In the mid-nineties, Kevin Lindenmuth was my hero. He self-financed, wrote, produced, directed and edited a feature horror film, “Vampires and Other Stereotypes,” which was filled with Hollywood-quality prosthetic effects. More than that, he got it distributed worldwide on VHS, the then-reigning format for home viewing.
Imagine my thrill when he asked to be in his second feature-length film (which turned out to be even more popular, and to spawn two sequels), a dark, original vampire drama called “Addicted to Murder.” I shot my scenes in LA and Kevin cut them into the rest of the footage, which was shot in New York.
I was inspired and greatly motivated by his ambition and drive, and I wanted to follow in his footsteps.
So I did.
Kevin’s love of dark tales began in some disturbing childhood events.
“My father was going to medical school in Chicago, and one of my earliest memories was walking into a white room and seeing all these headless bodies,” Kevin reminisced. “I remember asking, ‘Where are their heads at?’ Their heads were all covered for the medical students with white fabric, and in the white room it looked like there were all these headless corpses. For some reason, I was at his school and had wandered into a room I wasn’t supposed to go into…”
Kevin also remembered other childhood traumatic such as a babysitter who would have sex with her boyfriend in the same room as him. He also remembered being held hostage by spinsters when his ball bounced into their yard and he and some friends tried to retrieve it. “That was scary,” Kevin remembered.
Other influences Kevin cited were the horror films on TV and the 1960s supernatural soap opera, “Dark Shadows.” As people who know me well know, that show was one of my prime corrupters, er, motivators, as well.
Kevin started, like most of us microbudgeters in those days, making super 8 films in his back yard.
“’Vampires and Other Stereotypes’ was the first feature I did on my own, but I did make lots of Super 8mm films when I was a kid, mostly stop-motion animation stuff. Then, in college, there were the student films, which were weird, like “Roadkill,” where it was this guy’s job to hit and run people during the day.”
However, the payday and liberation from his day job did not come from his first feature effort. New strategies had to be considered.
”While one of the more well-known Brimstone titles, ‘Vampires and Other Stereotypes’ was the least lucrative of them all,” Kevin explained. “That is primarily because it cost the most to produce. That was the only movie I got money from an outside source (parents!). I still haven’t made money back on that film!”
Long before social media, Kevin struck on the idea of farming out segments of his anthology films to fellow filmmakers throughout the nation. It had the additional happy effect of drawing us all together into a community, myself among them. I don’t remember much destructive competitiveness, bickering or pettiness among any of us. We were all thrilled to get the boost of Kevin’s growing horror movie machine. And Kevin was able to make quality product at a budget that afforded him a profit. Most of us remain good friends.
“A year after I shot ‘Vampires and Other Stereotypes,’ I wanted to do another movie, as did Mick McCleery, who starred as the demon in that flick,” Kevin continued. “Mick was a really good filmmaker. So we came up with ‘Twisted Tales,’ an anthology. He directed an episode, I directed one, and the third was directed by a friend of Mick’s, Rita Klus, who helped work on ‘Vamps.’ That was the first collaboration, and that went smoothly.”
By the time Kevin finished “Addicted to Murder,” he was already in contact with many other filmmakers around the nation.
“This was from going to the conventions like Chiller and Fangoria, and also from magazines like ‘Independent Filmmaking,’ ‘Daculina,’ and ‘Alternative Cinema,’” Kevin said.
He began including cameos of other microbudgeters in his early films. Some of those include Scooter McCrea (“Shatter Dead”), Jeffrey Arsenault (“Night Owl”), and myself (“Rage of the Werewolf”).
“I also enjoyed killing (‘Fangoria’ writer) Mike Gingold a few times (‘Addicted to Murder 2,’ ‘Alien Agenda’), which was weirdly cathartic.”
Other anthologies followed, among them the franchise anthologies “Creaturealm,” and “The Alien Agenda.” My signature film, “Hollywood Mortuary,” started as a short film produced for one of the “Creaturealm” films – “Creaturealm: From the Dead.”
The video stores in the 1990s saw a lot of Kevin’s movies, which he tirelessly self-distributed, selling and reselling around the planet. But, as it did for all of us, things began to shift with the turn of the millennium and the rise of the cyber age.
