A Teen Movie Machine
Even before Sam Arkoff had thumbed through the Hollywood trade papers and a faxed report on the weekend box-office results, as is his custom each Monday morning, he was already convinced that one new movie would be a sure-fire flop. Titled “Suicide Kings,” the film is a low-budget kidnapping thriller--but it wasn’t the subject that concerned Arkoff. It was the film’s title.
“I told everyone that picture would never make any money,” says Arkoff, co-founder of the legendary B-movie assembly line known as American International Pictures. “The title is a total turnoff. Put ‘suicide’ in your title and you’re just asking for trouble. There’s no way kids would want to see something with a title like that.”
Arkoff should know. Before “Godzilla,” before “Jurassic Park,” even before “Jaws,” he was the first King of Summer Movies. During its heyday from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, American International, known as AIP, chronicled America’s youth culture, exploiting its teenage audience’s fascination with drag racing, monsters, beach parties, motorcycle gangs and drugs. Years before Hollywood began its pursuit of free-spending young moviegoers, Arkoff and his partner, the late James Nicholson, had a tight grip on the pulse of teen movie habits.
“We picked up on things really fast,” recalls Milton Moritz, who was AIP’s head of advertising and publicity for 25 years. “I remember seeing a gang of Hells Angels on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post and showing it to Jim Nicholson. Before you knew it, we’d made ‘The Wild Angels.’
“The big studios were still being run by the old moguls who weren’t in touch with the culture of the day. They didn’t recognize teenagers until it was too late. By the time the studios tried to copy our beach-party pictures, the kids had moved on to something new, and so had we.”
At AIP, the bywords were fast and cheap. The company often made 25 to 30 pictures a year, most with budgets that would barely pay for a movie star’s personal trainer today. AIP couldn’t afford marquee names, so it hired hungry young actors and directors, including such future luminaries as Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Francis Coppola, David Cronenberg and Dennis Hopper.
Arkoff and James Nicholson never made a movie until they first had a catchy title, a vivid ad campaign and topical subject matter. “We went by the headlines,” says Arkoff, who will turn 80 in June but remains active, speaking at industry seminars and finding new ways to repackage the portion of the AIP catalog he still owns. “If teenagers were involved in something new, we made a movie about it.”
In teen culture, trends come and go at lightning speed, often leaving Hollywood far behind. AIP’s production schedule was far faster than today’s movies, which are often two years in the making. A typical AIP film cost $300,000 and was shot in a week.
“Sam and Jim were the Barnum and Bailey of the film business,” says producer Larry Gordon, who started at AIP as a story editor in the late ‘60s, ending up as head of production. “When we found a trend, it didn’t take any time to get the movie done. We were like airborne commandos; we knew we had to be in and out of the theaters before the trend was over.”
Burt Topper, a writer-director who was also in charge of AIP’s physical production in the late 1960s, says “Diary of a High School Bride,” which he directed in 1959, was shot in seven days for $80,000. (To save money, longtime AIP director Roger Corman shot much of his movie, “A Bucket of Blood,” on “Bride’s” leftover sets).
“I had a director’s chair,” Topper recalls. “But I never sat down when I did an AIP picture. I was way too busy.”
At the end of the 1950s, when AIP began to flourish, summer was off-season for the movie business. In most parts of the country, theaters were aging relics from the Depression--old, stuffy and rarely air-conditioned. The summer months were considered a risky time to release an important film--it stayed light until 9 p.m. and moviegoers had too many other things to do. Filmgoers had also begun moving to the suburbs, and were content to stay home and watch television.
In 1950, there were roughly 21,000 movie theaters. By 1960, the number had shrunk to 14,000.
But even if the major studios were hurting, the growth of suburbia, coupled with the arrival of baby-boom teenagers, proved to be a huge boon for AIP. As an upstart, its films were frozen out of theaters with relationships with major studios. But AIP discovered that the one place where it could get its movies played was the one place teenagers wanted to go: the drive-in.
Nearly extinct today, drive-ins were the true birthplace of summer movies. Built on cheap land in farmers’ vacant fields near the edge of suburbia, they were as much of a tribal gathering spot for ‘50s and ‘60s teenagers as malls and cyberspace are for kids today. Back in the 1950s drive-ins were held in such low regard by the studios that exhibitors used to joke that drive-ins only got movies after the drugstores had played them. So when AIP began making quickie double-feature films, known as combinations, eager drive-in owners were only too happy to show them.
