Book Talk: Flying Through Hollywood

“Not only are [American-International’s] films rich in their depiction of our culture, but indeed they have played not an insignificant part in it. If [their films] helped establish filmmaking trends by anticipating public interest, they also addressed something familiar in their audiences…The young filmmakers attracted to AIP were already moving to the beat of a changing America.”

Flying Through Hollywood by the Seat of My Pants: From the Man Who Brought You I Was a Teenage Werewolf and Muscle Beach Party” by Sam Arkoff with Richard Trubo (1992)

If you’ve ever spent any time here at SoulRide cruising the articles or if you follow Vintage Leisure on Facebook or me personally on Twitter or Instagram, then you know that we often deal in “deep cuts” here. I often use as a descriptor that our feeds are more American-International while others are MGM. This is simply because I am much more equipped to dish on Chrome and Hot Leather than I am on North By Northwest. I use American-International Pictures not as simply an example of my content but because I truly love the studio. Feeling this way, the book we’re looking at today is essential reading.

Sam and his ever-present stogie.

Years ago, I searched for a book on AIP as I wanted as much info as I could get on my beloved beach party movies and I found out about this one. This book always proved hard to find and expensive so it wasn’t until years later that I finally got serious and hunted up a copy at AbeBooks. The book is written by Samuel Z. Arkoff who founded the company with his friend and partner, James H. Nicholson. As a bonus, my copy bears a written inscription; “To Greg Fuller, I hope you enjoy this book. Now all we have to do is get your program on the air. Sam Arkoff”. Anybody know who Greg Fuller might be? It also has a stamp on it from Newport Beach Public Library. Anyways…

Arkoff talks of starting his company with Nicholson – originally called American Releasing Corporation – at the worst possible time in history. The 1950’s were a time when major movie studios were in serious trouble; the business was changing and television threatened its very existence. Arkoff was wise enough to marry a Canadian – his wife hails from Winnipeg – and the two set up housekeeping in Los Angeles while Sam studied law. He describes his work as a lawyer who’s job was working in Hollywood to save pictures doomed by their bloated budgets. He became familiar with the business end of filmmaking and would often visit movie sets and saw the extravagant expenditures first-hand. He often thought of going into the movie business for himself but was concerned about his ability to support his family. Then, in 1952, he got a headache.

Sam with his friend and partner, Jim Nicholson.

His headache quickly lead to a coma and a cerebral haemorrhage. When he recovered, his new perspective told him to follow his dreams. What follows in Flying Through Hollywood is a fascinating account of how Arkoff and Nicholson created their own brand, their own genre and basically created their own version and method of filmmaking that differed greatly from the conglomerates in Hollywood.

“My number one commandment…has always been ‘Thou shalt not put too much money into any one picture. And with the money you do spend, put it on the screen; don’t waste it on the egos of actors or on nonsense that might appeal to some highbrow critics.’.”

This book is an engaging, behind-the-scenes look at one of the most successful and notable small studios in Hollywood history. Arkoff offers a “how-to” book on making movies on a shoestring, a practice he and partner Nicholson started long before the “lean and mean” years of filmmaking that featured works by the likes of Coppola and Lucas. It’s a fascinating tale of “the other” Hollywood; films made on a smaller scale and often specifically aimed at a demographic the big studios had ignored, the teenager.

“TV might have been keeping parents at home, but teenagers needed to get out of the house and be with kids their own age…if we concentrated on movies aimed at the youth market, we might be able to create a lucrative niche for ourselves.”

AIP became a laboratory for young filmmakers, a proving ground, a playground. A place where novices were handed the keys and allowed to follow their muse. To make films free from the pressures that would have been apparent at a major studio – had one been foolish enough to let them make a film. AIP’s story basically starts with Roger Corman. The studio gave Corman (b. 1926) his start when they agreed to distribute his film The Fast and the Furious (1955) which became AIP’s first release. As time went by, the list of directors and actors that got their starts working on projects at American-International reads like a who’s who. AIP financed Francis Ford Coppola’s first feature, Dementia 13 (1963), for less than $50,000. Woody Allen directed his first film for AIP. Arkoff and Nicholson had agreed to distribute a Japanese spy film in production called Kagi No Kagi. When the finished product was viewed, it was deemed unreleasable in the US. The film was given to Allen to play with and he removed and replaced all the dialogue and changed it from a spy film to a comedy, calling it What’s Up, Tiger Lily?.