“I made a decent living with the indie movies in the mid-to-late nineties, but in the early 2000s, even sub-distributors didn’t want to pay any money for independent films,” Kevin explained. “Also, my contact at Blockbuster decided to establish his own company (Maverick Films) and just funneled his own movies in there, so Blockbuster was out.”
Since that time, sadly for his fans, there have been no Kevin Lindenmuth horror films.
“The reason I stopped making the features was that I couldn’t afford it anymore and I didn’t consider it a hobby. Plus, I had to pay bills and survive. It isn’t like I became an indie filmmaker to make millions. Everything made on one movie went into the budget or budgets of the next ones.”
Kevin moved in another direction that has paid off better than the narrative features ever did.
“I went in the other direction and started making documentaries,” Kevin said. “It was an opposite process – making something out of a bunch of footage rather than shooting a specific bunch of scenes for a narrative – but far more people and far more income was made making the documentaries. And it is something I enjoy doing.”
“My recent one, finished a few years ago – ‘The Life of Death,’ – is getting a widespread release on DVD through Wild Eye Cinema next month,” [Actually, due next week. December 15 – RF] Kevin said. “That documentary, which features interviews with genre personalities like Tom Sullivan (‘Evil Dead” effects), Lloyd Kaufman (Troma), Bob Fingerman (‘Adventures into Digital Comics’), Jack Ketchum (‘The Girl Next Door’), Keith R.A DeCandido (‘Done the Impossible: The Fans’ Tale of ‘Firefly’ and ‘Serenity‘’), and past collaborators like Scooter McCrae, Debbie Rochon, and Sasha Graham – all talking about their perception of death. It’s one of my favorite projects so far.”
Kevin has also spent his post-feature filmmaking time writing books about filmmaking. Some of those include “The Documentary Moviemaking Course,” “How to Make Movies,” “Making Movies on Your own,” and “The Independent Fimmaking Experience.”
Kevin’s fans, however glad for him we are, still miss looking forward to his next dense, dark horror drama.
“I miss working on the narrative films, too,” Kevin admitted. “I’d love to make another horror film. In fact, I recently collaborated with Tim Ritter and wrote a Truth or Dare/Addicted to Murder” cross-over movie, which I’d love to do. But that’s sort of gone to the wayside [for now]. The main problem is recouping the money invested in these movies – and also the time. It’s been 25 years since I shot my first movie, and it’s not any easier or more lucrative. In the meantime, I do have a zombie book coming out called “The Dead Don’t Die,” that I co-wrote with Evan Jacobs (‘Walking Between the Raindrops,’ ‘Alien Force’), so the collaboration with other filmmakers is still happening.”
“I do think, though, that I’ll be making another feature in the next few years,” Kevin concluded.
You BETTER not be yanking our chains!
There is a narrow gap between being a confident director and being a dick. The winning microbudgeter walks a razor’s edge.
My two big passions in life are microbudgetry (folks call it film making) and Community Theater. They have many similarities. They have many very important differences too, but that is meat for a future blog. One of the qualities they share is a reliance on committed volunteers. People who will put serious energy into your project because they believe in it or because they are trying to build a body of work for themselves. These are worthy goals, and it is a healthy, reciprocal relationship, as long as everyone is laboring on spec.
COMMUNITY THEATER and MICROBUDGET MOVIE MAKING
However, if you do end up making the next “Blair Witch Project” and you get millions for your inspired microbudget effort – don’t be a dick. Be prepared to share the profits with those who helped you get it.
Too often I have been on microbudget sets where the director imagined him or herself to be the next Scorsese, just what Hollywood has been waiting for. These dicks (they shall not be named here) usually bring with them an unspoken assumption that cast and crew people know how lucky you are to be on the ground floor of this next wave in the cinematic art-form. And anyone who doesn’t suck wind at the power of that “artistry” clearly doesn’t “get it,” and probably doesn’t need to be on their set.
Consequently, many of these proud would-be film “auteurs” never finish their projects, because members of the cast and crew, feeling ill-used, will walk away from it.
These so-called artists are self-deluded dicks. They need to learn some manners. Don’t be that dick. Be prepared, great. Know what you want and be firm, absolutely. Be confident and be sure, but don’t for a second think you are better than anybody else. That’s solid advice in the world, and it’s true on the set, as well.