“We made summer movies because we made movies for the drive-ins,” Arkoff explains. “In the summer, they were packed. Some drive-ins did $50,000 to $60,000 a week during the summer, more business than even the downtown hard-top theaters.”
For adults, drive-ins were noisy, messy and inconvenient. For teenagers, they were a home away from home. “We found that young people not only wanted to get out of the house, but that their folks were willing to subsidize them getting out of the house,” Arkoff says. “With suburbia, teenagers had jobs at franchise restaurants like McDonald’s, where they were making money that was theirs to spend. Kids had their own clothes and music and they wanted to see their own movies--movies that had teenagers in them.”
AIP was happy to oblige. In the late 1950s, when hot rodders were what gangsta rappers are today, AIP responded with “Dragstrip Girl.” When the film proved a hit, AIP quickly followed with “Dragstrip Riot.” In the early 1960s, when the Beach Boys mythologized the surf culture of Southern California, AIP caught the wave with beach party pictures starring Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon. When antiwar protests and drug busts made headlines, AIP jumped in with “Riot on Sunset Strip,” “Hells Angels on Wheels” and “The Trip.”
Long before “Scream” and “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” AIP was making horror movies for youth audiences. AIP even put its message in the titles, making films like “I Was a Teenage Werewolf” and “Teenage Caveman.”
What AIP lacked in star talent, it made up for with clever gimmicks, which invariably began with a great title. Subtlety was not in the AIP dictionary. Most titles featured one of several favored adjectives, including “curse,” “naked,” “savage,” “attack,” “teenage” and, above all else, “wild.” If it was a biker movie, it was “The Wild Angels.” If it was a beach movie, it was “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.” If it was an art movie imported from Italy, it was “The Wild Eye.” If it was a nature documentary, it was “High, Wild and Free.”
The ad slogans were even better. “Cannibal Girls” came with the warning: “They Do Exactly What You Think They Do!” For “Muscle Beach Party,” ads blazed: “When 10,000 Biceps Meet 5,000 Bikinis . . . You Know What’s Going to Happen!”
AIP was also famous for wooing exhibitors with publicity stunts. To promote “Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine,” which teamed horror star Vincent Price with teen idol Frankie Avalon, AIP installed a bikini machine mock-up at a convention, populated with girls from the movie dressed in gold lame bikinis.
AIP often sent out the titles and ad copy to exhibitors, who would advance AIP a percentage of film rentals to help bankroll the movie. “We’d send them the ads and they’d say, if you have those pictures ready in four months, we’ll put them in the theaters,” recalls Moritz. “So we’d rush off and make the movies, they’d play the pictures and recoup their advance from the box-office receipts.”
When it came to titles, “suicide” would have never made the cut. “A good title had to grab you,” says Arkoff, who has made few concessions to age, except for giving up his 10-cigar-a-day habit. “I always believed, why make a picture if the public isn’t going to buy it. So we’d always try the rough ads out on kids, to see what they liked. But I never believed in previews. You don’t get an honest reaction if you see a picture for free.”
When Arkoff built his Studio City home in 1957, he included a projection facility so he could screen movies for family and friends, a practice he continues. His living room can seat 40 or 50. “If the kids didn’t like the picture, I could always tell--they’d get up and go to the kitchen,” he says, laughing. “If it was my picture and they were all leaving, I knew we had a dog.”
Arkoff’s son, Louis, now a producer, was the low-budget projectionist--he got $1 for every film he screened. Arkoff’s daughter, Donna Roth, also a producer of such films as “Grosse Point Blank,” got a nickel for each reel of film she rewound in the garage.
Roth says she loved to stay up and watch movies with her father, because he was interested in everything. “If he liked something, he’d say, ‘Hmm, that was a good picture,’ ” says Roth. “There was nothing highfalutin about it. He just loved movies. To him, they aren’t works of art, they’re a way to entertain people.”
What has forever linked AIP with summer are its beach party movies. Arkoff says he got the idea after seeing an Italian film about young bohemians living at the beach, which he thought could be adapted to American teenagers. As always, AIP was on the pop-culture cutting edge. By the summer of 1963, when AIP released “Beach Party,” its first Frankie and Annette film, the surf tsunami had just arrived. In May, the Beach Boys had their first big hit with “Surfin’ U.S.A.” In July, Jan and Dean topped the charts with “Surf City.”
