Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Talking Out of Turn #24: Samuel Z. Arkoff (1986)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

Tom Fulton of CJRT-FM's On the Arts

For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

Samuel Z. Arkoff
As mainstream movies became more predictable and packaged in the eighties, some filmmakers turned to the fringes. Not all of the work of independent directors though was worthy of being enshrined (any more than all of the Hollywood work earned for itself the right to be trashed). There were good and bad films in both camps. What I wanted to illustrate in the chapter Occupying the Margins: Re-Inventing Movies was the more idiosyncratic styles of people working in the business on both sides of the fence. They included screenwriter Robert Towne, film directors Bill Forsyth, Bob Swaim, James Toback, Mira Nair, Agnes Varda, and the Hollywood mogul Samuel Z. Arkoff. This B-movie cigar-chomper who in the late fifties and early sixties virtually invented the drive-in theatre through the product of his low budget American International Pictures. The wildly diverse repertoire he created for those venues at dusk were pictures like I Was a Teenage Werewolf, Panic in Year ZeroHot Rod Girls, The Wild Angels and Beach Blanket Bingo. The directors in his employ were equally motley: Roger Corman, Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Peter Bogdanovich and Dennis Hopper. Since we are approaching Halloween, this interview seemed a timely post.

kc: When people think of the B-movie they often think cheap in every sense of the word. But you have often said that it only pertains to the budget. How did the B-movie evolve then?

sa: Before the anti-trust decrees had begun in the late forties that separated theatres from distribution and production, it all used to be uniform. The studios used to sell fifty or sixty pictures at one time. They would say when they announced the pictures to the exhibitors who were supposed to buying that they were going to make five A-films and twenty-five B-pictures. These were all referring to budgets. The C-pictures might be westerns, for instance, so it had nothing to do with quality. It had to do with budget. And if you recall correctly, Warner Brothers' best movies at one point were its B-pictures. They had the young Cagney, the young Bogart, Bette Davis and Edward G. Robinson. Those were the budget pictures in the early days. And they have lasted even longer than their ponderous prestige pictures like The Life of Emile Zola. So I'm quite proud to say that I produced B-movies.

kc: Did you have any particular audience in mind when you started producing these B-movies?

sa: We had to have a specific audience. We started in the fifties and, as you know, the fifties was the beginning of the television era. As a consequence, it was the nadir of the theatrical age. In the first place, the anti-trust decrees forced the studios to give up their contractual lists. That applied not only to the actors, but the people in back of the camera, too. In addition, the original moguls were either dead or retiring and professional managers took over. Television became a tremendous competitor and, as a consequence, you had an era where virtually seventy-five hundred theatres out of eighteen thousand went out of business. You see, the population had shifted from the downtown areas out into the boondocks. So when we came in, people didn't think that there was a market any longer for the B-picture because television would take over that sort of programming. The only way we survived was based on several concepts. Some of which were delivered and others were accidental. As the older people were moving out into new homes, and away from downtown, we figured the only audience would be the young kids who were dying to get out of the house. Young people have to get away from their parents. There's a clan instinct and desire to be with your own sex at a certain age. There is also a desire to be with the opposite sex at a certain age. Those instincts are primal and we went after them.

kc: This doesn't sound too different from today when I see Hollywood studios constantly stuffing the theatres with youth movies. How were your intentions any different back then?

sa: To begin with, a lot of these people making youth movies today don't know what the hell they're doing. If you're thirty today, you really don't know what an eighteen-year-old thinks. If you're forty, you certainly don't know. The other big problem today is that the production departments do pictures without ever telling the sales department. It's as though things are made in limbo. Well, that's nonsense. I mean, General Mills doesn't make a new breakfast cereal unless they try it out on the public. But pictures get made today without any concept of who the market is, or even if there is a market. I'll give you an example. There was one week last summer when three youth science-fiction pictures came out. One was a Disney film called My Science Project. Another was Real Genius. And the third was Weird Science. All in the same week! How are you going to get enough of an audience when you break it up like this? You'll die on your backside.

kc: But why do you think the studios today are so infatuated with youth pictures?