When you have sufficient budget to pay all your people, it’s a dream. Your cast and crew really appreciate it, even if the pay is little more than a token. And if you can pay them well, you can even afford to push them a little, make demands if necessary. Even then, of course, you should still be guided by the “Don’t Be A Dick” principal, but you do have a little more wiggle room.
However, if your cast and crew are unpaid, which is generally the case in microbudgetry, you had better be prepared to keep your ego in check and treat them with respect. They are donating their time and their passion. You should be grateful and you should show it.
Volunteers are to be wooed and nurtured. They are your companions in the project, they are a kind of family, and they are your friends. Let them know it every day on the set.
We micro budget guys invented shooting cinematically on video media. It is rapidly becoming the norm, leaving film behind as a fringe medium, suited only for experimental artists and nostalgia buffs.
On a recent episode of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan as much as said that film is dead, when he remarked that he could not tell the difference between identical shots done on film, and those shot on state of the art HD video.
On a slightly later episode of the WTF podcast, movie makin’ one-man-band Robert Rodriguez confirmed the death knell. While discussing his 2007 anthology collaboration with Quentin Taratino, Grindhouse, Rodriguez said that Tarantino planned to shoot his segment, Deathproof, on film, to recreate the 70’s drive-in look and feel. Rodriguez, however, chose to shoot his segment, Planet Terror, on video and simulate the identical drive-in look in post-production, at a fraction of the expense and with a lot more control.
Along the way, and inadvertently, Rodriguez explained how working in video has affected even the traditional protocol of shooting a movie. Particularly in the use of long rolls to cover multiple takes.
“I just leave the camera rolling,” Rodriguez said (paraphrasing). He has the actors go through several takes of the scene at hand until, he is satisfied, before ending the roll. The takes are separated by slates while the camera still rolls. The director makes notes of which takes work and which do not en route, to save the editor endless headaches.
Then he moves on to the next piece of coverage needed for the scene and starts the process all over again.
It’s a neat and efficient system, suited to the new technology. I have done some version of in the past, but kind of instinctively and not as cleanly documented and organized as Rodriguez. Often on a shoot I will have the actors go right into the next take without stopping the roll. It’s recorded on a digital card, so there is no expense in letting it run, and the actors don’t get “cold” from breaking their momentum and having to start over again for a fresh take. When I work like this on the fly, however, I just put fingers up in front of the lens in order to separate each take – one, two, three, etc.I couple that with a verbal slate, just to clarify.
Nine times out of ten, we microbudgeters are our own editors anyway, so you can be a little looser about it than the pros, with their so-called “budgets.” After all, you were there on the set when it was shot. You know how it went.
Still, a few notes couldn’t hurt either.
Tim Sullivan is a science fiction writer (The Martian Viking, Lords of Creation), raconteur and all-around cool dude. As an actor, he can be seen in a multitude of pictures from the microbudget era, including Twilight of the Dogs, Hollywood Mortuary and Deadly Scavengers.He also wrote some scripts (V-World Matrix,Eyes of the Werewolf) and even directed a little (Vampyre Femmes). I asked him to write something about his work in those days and what he did instead is write this affectionate love-letter that touched my heart. I haven’t seen Tim in better than a decade now, and I often ache for his conversation and company these days.
I’ve known Ron Ford for over a quarter century, maybe closer to thirty years now. We first met while working on a movie called The Laughing Dead at Old Tucson, Arizona. Old Tucson was a full-service-Western-town-outdoor-and-indoor-standing set that had been built in the late thirties for a movie called Arizona with William Holden and Jean Arthur, and added to over the following decades. There was a Spanish Mission, complete inside and out, a town square, as well as the requisite main street with wooden sidewalks and saloon. By the time we shot there, Wild West Shows were staged on the streets and a national high school cheerleader convention once messed up our sound while the girls led cheers for imaginary sports fans.
It was a great place to work. Unfortunately, Old Tucson burned down some years later, and as far as I know they haven’t rebuilt it. But in those days it was like living in a cowboy fantasy to be there. I’d seen so many Westerns shot on those sets that it was like being at home in some strange way. We had a blast.
