WE’RE TALKING GROSS, TACKY AND DUMB
To the amazement of the parents in attendance, Pee Wee (played by Dan Monahan), the perennial butt of grossout pranks in the “Porky’s” series, finds himself unadorned during graduation ceremonies at Angel Beach High, right. This time, Pee Wee’s four adolescent pals have rigged his gown to fall off when he receives his diploma in the upcoming “Porky’s Revenge,” another descendant of the grandfather of the mindless-movie genre, “Animal House.” The first installment of “Dumb” a series by Peter H. Brown on the hows and whys of making slob movies, appears on Page 6. The Ladd Co. was making something called “Police Academy” and executives had nagging concerns. They had wanted an “Animal House” about a class of slobbish police cadets--but were shocked by the result.
“What are you trying to do?” executive producer Paul Maslansky was asked, “make a damned ‘Tootsie?’ ”
One executive moaned, “Paul, it doesn’t fit the formula; it needs more flatulence, more slobbishness, more T&A.;”
Likewise, publicist Harry Clein had signed up director Hugh Wilson as a client and said he almost cashed in one late night when he was awakened by a phone caller.
“Harry,” the man said to his sleepy friend, “I don’t think your client is going to make a lot of money. His film isn’t gross enough.”
Clein’s heart fell.
He related later: “I thought I was going to be forced into sending Hugh’s check back. Then I spent the rest of the early morning worrying about ‘Police Academy’s’ gross level.”
Well, the suspense was temporary. Critics immediately shredded the film--and a major hit was created.
Made for $4.1 million in Toronto and costing about $4 million more to publicize and market, the movie generated ticket sales of more than $150 million here and abroad between last March and November 1. (That is not counting its $10-million sale to cable TV, a prospective multimillion-dollar sale to network TV and revenue from the “Police Academy” videocassette, which went platinum this week, selling 100,000 copies at $79.95 in one month. The sequel, “Police Academy: Their First Assignment,” opens nationwide in March and “Police Academy III” is on the drawing boards. Such aforementioned jitters were symptomatic of an industrywide hysteria--a stampede to turn out low-budget, virtually problem-free, teen-age-level comedies to flood studio coffers with hundreds of millions (see accompanying chart).
And if the industry weren’t already persuaded of the sagacity of grinding out mindless, formularized goon shows, “Police Academy” was proof positive.
Looking back on the “Police Academy” experience, with its mandatory nude shower scene, its obligatory fellatio scenes and the chases that put the “Dukes of Hazzard” to some kind of shame, director Wilson mused: “I now think I could go into a studio front office and say, ‘The principal of a school is really a bad guy, so the kids, all good guys, gang together and blow up his car!’ And I could get a major development deal on just that. There’s a lot of feeling at the studios that the biggest obligation to the audience is to blow up the principal’s car.”
Wilson’s cynicism only scratches the surface. After one of the biggest gold rushes since talkies began, Hollywood’s power elite was seduced by a get-rich-quick formula for gang comedies--a recipe of raunch and simple-mindedness that caused them to order directors to make it stupid, make it leering, make it cheap.
“It’s a matter of ‘block comedy scenes,’ ” said Neal Israel, who co-wrote “Police Academy,” “Bachelor Party” and the upcoming “Moving Violations” (due in April) with one-time stand-up comic Pat Proft (Israel also directed the latter two). “Perhaps the most recognizable was the obvious results of guys eating beans in ‘Blazing Saddles.’ If you have four or five of these block comedy scenes in a teen-age comedy, you have a hit. If your block comedy scenes are very, very strong ones, you have a blockbuster.”
In “Bachelor Party,” a girl uses cat chow as a party dip and there are assorted and bizarre sexual encounters. For instance, there is an implied sexual encounter between a female party entertainer and a mule and an off-the-wall scene where a young man is horrified after finding out that he’d just had a fellatio encounter (off-camera) with a transvestite.
“Some guys at the studio, when you go in to pitch a movie, want to hear these jokes first,” Israel said. “We even had a discouraging meeting where the brass of a large studio wanted to hear only the five big jokes. We went in with what we thought was a touching story. Proft and I were outraged when they told us to skip the plot, skip the characters and get right down to the jokes. They wouldn’t even listen to the story.”
MORE ‘DUMB’ Upcoming “Dumb " articles in Calendar: “Porky’s Revenge,” an exploration of the third in the high grossing trilogy; Harold Ramis, a close-up on the writer-actor-director who celebrated this genre with “Animal House” and others--and then grew out of it; a report on how these mindless movies are sold to a not-unsuspecting public; taste--or the lack of it--in these dumb movies, and how the writers, actors, directors and executives live with it. But the studios knew what they wanted. Audience studies made by 20th Century Fox, trying to find the reasons why the $4-million “Porky’s” made $200 million-plus worldwide, showed that the audiences came, invited their friends and came again to watch the off-color gags. More than 80% of those surveyed attributed the film’s success to the infamous girls’ locker room peephole scene.