sa: They've been driven to youth pictures out of desperation. The trouble is they never understood them then and they don't understand them now. I can remember during the days of our beach party films, United Artists acquired the rights to a Pepsi-Cola jingle called "For Those Who Think Young." They tacked it on to a beach movie and they never understood why nobody came. I knew from the moment I looked at the film. All I had to do was show it to the kids at home. As soon as they saw the title, they booed. They thought they were being taken advantage of by adults and they were right. That was a slogan Pepsi intended for older people for those who think young.

kc: As opposed to "For Those Who Are Young"?

sa: That's exactly right. And to a degree today it's the same thing. The youth pictures they are making today are not really indigenous to youth.

kc: What inspired you to market your films to a young audience?

sa: Our greatest inspiration given that we were making pictures inexpensively was getting away from the concept of parents in our films. You see, before the fifties, the so-called youth film was really not a youth film. It was a child's film. When people talked about family pictures they had glowing in their minds the little kiddies going with their parents to see Disney. There were really no films for teenagers. Basically, the only teen films around were ones with morality lectures. Have you ever seen any of those Andy Hardy movies?

kc: Sure.

Mickey Rooney & Lewis Stone
sa: Okay. You've got Mickey Rooney as an irrepressible young fellow who gets into trouble all the time. His father is Lewis Stone who's not only a father but he's also a judge. Now think about that. It couldn't have been accidental. He's a judge-like figure, a parent who's not the fun-loving kind of guy. He's judicial. So Mickey says to his dad, or his friends, that he wants to go do something. His father tells him that if he does something, he's going to get into a lot of trouble. Mickey goes off with his friends anyway and does something. He gets into trouble and can't get out of it. So he comes back at the end and tells his dad. He pleads to his father to get him out of trouble and this judicial father gets him out of trouble. At the end, Mickey looks up at his dad adoringly and promises never to do that again. And the audience creams in their pants.

kc: (laughs) So the films were really civics classes aimed at kids?

sa: Yeah. It was a morality lecture aimed at the kids. What the producers didn't realize, though, was that by the fifties the kids weren't going to take it anymore. Also, it was those kids in the fifties the dating crowd that were the only ones going to the theatre. Their parents were at home watching television. So here we come with American International Pictures and we didn't have any dough for big stars, books to option, or big directors, so what are we going to make? We did films for an audience of young people to identify with. This didn't mean doing another remake of Treasure Island, for God's sake! It meant doing films about what was happening to them in their community in their day. And during the late fifties, we did films like Drag Strip Girls and Hot Rod Girl. In the sixties, we invented the beach party pictures with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. And there were never any parents in those pictures. They were just stick people to be mocked. It wasn't a child's world; it was a youth's world. They got into trouble and they got themselves out of trouble. They never had to look up to Lewis Stone, and say, "Judge, you got to get me out of trouble and I'll never get into trouble again." We ended that bullshit.

Beach Blanket Bingo at the drive-in 

kc: It was carnival time.

sa: Yeah. It was carnival time. It had to be fun to go to because it needed to become an event. Now the drive-in was the perfect locale for those pictures. They were indigenous to the times. The drive-in was perfect because it was a certain kind of event for people who lived in small towns.

kc: Today it seems that the executives running the studios have every kind of instinct except the kind that knows how to make movies. What do you think has gone wrong?

sa: We have a lot of people in the motion picture game who are basically arrogant. They are also snobs. We have quite a few young people and not the kind who come off the street who go to Sarah Lawrence and have no concept of what is reality. They've never been to a drive-in and they've become pseudo-intellectual. Basically, they don't understand fundamental drives because of their whole economic status. So your production departments are filled with people who don't understand the people who go to pictures. They're not just the Upper East Side people in New York, or the Westwood people in Los Angeles. I'm talking about the people who go to the movies regularly. They don't have the gut instincts and gut reactions that you need to cater to the public that is really out there.

Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. On November 6th, CBC Radio's Inside the Music presents the documentary Dream Times: The Story of Perth County Conspiracy...Does Not Exist, written and hosted by Kevin Courrier with sound design and production by John Corcelli.

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