Ron and I kept in touch when he and his wife Paula moved to LA, where I was living at the time. Not too long after it became apparent that The Laughing Dead would never find an American distributor (I hear there’s a Thai DVD available, but I haven’t seen it), Ron told me he was planning to make a shot-on-video feature with a guy named Mark Gordon, who would be a producer and shoot the thing as well. He had the equipment and knew how to use it, so we set out to make Alien Force, starring Tyrone Wade, an Australian body builder and all around nice guy, and the beautiful and talented Roxanne Coyne. Somehow Ron got the guy who used to play Robin to Adam West’s Batman (Burt Ward) to play an alien in a wild costume.
The main problem, as seasoned actor Michael Wayne (who joined the cast to play the villain) pointed out to me one day, was two directors. For some reason, Mark kept butting in on Ron, even though Ron was well prepared and knew exactly what he wanted to do, was well liked by the cast, and had written the script.
Need I add that Ron started his own production company, Fat Free Features, as soon as possible?
Twilight of the Dogs, written by and starring Tim Sullivan
There he made his magnum opus, Hollywood Mortuary, in which Ron played a Bela Lugosi-like actor named Janos Blasko, and I essayed the role of Pratt Borokoff, lisping away as I’d been doing since first seeing Boris Karloff in the early sixties and trying to imitate his voice for the amusements of my classmates. It’s a film for fans of classic horror, and Randal Malone makes the most of his lead role as a makeup man who becomes an undertaker, Pierce Jackson Dawn. It was inevitable that he’d find the secret of bringing the dead back to life, of course, and he gets to work on Borokoff and Blasko pretty soon, making them do his evil bidding. He wants nothing less than fatal revenge on the studio moguls who ended his movie career.
I call him Janos to this day.
Ron Ford and Tim Sullivan as Janos Blasko and Pratt Borokof in “Hollywood Mortuary”
We had tremendous fun, even though much of Hollywood Mortuary was filmed during one of the worst heat waves I’ve ever suffered through. One thing you can always depend on with a Ron Ford Movie is a family atmosphere, and that was abundant on this shoot. Another thing you can always depend on is that he’ll get the picture made come hell or high water. Ron never quits.
And that’s not all. When I directed my own feature a couple of years later, Ron was there to help in every way he could. Did I mention his generosity and kindness?
If it isn’t obvious by now, let me just add that I’m very happy and proud to call Ron “Janos” Ford my old friend.
* * * *
Thank you, Pratt old thing. I feel the same way. A few editorial things: I am no longer married – not for 8 years now. Old Tucson was indeed rebuilt, and Tim was delightful in all his roles in Alien Force and all the pictures he appeared in. Don’t listen to his modest self-deprecation.
Vista Street Entertainment is one of the distributor/producers that I often created product for in the late 90s and early 2000s , the golden age of microbudgetry. Jerry Feifer, who owns and runs the company, specialized in erotica – erotic action, erotic comedies, erotic horror – all-erotica, all the time. He is perhaps best known for the Witchcraft series. Parts 13, 14 and 15 have recently finished shooting. However, back in 1999, I wrote and directed part 11. To date, it is the only movie I ever made on 16 mm film that was released. Jerry and I had worked together before, peripherally, through some of the projects I did for producer David Sterling. I learned that Jerry was planning to do another Witchcraft film, after a break of a few years. I told Jerry that I wanted that project, since it was, even at that time, known as the longest-running series in horror. It seemed like it would be a nice feather in my cap. Jerry, in the spirit of movie showmen, gave me a counter offer. He said he had a nearly impossible project for some Korean investors. They wanted to shoot an erotic version of Terminator, with a buxom female terminator, that would be designed to include actual effects sequences from the Terminator movies, copyrights be damned. The name of this masterwork? “Turborator.” For a pretty non-existent budget I would have to deliver new buxom ladies willing to shed their tops pretty much on a daily basis for the shoot. It would be a nightmare of logistics, organization and sweat and sleepless nights, Jerry told me, but if I pulled it off, I could do Witchcraft XI. I went him one better. I said if I pull off “Turborator,” I want to make “Wichcraft XI” on film. He agreed. Nightmare doesn’t start to cover it. The trials and tribulations of “Turborator” could be a whole other blog post. Hell, it could be a book. Needless to say, though, we got it all in the can. I used my pseudonym Mac Cobb in the credits. There was a sympathetic rapist in the horrendous script that I did not want association with. I should probably be flogged for committing it to video at all, but there it is, full confession. I felt kind of dirty about it then , and now. Okay, really filthy.