John Milius (Big Wednesday) directed his first film, Dillinger (1973) for AIP. Other directors given early chances by American-International include Canadians Ivan Reitman (Cannibal Girls [1973] starred Eugene Levy and Andrea Martin and was made for less than $100,000) and David Cronenberg (Shivers [1975]). Martin Scorsese directed his first major commercial film for Arkoff and Nicholson, 1972’s Boxcar Bertha. Marty has said that his very next film, Mean Streets, wouldn’t have been the movie it was without his experience with AIP. Brian De Palma worked early in his career for AIP and made one of his first horror films for the studio, Sisters (1972) and Peter Bogdanovich – through his friendship with Roger Corman – did many odd jobs for the studio before breaking out as a director.

Arkoff also tells the stories of many actors and actresses that got either their starts or breakthroughs working in American-International pictures. The list includes Charles Bronson, Mel Gibson, Nick Nolte, Don Johnson, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Peter Fonda, Michael Landon, Melanie Griffith, Bruce Dern, Robert Vaughn, Richard Pryor, Cher, Chuck Norris, Tom Laughlin, Mike Connors, Susan Sarandon, Linda Evans, Richard Dreyfuss, Diane Ladd, Sally Kellerman, Ben Vereen and Canadian Margot Kidder.

“One of my overriding philosophies has remained the same: to produce pictures that audiences find entertaining, and that bring in enough money to finance the next movie. Period.”

American-International would often come up with a movie title first and then make up the artwork and some advertisements. They would test the movie posters on young people and ad executives and if the reaction was favourable they’d proceed with making the picture; “Why make the picture if the public wasn’t likely to buy it?” They also often would title a film after a hideous creature with no intention of showing that creature in the film. AIP also began working in Europe helping to finance and distribute foundering productions and this lead to working with directors like Mario Bava. This proved lucrative through the Sixties and when combined with my beloved beach party movies and Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe horror films, the studio put itself in a good position in the industry.

A favourite screenwriter for the studio was Arkoff’s Canadian brother-in-law, Lou Rusoff who would spend days at L.A. beaches researching the kids, their speech and activities. Arkoff battled with Walt Disney who was concerned about Annette Funicello’s depiction in the beach party movies that AIP cranked out for between $350,000 and $600,000.

“No one talked about school, grades, financial worries, and parental problems…they were short on plot but long on provocative beach scenes brimming with girls…outdoor barbecues, pie-throwing fights, Zen Buddhism, pajama parties, karate, rock and roll, skydiving, uninhibited dancing, and just about anything else with which we thought adolescent moviegoers might identify.”

– the glory of the beach party movies.

Along the way, Sam Arkoff highlights many episodes in his unique career in Hollywood. You’ll read about AIP turning “last-run” theatres and drive-ins into places where attractive new product was placed, how they created new genres like the biker picture starting with The Wild Angels (1966) that went on to make $10 million and counter-culture films like Wild in the Streets (1968) that Chicago’s Mayor Daley spoke out against. You’ll learn how the studio shepherded Tom Laughlin and his “Billy Jack” character, how they lost Easy Rider and how they put Cher on-screen in Chastity (1969), written by Sonny Bono. Arkoff also tells of his battles with the few big stars he ever hired like Shelley Winters and Bette Davis.

Interesting to hear about AIP going public and James Nicholson leaving the company in January 1972 – only to die before the year was over. Other nuggets include; talk of “blaxploitation” films, martial arts movies and a brief foray into the short-lived sub-sub genre of “trucker/CB movies” and how Walking Tall (1973) tested poorly until the poster was changed to show Joe Don Baker wielding a bat instead of a commonplace gun. Arkoff discusses AIP’s few genuine blockbusters like The Amityville Horror (1979), Love at First Bite (1979), Mad Max (1979) and Dressed to Kill (1980) and the calamitous sale – Arkoff’s “biggest mistake” – of American-International to Filmways, a company that inexplicably sought to change AIP drastically and failed miserably. The plan was for Arkoff to stay on under the new regime but he left inside of five months. Filmways would file for bankruptcy inside of two years and was swallowed by Orion Pictures.

“A picture should cost what it has to cost – and no more.”

This is the best place I’ve yet found for the full skinny on American-International. And if you’re like me and you have an appreciation for the sheer enjoyment to be found in films that may be unfairly labelled “B movies” or “exploitation films”, Sam Arkoff’s tale is an engaging one. Head over to AbeBooks and get your copy now.

© WorthPoint

2 comments

  1. Totally fascinating as usual. It’s an interesting point about making enough money out of one film to finance the next – ironically that was where the big studios had found themselves by this time although not by their own choice, as you alluded to. The promotion and distribution of films in those days is fascinating in itself, it’s actually hard to imagine how they did it without all the digital means and social media available to us now.

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