of putting together today's blog! Fun stuff! I got that Sam Arkoff book out of the library years ago. It was a fun read but all I can remember is the "negotiating" he did with Walt Disney over having Annette wear a bikini and wondering who they were talking about.

8:25 AM  
Blogger MDG14450 said...

Reading the early part of this, I was reminded of what Belloq told Indy: "It's worthless. Ten dollars from a vendor in the street. But I take it, I bury it in the sand for a thousand years, it becomes priceless... " For me, AIPs output is more valuable as a reflection of the culture the movies came out of than the movies themselves are. Both the good and the bad ones have a lot to say about how teenagers viewed the world and how adults viewed these "alien" teenagers.

Also, as much as I hate seeing the MGM lion at the beginning of streaming/DVD AIPs, it's just another way Sam got the last laugh.

1:20 PM  
Blogger Cliff.Balcony said...

I once met a member of the Platters and got to spend several lavish minutes discussing Rock All Night. Ah, those were the days. My big brudder took me to see the AA/AIP monster movies in the late '60s when I was just a wee lad, they had a triple feature of 'em at the Forum Theatre in beautiful downtown Akron, probably for 50¢. Knowing they were 10 years old, I'm certain they were ragged, beat up prints, but who cared? Not me. I loved 'em then and I love 'em now, and was quite pleased to work on the 25 releases in England of the "Arkoff Archives" releases on VHS and DVD. I know there are better films out there, but I'm more apt to cozy up to Shake, Rattle & Rock or Invasion of the Saucer-men than I am with the so-called "good" movies my parents were always pressing on me.

11:55 PM  
Blogger brickadoodle said...

Hey, I was raised up on a steady diet of schlock shock too, and I turned out alright (in my own estimation). I’ve always preferred hamburgers over the most expensive cuts of beef, so let the posers salivate over Hollywood’s prime cuts from the Fifties and Sixties; I’ll take an Roger Corman Poe film with a side order of Bill Castle any day, which are still as fresh and uproariously entertaining as they were half a century ago, maybe even more so now than ever...

If it hadn’t been for companies like AIP and Allied Artists, how many movie houses and drive-ins would have folded for lack of product?

1:06 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Those AIP Roger Corman Poe picks are not shlock.

They are first rate pieces of film making every bit as powerful and unique in their own right as the tales they are adapted from.

2:38 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

I like MST3K and I like the Corman/AIP episodes best of all. They're slickly made unlike some of the shlock they mock, and yet silly enough that you don't mind having a side of snark to ensure you're being entertained in multiple ways.

10:19 PM  

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