I don’t know what became of “Turborator” in Korea, but Jerry used scenes I shot for it in two other incomprehensible mashup movies using scenes from other projects with the same actors in them. One was “Red Light Stalker,” and the other was called “License to Kill,”James Bond be damned. The formula for a witchcraft movie is that it be a horror film with what Jerry calls “love” scenes every 15 minutes at least. That means topless simulated sex, which pretty much kills the pace if you have any pretense of telling a real story. But that was the formula that came with the job, and I did my best to tell a full story in spite of the boobage. The previous entry in the series was a vampire film. I wanted to take the series back to it’s origins, witches, and to make as serious a horror film as I could under the circumstances.
With my theater background, I naturally thought of Macbeth and the three weird sisters who predict Macbeth’s fate in the beginning of the play. I came up with the idea of having a drama teacher who is actually a Satanist using three University students as vessels to resurrect a trio of evil witch sisters who were buried on the grounds where the university was later built. I wanted to call it “Witchcraft XI: The Weird Sister,” like in Macbeth, but Jerry thought that Shakespeare stuff was too highbrow, and changed it to “Wichcraft XI: Sisters in Blood.” C’est la mort.
I also pushed the level of gore in the series. Jerry was not fond of the red stuff, but I talked him in to letting me take it a little further than he was comfortable with. I was shackled with some of the casting and some I had control of. It was a mixed bag, but it was always great to work with old friends like Stephanie Beaton, Mikul Robins and Joe Haggerty. I also brought in silent screen star Anita Page, in one of her last screen roles, as an ancient nun who guards the key to the gateway to hell. Anita had been in some of my earlier films, along with her caregiver, Randal Malone. I knew her quite well. Jerry was amazed and thrilled to find that she was in the movie. He was a fan!
In the end, I delivered less footage than any other director who had ever worked for Jerry. I thought he would be pleased, I planned my shoot so efficiently that I save him money. He surprised me initially by getting angry, telling me it couldn’t possibly cut with so little coverage shot. But the coverage was all there, just not a lot of takes, because I rehearsed a lot more than I usually did before shooting, for the very purpose of not wasting expensive film. Jerry ate his words when of course it did cut, and he was very happy with the film. He continued to hire me for other projects after that.
Steven Warren was a make-up effects guy that Dave Sterling introduced me to. He was young, very young, like 18 I believe, maybe 19. He was nervous and awkward and really nice and bursting with creative energy. I liked him a lot. He created some wicked gnarly decomposing witch-things that out of stone knives and bearskins. Okay, not quite, but he just grabbed his kit and improvised and beautifully creepy things emerged that delighted me. In the film story, the witches are intent on raising the monster demon Abadon. Spoiler alert, they do! Originally I had intended to use a stop motion puppet for our giant monster, just because I grew up on Harryhausen films and because they are awesome. That did not work out on our budget, however, so Steve and I improvised in his back yard. He threw a monster costume together that he wore himself and I shot him, lying on my back and using the sky above as a blue screen. It was the only shot in the movie not shot by our DP Scott Spears, and also the only one that that was shot on video and not 16mm film. A short time after we wrapped, Dave Sterling called, waking me up to tell me that Steven had hanged himself in his closet that morning. Apparently he had been having girlfriend troubles and didn’t know how to cope. I was pretty heartbroken. We all were. In the end, we dedicated the film to Steven. It’s a shoddy memorial to such a beautiful young soul, but it’s the best we could do.…
Jeff Leroy was an invaluable player in nearly all of my early Southern California movies. He shot most of them, always with style and aplomb, and always with an eagerness to take artistic risks. He also edited most of those movies, and provided digital and miniature effects as needed. He is one of the few DPs I have ever worked with who was as conversant with the history of film as myself. When I said I wanted Mario Bava-style colors in THE CRAWLING BRAIN, he knew just what I meant and delivered the goods without further explanation necessary.
Jeff is the epitome of the independent, grassroot, microbudget filmmaker guy. He is a one man band who creates over the top, effects laden marvels like nobody else is making. RAT SCRATCH FEVER is part Gerry Anderson, part Bert I. Gordon, part Sam Peckinpah, and all mind-boggling entertainment. Jeff writes, directs, creates effects, shoots and edits his own stuff. It’s a shame he isn’t more known, but kudos, he’s still slugging it out and making a living after 36 years of this.
