Times Staff Writer

Billy Jack is back, and he’s packing a lot of loot.

Actor Tom Laughlin, flanked by seven security guards and 13 Lucite cylinders that he said contained $1 million each, announced at a Wednesday press conference that he will reprise his high-kicking hero in “The Return of Billy Jack.”

Laughlin, looking lean as ever in Billy Jack’s trademark black T-shirt, said “The Return of Billy Jack” is the first of five films that he will be producing through a privately funded Texas Corp. that he and his wife Delores Taylor are heading.

The 46-year-old actor said the money on stage with him at the Cineplex Odeon Showcase Theater represented the amount that he will be spending to market “The Return of Billy Jack” next summer. The film, budgeted at $12 million, goes into production Dec. 2 in Toronto.

Laughlin said he will spend another $12 million on marketing ($1 million on each of 12 different audiences he has identified for Billy Jack pictures) and will put up an additional $1 million in cash prizes for those theater owners, managers, ushers and popcorn vendors who come up with the most innovative ways to help sell the movie.

He didn’t forget you, either. Laughlin said there will a $100,000 prize for the consumer who comes up with the best suggestion for helping theaters whip the videocassette revolution.


For the press, there was coffee and rolls.

Laughlin gave several reasons for deciding to make another sequel.

--The studios have lost their way and are no longer making movies people want to see.

--The “Billy Come Latelies"--an allusion to the characters associated with Chuck Norris, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Charles Bronson and Sylvester Stallone--lack the humanity at the core of Billy Jack.

--Three out of four people who are asked in research interviews say they want another Billy Jack picture, and that more than one of two would prefer a new episode of Billy Jack to those of either Rocky, Dirty Harry, Rambo or Indiana Jones.

--The No. 1 disease in the Western world is loneliness.

--A steward on an airplane told him that, by example, Billy Jack had turned his son from a life of crime to a career as an attorney.

If “The Return of Billy Jack” sounds like the Second Coming, it’s actually the fifth. Laughlin introduced the Billy Jack character in a 1967 film called “Born Losers.” That was followed by “Billy Jack” in 1971, “The Trial of Billy Jack” in 1974 and “Billy Jack Goes to Washington” in 1977.

Laughlin became something of a cult hero among independent film makers when he bought “Billy Jack” back from Warner Bros. in 1971. The film had grossed $6 million in two years with Warner Bros. Laughlin re-released it in nearly 1,200 theaters that he rented himself and quadrupled the percentage of money that studios normally spent on TV advertising at that time. The film went on to make an additional $100 million.

That success is credited with altering the way Hollywood markets its films.

Whether there’s another blockbuster ahead for Billy Jack depends on how well a fresh generation of moviegoers will take to him. Even for an independent producer operating without studio overhead, “The Return of Billy Jack” will have to take in about $40 million or more to break even.

Laughlin said that two other films already are scheduled for his new company: “Dancing for Me,” a $9-million musical and “The Computer Thief,” an $8-million romantic adventure.

He said that he and most of the other principals in the Billy Jack sequel, including his wife and his daughter Teresa, will defer everything but Guild minimums until their investors have received 150% of their money back.

THEY’RE OFF!: It was close, but Universal Pictures got out of the gate first in the annual Hollywood rite known as the Oscar Derby.

In a two-page ad in last Thursday’s issue of the Hollywood Reporter, Universal helped narrow the field of its own Oscar candidates by listing the four movies it will be showing privately to members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in November.

The winners are (please hold your applause or laughter until they’ve all been mentioned): “Fletch,” “The Breakfast Club,” “Mask” and “Back to the Future.”

Sydney Pollack’s “Out of Africa” will be added to the screening list when it is released next month, a studio spokesman said.

Columbia Pictures published its academy screening list a day later than Universal. Coca-Cola’s studio appropriately offered a six-pack of pictures for consideration: “St. Elmo’s Fire,” “Silverado,” “Agnes of God,” “Fright Night,” “Jagged Edge” and “White Nights,” which opens in Los Angeles on Nov. 15.

A Columbia spokesman said two Christmas movies--"A Chorus Line” (an Embassy picture being released through Columbia) and “Murphy’s Romance"--will be added to the academy screening schedule after they open to the public.

THIN FIELD: This year’s Oscar Derby, by the way, looks more like a sack race. With very few “prestige” movies ahead on the schedule, many of the major awards categories may have to go begging for legitimate candidates.

Last year at this time, four of the eventual best-picture nominees--"Amadeus,” “Places in the Heart,” “A Soldier’s Story” and “The Killing Fields"--were already out and being talked about that way. Right now, the only 1985 movie routinely mentioned as a best-picture nominee is “Prizzi’s Honor.”

After that, you hear a lot of titles and very little agreement. “Cocoon” and “Back to the Future” both did well critically and commercially, but neither is the kind of film normally anointed with a best-picture nomination. (Oscar watchers rate “Cocoon’s” chances best because it’s about old people, which reflects academy membership.)

Most of the fall’s heavy breathers, the prestige dramas that can ordinarily be counted on to fill in the Oscar blanks, have met with lukewarm or widely divergent responses. “Agnes of God,” “Plenty,” “Twice in a Lifetime” and “Eleni” (which opened in New York Friday) were all hyped as awards movies before their release, and though each has had some good reviews, their critical reception overall has been disappointing.

Films released early in the year are often forgotten by the end, but with the lean fall harvest, such films as “Witness,” “The Falcon and the Snowman” and Woody Allen’s “The Purple Rose of Cairo” are looking pretty good.

Looking ahead to the rest of the year, the films generating the most Oscar speculation are Sydney Pollack’s “Out of Africa,” Steven Spielberg’s “The Color Purple,” Richard Attenborough’s “A Chorus Line” and, because you have to take any film with Al Pacino in it seriously, Hugh Hudson’s “Revolution.”

MATINEE IDOLS: Actors Clint Eastwood, Michael J. Fox and Kathleen Turner and director Ron Howard, all of whom contributed mightily to this year’s box office, will be honored at the National Assn. of Theater Owners convention in New Orleans next week.

Eastwood, whose “Pale Rider” brought in nearly $50 million last summer, is getting a tribute as “Star of the Decade.” Fox, from the year’s box-office champion “Back to the Future,” was named the association’s “New Star of 1985.” Kathleen Turner, from “Prizzi’s Honor” and the upcoming “Jewel of the Nile,” was named “Star of the Year.” And Howard, scoring a major hit with “Cocoon,” is “Director of the Year.”