(These movies might well be labeled with a warning for non-teens who might venture into the theater. Most of the key scenes defy even the barest description for a family readership. Suffice it to report that the scenes transcend--or perhaps define--bad taste.)
When “Porky’s” opened in Japan, TV news cameras clustered outside theaters recorded a spontaneous but telling gesture from exiting patrons who held their fingers up in a circle to signify the cross-cultural impact of the sequence.
But the true secret of the film was its simple-mindedness, its utter lack of intellectual complications. It’s perhaps an indication of how much TV has altered the thinking process that the marketing executives at Fox were overjoyed because the plot could be summarized in but a few choice words--a common practice for writers selling their two-hour movies and series to the networks. For “Porky’s,” it was: “Six horny Florida teen-agers venture out in search of a good lay and tumble into a series of misadventures climaxed by the trashing of a bayou whorehouse.”
All but a few plots in the genre are that embarrassingly simple. For example:
A wild and crazy guy falls in love with a high society girl, and then ridicules her ritzy parents: “Bachelor Party.”
A high school senior wants to go all the way with his high school sweetheart, but never can . . . until the end: “Goin’ All the Way.”
Four nerdish ski enthusiasts head for a popular resort, are rejected by a group of bullish super jocks but triumph in the end by winning not only the girls but the ski tourney as well: “Hot Dog, the Movie.”
Two ultimate nebishes--one a giggly, glasses-framed loser and the other an egghead who wears white socks--start a frat for nerds which takes over the campus in an Armageddon of sexual and athletic swashbuckling: “Revenge of the Nerds.”
A trio of out-of-it collegiates rush to a Florida paradise for Easter vacation where they drink too much beer, couple with too many coeds and almost drown in rock music before they are sent home by a nasty police chief: “Spring Break.”
The “dirty half dozen” from “Porky’s” embarrass a female teacher in a toilet, cause a mass vomiting epidemic in a French restaurant and strip members of the Ku Klux Klan naked--all in the name of justice, nudity and a pressing need to get laid: “Porky’s II--The Next Day.”
A slender, horny high school junior suddenly gains a burst of atomic power from an accident which he uses to declothe the campus queen, to vomit all over a ring of baddies and to win the school’s athletic tourney: “Zapped.”
Producer Maslansky’s idea for “Police Academy” was little more than an unfinished sentence: “A bunch of misfit police cadets are almost washed out of the academy but succeed. . . .”
“When I was up in San Francisco for the filming of location footage for ‘The Right Stuff,’ I noticed a bunch of ludicrous-looking police cadets being dressed down by a frustrated sergeant,” he recalled. “They were an unbelievable bunch--including a lady who must have weighed over 200 pounds and a flabby man of well over 50. I asked the sergeant about them, and he explained that the mayor had ordered the department to accept a broad spectrum for the academy.”
“We have to take them in,” the man told Maslansky. “And the only thing we can do is wash them out.”
“But what if they actually made it?” Maslansky asked himself. This plot capsule was heartily approved by Alan Ladd Jr. The rest is history.
New screenwriters caught on to the one-sentence salesmanship and got their foot in the door by using a few, carefully chosen words.
One of these was Ken Crouse, 31, who sold his script of “C.O.N.” to MGM by saying, “A nebbishy stock broker gets framed and sentenced to a prison term but survives by investing the con’s money.” Crouse had been a stand-up comic in New York City before deciding last year to head for Hollywood and try his hand at screenwriting. “C.O.N.” was the first thing out of his typewriter, but it was written only after he studied the comedy marketplace.
“I basically realized that the easiest way to sell a producer on an idea was to reduce it to one or, at the most, two sentences. Without realizing it, I had done something super in the eyes of the studio executives. I had come up with a plot synopsis that anybody could understand--including the family dog.”
Coincidentally, it was to Israel and Proft’s new production company, the Israel-Proft Deal, that Crouse brought his script. “Neal and Pat helped me package the concept,” Crouse said. “They knew that you almost have to act out your one sentence to get the attention of the studio brass. They did that for me. Within a week after I got the screenplay to them, it was sold to MGM.”
“C.O.N.” is expected to begin shooting this summer.