Jeff cites THE WAGES OF FEAR and THE WILD BUNCH as his two favorite movies. I can’t argue with those choices. But he also lists a diverse assortment of influences, and when you see his movies, they make total sense as the source of his muse.
“The Poseidon Adventure in late ’72 made a huge impression on me,” Leroy said. “I saw all those disaster movies and became interested in the combination of characters you actually care about combined with special effects. Particularly miniature destruction. Late 60’s early 70’s seem to be a really favorite time for me: PATTON, 2001, DEATH WISH, DELIVERANCE, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. STRAW DOGS, TAXI DRIVER. Sci fit v shows like STAR TREK, UFO, SPACE: 1999 (Season 1), BUCK ROGERS (season one). SUPERMAN 1978. – Where is all the fun in today’s comic book movies? Only GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY got it right.”
Jeff took those influence and, independent from the start, he raised funds and made his own movie.
“I’ve been making home movies since 1979. My first released film, CRACK UP, was completed in 1996,” Leroy said. “It was my loving homage to Sam Peckinpah. The 16mm film was kind of a mess, but coherent enough to get released. And the check didn’t bounce!”
Jeff did get burned in other ways, however, and that cemented his conviction to do it all himself.
“On my second film, THE SCREAMING (1999), the co-producer promised this prop guy that worked on BABYLON 5 would build this great prop for my movie,” Leroy said. “He kept promising this prop right up to the minute we were shooting. Then. he finally admitted he didn’t even start building the prop while we were shooting. Since then, I’ve had a strong distrust of everyone. If you don’t handle it yourself, it will be screwed up. Since those days I’ve met some DP’s and producers I really like to work with and grown to trust them. And actors, too. Phoebe Dollar. Victoria De Mare. Tasha Tacosa. Rachel Riley to name a few.”
Jeff has a philosophy about filmmaking, and it’s grounded in realistic commerce. That’s probably why he is still doing this, 36 years later.
“Unless you are independently wealthy, you are taking thousands of dollars from someone to make a movie that will hopefully make the money back and turn a profit,” Leroy said. “If you make some artistic masterpiece only you have the brilliance to understand, you won’t be in business long. Not everyone can be David Lynch. I attempt to make fast moving, fun, exploitation films that people will enjoy with some artsy touches. Movies that I enjoy watching and keep the producer in black ink. That’s about it.”
Jeff is staying busy with titles that would make any exploitation hound drool.
“[My 2006 film] WEREWOLF IN A WOMEN’S PRISON has two sequels coming! DRACULA IN A WOMEN’S PRISON and FRANKENSTEIN IN A WOMEN’S PRISON,” Leroy gushed. “I also have a very funny movie or web series called GIANTESS ATTACK that I’m working on. As you know, the market for straight to video movies is in the toilet. I am very grateful I can still do this and scrape out a living.”
Amen Jeff. You’ve done a valiant job of it. Keep it up. You are an inspiration to the rest of us.
I grew up on films with names like Herman Cohen, Bert I. Gordon, Samuel Z. Arkoff, James H. Nicholson and Roger Corman in the main titles. For me, those names were always the harbinger on a fun time. Maybe not a thinking man’s good time, but fun is fun, and some things transcend their own dumbness with sheer entertainment value. Exploitation films can do that.
But think about that word.
Exploitation means to take advantage – advantage of someone or some idea or some value that has enough impact that it can be appropriated as a selling point. So bottom line: somebody is being taken advantage of. It’s unfair. Hey folks, that’s why we don’t have freak shows anymore! Although I must admit that if they did still exist, I’d be tempted to lay down my coin and check out what’s in the tent.
Chances are, in the end, it’s the creative talent who is being exploited.
Even Roger Corman, the most benevolent and most beloved of cinematic exploiteers, told me personally that if I ever worked for him (which, as it turns out, I never did) I would be used, exploited and underpaid. But that I would walk away with professional credits to build upon. And of course he gave that leg-up to so many greats in the industry: Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante, Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Copolla… the list goes on.
