With every kid who can get his hand on a camera making films, it’s ironic that few have heard of the two mini-moguls whose work may have first inspired the indie film craze: Sam Arkoff and the late Jim Nicholson.
“The body may be crumbling, but the brain is as good as ever,” says Arkoff, 82, his inimitable wryness intact.
Arkoff, whose daughter Donna is married to Revolution topper Joe Roth, addressed roughly 100 invited guests, many longtime friends and relatives at Fox’s Little Theatre Sept. 18 for the premiere of the AMC original documentary “It Conquered Hollywood: The Story of American International Pictures.”
Brainchild of the cigar-smoking Arkoff and the Stetson-wearing Nicholson, AIP is a little piece of Americana that ought not to be forgotten, despite having long since dissolved with many of its titles having slipped into oblivion.
Arkoff is one of the most prolific producers of all time; his 500-plus pic oeuvre includes such forgettable films as “Machine Gun Kelly,” “Sorority Girl,” “Hot Rod Girl” and “Runaway Daughters.”
He is also half of the duo that made pics for a song and inspired a generation of teenagers to sneak away from their parents and smooch under open skies in drive-ins nationwide half-watching the spectacle.
“No one was really watching those movies,” said film critic Roger Ebert, one of the doc’s interviewees. “We were necking.”
AIP lasted from 1955 to 1979, milking such cult classics as “I Was a Teenage Werewolf” into series and bulking up on a steady diet of racy beach pics featuring the voluptuous Annette Funicello and then moving to Pam Grier in blaxploitation films. It all culminated in 1979 with the release of “Amityville Horror.”
More important than most of the films themselves, AIP provided early gigs to the likes of Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen, Roger Corman, Ivan Reitman, Brian De Palma, Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Peter Fonda and Melanie Griffith.
And Arkoff and Nicholson also practically invented and legitimized the phenomenon of films made on shoe-string budgets: Some were shot in as few as five days on budgets as low as $20,000. And that’s all before digital video.
“Thou shalt not put too much money into one picture,” said Arkoff, a man of many mottos. “And with the money you do spend, put it on the screen. Don’t waste it on the egos of actors or nonsense that might appeal to highbrow critics.”
Or how about: “Make ’em fast and make ’em cheap”?
Such words, loaded with their anti-studio bias at a time when the film business was feeling the television crunch, have proved to be prescient: Many of today’s insiders say that the most original talents are finding life away from the majors far more sweet than within them.
Kitsch and niche
As shameless as they were about marketing their rough product — promising such fictitious new phenoms as “Cinemagic” and “Hypovista” — AIP can also claim considerable credit for that modern notion known as niche marketing.
They also deserve some credit for inspiring today’s brash marketing campaigns.
Milt Moritz, whose son Neil knows a thing or two about making movies for the masses, recalled a cat gimmick. On a sunny day in 1956, the producers of AIP’s “Black Cat,” based on an Edgar Allan Poe short story, lined up some 500 black cats along Hollywood’s Bronson Avenue for a cat contest, the winner of which would make it into the film.
Life magazine decided to capture the image on one of its covers.
“Now that was publicity!” exclaimed Moritz.
But more than anything else, it may have been the titles themselves that drew droves to the theaters to see AIP pics.
“Jim was the best title man I ever knew,” Arkoff recalled. “He’d show up in the morning and say ‘I Was a Teenage Werewolf’ and I’d say ‘wow’ and we were already making the poster.”