A similar sentence earned $3.2 million in financial backing for another young film maker, Kevin Brodie, 26, son of veteran character actor Steve Brodie. A former child actor, the younger Brodie came up with the following screen premise: “A group of sexy sorority girls, about to lose their house, are drilled by their housemother (a former Marine drill sergeant) as competitors in the International Mud Wrestling Tournament. Naturally, they win.”
Brodie’s plot, mindless and sexist as it was, failed to find financing in the Hollywood studio system. So the would-be director took his few chosen words on the road, specifically to Oklahoma City, where he wowed a group of oilmen with money to burn. “I managed to raise the entire $3.2 million from a rather small group of financiers,” said Brodie, who said he also tossed $100,000 of his own money into the pot.
His film, “Mugsy’s Girls,” starring Ruth Gordon and a gaggle of shapely mud-wrestler types, was filmed in Las Vegas last summer. After the film sat for four months without a distributor, “Mugsy’s Girls” is now the object of a bidding war, according to Brodie, whose film also includes a pot-smoking rabbit. “We want it out for Easter . . . naturally! And, as the year ended, we began getting a lot of interest."( Last Tuesday Brodie signed a deal wherein Pegasus Distributing of Dallas will open the film in 400 Southwestern theaters the week before Easter, expanding to 400 more markets by late May.) Appearances to the contrary, this boom in the teen-age comedy market was a long time in the making. It has been 12 years since Harold Ramis sat down at his typewriter and banged out the idea for “Animal House,” the grandfather of the current genre. Then, in 1972, Ramis pulled the unperfected idea out of his typewriter and ripped it up, “Nobody will ever make this,” he said to himself. And, indeed, it took five more years for him and co-writers Chris Miller and the late Doug Kenney to get the project off the ground.
Another blockbuster took even longer to launch. Also in 1972, Bob Clark began plotting “Porky’s” in his head. It was based on actual experiences Clark shared with five Florida high school buddies in the ‘50s. “Bob carried this brilliant vision around in his head for more than a decade before starting to put it on paper,” said Roger Swaybill, who co-authored the script. “Everybody who knew Bob knew that he was obsessed with doing this picture.”
Swaybill and Clark became collaborators when Swaybill was hired as a screenwriter on a low-budget film, “Breaking Point,” which was directed by Clark in Canada. “Even after the incredible success of ‘Animal House’ and ‘Caddyshack,’ Bob could find no interest in ‘Porky’s,’ ” Swaybill recalled.
And if Clark hadn’t come down with mononucleosis, “Porky’s” might have been postponed even further. “When Bob was in bed with mono in the summer of 1979, he suddenly began dictating the story of ‘Porky’s’ to me, and for four days he dictated into a cassette recorder. I was weeping with laughter. About an hour into the original narrative, I became convinced that I was sharing in the birth of a major moment in movie history,” Swaybill continued. “It was the funniest film story I had ever heard.”
Swaybill then took the material home and produced the script.
Then every studio in Hollywood turned down the project. Financing finally came from Melvin Simon Productions and a Canadian firm, Astro Bellevue Pathe, on the provision that the film be made in Canada in order to obtain government tax benefits.
This immediately turned Swaybill into a ghost writer. Since Clark lived in Canada and had a green card, he got full screen credit. “I had to disappear,” Swaybill recalled with some bitterness. “Even when I visited the set, I had to pretend I was there as Bob’s friend.”
(Swaybill never received screen credit on the original “Porky’s,” although Clark reimbursed him with something more than six figures for his work and insisted that he be co-writer on the sequel, “Porky’s II, The Next Day,” which grossed $55 million.)
“It seems incredible to realize that ‘Porky’s,’ which earned more than $200 million worldwide, was done as a tax shelter, but that’s the way it was,” Swaybill concluded.
There’s little doubt that “Porky’s,” with its bombastic burps and belches, its leering sexual encounters and its lewd play on words, awakened Hollywood to the gold to be mined from bathroom humor.
A Ladd Co. executive, interviewing Hugh Wilson as the prospective director of “Police Academy,” asked him, “Have you seen ‘Porky’s?’ ”
Wilson shook his head, “No.”
The questioner frowned: “What about ‘Stripes?’ ”
“Nope,” Wilson answered.
“No,” answered Wilson.
“What about ‘Fast Times’?”
“Well, you must have seen ‘Animal House.’ Everybody saw ‘Animal House’!”
“Not me,” said Wilson.
In spite of Wilson’s paltry knowledge of goon comedy, producer Maslansky, an admirer of Wilson’s work as producer and writer on the TV series “WKRP in Cincinnati,” persuaded the Ladd Co. to hire him anyway.