Samuel Z. Arkoff , the co-founder of American International Pictures, the exploitation king of the 50s, 60s and 70s, was probably one of the worst of these artist-eaters. He began his professional life as an entertainment lawyer, making money off the backs of those working in movies. He partnered with entrepreneur James H. Nicholson and formed AIP, a company designed to make exploitation films aimed at the youth market and drive-in theaters. Arkoff was notorious for never giving away a nickel he didn’t have to. He famously edged his partner out of AIP in the 70s and stole it all for himself. Nicholson died, according to Forrest J Ackerman and other authorities, broke and broken-hearted.
Fast forward. Samuel Arkoff was the professional mentor of the man who gave me my first break. I only wish it had been Corman, who is so genteel and upbeat when he screws you. I speak of Greg Sims, owner and founder of Devin Entertainment. Sims hired me in the early 1990s to script a horror film based on his slight idea of a homicidal wooden mannequin. That became “The Fear,” a minor hit on VHS in 1995. It even spawned a hit soundtrack recording and a (terrible) sequel.
Sims, to his credit, took the time to read a script I left in his box when I worked for him as a driver on his film “Red Surf.” I left scripts for a lot of producers in those days. Sims is the only one I know for sure who actually read it. He told me the script – a comedy called “The Graverobbers,” – could be shot without any rewriting, a great rarity, and that he would hire me soon to write another script for him. He made good on that, too, when he hired me to write “The Fear,” less than a year later.
What he neglected to do was to pay me the 30 grand or so he promised to give me in exchange for my efforts. It seems that was his plan all along, a trick he learned from his mentor Arkoff. I successfully sued the owner of record, Morty LLC, the company formed to make a movie out of my script. However, that company had dissolved immediately upon completion of the picture, so there was legally nobody to collect from.
Sims told me all along, sue me if you like, but you will never collect. He was so right. And that’s how they get you.
And that leads us back to the ugly truth that artists always have and probably always will get the shitty end of the stick as long as art is driven by commerce. Yet, how else to reach a mass-audience?
There is some hope as long as the Internet remains free. There are those who have done well using the Internet to distribute their own works. However, doing so takes savvy, drive and probably every waking moment to make it viable. That, in effect, turns the artist into a business person. And often the creative work suffers as it takes a back seat to the sales effort.
So what is the answer? Damned if I know. But I still love watching exploitation films, and I still love making them. So I stumble along.
Have a good day, folks.
American International Pictures was the exploitation leader in the 1950s and 1960s. Executives James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff spearheaded movies designed to be seen in drive-ins, appealing directly to teenagers and young people as their target market. AIP was unabashed in its attitude that marketing came first, product second. It didn’t develop movies, it developed campaigns. Nicholson would brain storm titles – Attack of the Crab Monsters, The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow, The Fast and The Furious, The Beast with a Million Eyes – a concept poster would be drawn up and then a writer was given the assignment of turning it into a screenplay. Usually with an impossibly short deadline.
And that, my artist friends, is the cold hard truth of marketing creativity. You are selling the poster. The movie comes second. I am a filmmaker, not a graphic artist, so I always found that as discouraging as I’m sure many of you are feeling right now reading this. Nevertheless, it is so, and I have had to learn to accept that and stop kicking and bitching. It doesn’t mean we can’t do creative work and good work to back up that ad campaign. And if the movie is any good, it will be remembered long after the poster art is forgotten.
My first film as a director, Alien Force, was made for Wildcat Entertainment, and they followed a similar scheme to Nicholson and Arkoff’s. Once we had the title, producer Mark Gordon and myself went to the video store and looked at the boxes of a lot of action-oriented space movies and video games. Finally, we were inspired by the box art for Duke Nukem, the video game. We were inspired by the Duke’s pose and ripped it off – er, borrowed it – for the pose of our lead actor, Tyrone Wade, in a poster photo shoot. Next we rented an impressive alien mask from a costume store (this was before we knew what our alien would look like). Then we hired a graphic artist, Michael Feifer, to put it together into a pleasing poster.
I’d like to say the movie was a huge hit based on that cool poster, but still, I was pretty pleased with how it came out, and my premise still stands. If you want to sell your movie, spend some time on some kick ass ad art. The same principal holds true today. People won’t watch a streaming movie they have never heard of unless they are first inspired by that thumbnail ad art on their screen. Period.