AIP made 13 beach pictures, nearly all shot in two weeks for less than $500,000. Arkoff boiled down the formula to a simple adolescent equation: What could be more desirable for a young person than to be at the beach with members of the opposite sex? “When the kids shared a house, the boys were upstairs and the girls were downstairs,” recalls William Asher, who directed six of the beach films. “At one point, I had Frankie look directly at the camera and say, ‘Do you believe this?’ ”
As was customary, AIP’s ads were a lot racier than the movies themselves. “You’d think from the ads that the movies were very wicked,” Arkoff says. “But we never had any dope, any whiskey, any four-letter words or any nudity. We never showed anything that even looked like intercourse, barely any petting. The only thing you saw was maybe a little beer drinking and some bellybuttons.”
The bellybuttons got AIP in trouble on two fronts. Many newspapers refused to run AIP’s ads of girls in bikinis unless they airbrushed out the girls’ navels. Arkoff says he got so aggravated that he wrote letters to newspaper publishers, asking “what the devil is obscene about a navel--if you keep this up, modern youth will never realize the function of a bellybutton!” But AIP ran into an even more powerful critic, Walt Disney, who apparently blew his stack when he saw an early beach-movie ad depicting his Mickey Mouse Club darling, Annette Funicello, in a bikini. “Walt went through the roof,” says Arkoff. “He called me up and yelled, ‘What are you doing to my little girl!’ He was very protective of her. But she couldn’t play 12-year-olds anymore--she had a nice figure.”
Accounts differ about what happened next. Arkoff says Funicello had a nonexclusive contract, so AIP was free to sign her. Jack Gilardi, who was Funicello’s agent and later her husband, says he and Annette went to see Disney, who agreed to loan Funicello to AIP. Asher says he tried to talk Disney into letting Annette wear a bikini, “but he thought it would ruin her image and you don’t argue with Walt Disney.”
The beach movies also featured comics, including Don Rickles, Buddy Hackett, Buster Keaton and Harvey Lembeck--nearly all clients of Gilardi, who boasts he once had 40 clients in one picture. “The adults were the enemy,” says Asher. “They’d ridicule the surfers and try to close up the beach. But they were good for the picture. Frankie and Annette weren’t very funny, so we got some laughs from the comedians.”
Even by AIP standards, the beach movies were made at a breakneck pace. Because of an obscure California personal property law, Arkoff says it was cheaper to wait until the first Tuesday in March to begin filming. Asher had roughly 10 weeks to shoot and edit the film and deliver it to AIP, which opened the pictures in drive-ins by early June.
“They never gave me a start date,” Asher recalls. “They just gave me an opening date. They’d say, ‘We need to put out the picture June 12,’ so we’d work backward.”
Most of the pictures were shot in Malibu, although Asher made one film on Balboa Island and another at County Line Beach. Arkoff says that if they couldn’t get a public beach, they sometimes filmed at the beachside homes of friends.
On one picture, Asher fell a day behind schedule. He was shooting some scenes on a sound stage when he noticed a lot of unusual activity happening off-set.
“When I got the last shot of the day, Sam announced they were having the wrap party, even though the film wasn’t finished. I started to argue with him and he said, ‘The wrap party is staying on schedule even if you aren’t.’ ”
Eventually AIP ran out of gas. James Nicholson left the company in 1972 and died shortly thereafter. In 1979, Arkoff sold the company to Filmways. The business had begun to change. Films like “Star Wars” and “Jaws” captured the imagination of a new generation of youthful moviegoers more interested in sophisticated visual effects than low-budget gimmickry. But AIP left its mark, spawning a host of filmmakers who got their first break at the company.
“Today everybody talks about independent movies, but Sam and Jim were the real independents,” says Larry Gordon. “They weren’t owned by Disney or Time Warner. They had to sign their names on the dotted line. AIP was a crazy family--it was more like ‘The Addams Family’ than ‘The Brady Bunch,’ but it was a great family. They knew how to make movies.”
To hear Arkoff tell it, his pictures weren’t art, but they were fun. “We helped teenagers discover who they were,” he says. “And if that’s all we did, to help give kids their own voice, then I’d say we did something worthwhile.”