But Maslansky organized a film festival to acquaint Wilson with the genre. “I saw them all,” chuckled Wilson. “And, overall, it was fairly discouraging. This immediately convinced me to cut down on the sleaze. I asked for, and got, the power to refine the Israel-Proft script. Maintaining that ‘funny is money,’ I wanted to go for real laughter rather than going for the elements such as gratuitous sex and anti-Establishment exploits. I wanted jokes which were rooted in reality.”
At first, Wilson took a red pencil to what he felt were the most tasteless elements in the script. This plunged him instantly into a fight with Maslansky, who believed that low-brow comedy would make “Police Academy” a hit. “He took a lot of the vulgarity out; some of the very things I considered necessary,” said Maslansky. “I worried that it was becoming more homogenized, and I told Hugh, ‘Let’s keep some of the flatulence in.’ ”
Wilson responded, “Paul, I’ll put it in. I’ll shoot it, but, believe me, you won’t want it when you see it.”
The tug of war was on. As hard as Wilson fought, he lost some major rounds. “I found out that the shower scene, the party scene and the fellatio scene were obligatory; I had to put them in. So I was stuck with trying to make those scenes as artistic as possible.”
(In comparing the original Israel-Proft script with the final film, 20 of the major elements in the movie, including the fellatio scene, the car stunts at the beginning and the running gags about the offbeat characters remained from their draft. Somewhat bitterly, Israel pointed out: “When Wilson and Maslansky turned in their ‘sanitized rewrite’ to the Ladd Co., it was rejected and the project was almost shelved. Only when they put back in dozens of our gags did the project get the go ahead. A spokesman for the Ladd Co. confirmed this.) The fellatio scene conceived by Israel and Proft was to become the core of the “Police Academy” success--although there was no way that Wilson could know that at the time he filmed it. A compromise was reached where the act was never shown, only hinted at. The girl was out of sight in a speaker’s rostrum, and the recipient, the academy’s commandant, was shown from the neck up. Only by the reactions on his face face did the audience realize what was happening.
Then Wilson recalled “a major fight” over a scene in which the police sergeant is hurled into the back end of a horse: “The original script called for me to show the police sergeant with his hand actually inside the horse. There was no way that I would film that. So I showed the sergeant going through the air toward the horse, cut to reactions on the cadet’s faces and had one of them say, ‘My God! Somebody call a veterinarian.’ ”
Wilson eventually convinced Maslansky and the Ladd Co. that “subtle is better.” “I realize that you can carry grossness, rudeness and crudeness just so far before the audience finds it terribly repetitive and not so funny,” Wilson said. “After the enormous success of ‘Police Academy,’ I no longer believe that you have to show the female breast or make cruel ethnic jokes--not to mention the rampant sexism. And you don’t have to reproduce the sounds that an overfed body makes.”
DUMBING FOR DOLLARS
The box-office grosses below were obtained from studios and are estimates. The figures do not represent actual studio profits, which can only be determined by subtracting costs of production and executive overhead and the charges made by the studios themselves.
There is another school of dumb films that have made considerable profits from very low investment, including the $800,000 “Summer Camp,” which earned $7 million at the box office; the $900,000 “Goin’ All the Way,” which earned $10 million; the $1 million “Zapped,” which took in $14 million; the $3 million “Private Lessons,” which took in $14 million, and the $600,000 “Beach Girls,” which earned more than $10 million.
Production Promotion Year Studio Costs Costs “Animal House” 1978 Universal $2.9 million $3 million “Meatballs” 1979 Paramount $1.4 million $2 million “Caddyshack” 1980 Columbia $4.8 million $4 million “Stripes” 1981 Columbia $10.5 million $4.5 million “Spring Break” 1982 Columbia $4.5 million $5 million “Porky’s” 1982 Fox $4.8 million $9 million “Fast Times At Ridgemont High” 1982 Universal $5 million $4.9 million “Porky’s II-- The Next Day” 1983 Fox $7 million $7.5 million “Hot Dog-- The Movie” 1984 MGM $2 million $4 million “Bachelor Party” 1984 Fox $7 million $7.5 million “Revenge of the Nerds” 1984 Fox $7 million $7.5 million “Police Academy” 1984 Warner Bros. $4.5 million $4 million
Worldwide Ticket Sales “Animal House” $150 million “Meatballs” $70 million “Caddyshack” $60 million “Stripes” $85 million “Spring Break” $24 million “Porky’s” $160 million “Fast Times At Ridgemont High” $50 million “Porky’s II-- The Next Day” $55 million “Hot Dog-- The Movie” $22 million “Bachelor Party” $38 million “Revenge of the Nerds” $42 million “Police Academy” $150 million