Businessman always onto latest trend, worked on 'Amityville,' 'Werewolf'
Sam Arkoff, the gruff, outspoken producer and co-founder of American Intl. Pictures and the creator of hundreds of action exploitation films in the 1950s and 1960s, has died. He was 83.
Arkoff claimed there wasn’t enough sex and violence in movies, raising eyebrows. The word “art” never crossed his lips; the stout producer, ever-present cigar in hand, was first and foremost a businessman. And as his low-budget, high return films demonstrate — “The Amityville Horror,” “I Was a Teenage Werewolf” and “Muscle Beach Party,” as well as much of the early Roger Corman oeuvre — cost efficiency and exploitable elements were his hallmarks.
At the company’s height, AIP’s B-grade movies filled a niche between television and major studio product, becoming double-bill fodder for the nation’s drive-ins and sub-run theaters. Arkoff was prescient in tapping the post-war youth market, attracting them with horror, action and sexual innuendo — which would later filter up to the major studios. Through Corman he provided a start for such important talents as Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Ivan Reitman, David Cronenberg, Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson.
Arkoff was always an opponent of what he called “runaway waste” — the skyrocketing budgets and marketing costs of movies. Unsuccessfully, he called for the enforcement of cost controls on movies. Without them, he argued, films would wind up costing $25 million on average by 1985. His words were not heeded, and Hollywood more than lived up to his predictions. Arkoff also decried the growing power of agents, managers and attorneys — although he claimed publicists were essential to the dissemination of ballyhoo on films.
Born in Fort Dodge, Iowa, Arkoff served as a cryptographer in WWII. He attended the U. of Colorado, U. of Iowa and Loyola U. School of Law in Los Angeles. After graduating, he focused on entertainment law and drifted into production.
In 1950, as president of Video Associates, he co-produced TV series “The Hank McCune Show.” Partnering with former exhibitor and distribution exec James H. Nicholson, he started American Intl. Pictures in 1954. “We went into business to make money — for ourselves, for distributors and exhibitors,” he said many times.
The company’s first release was a pickup made by a young filmmaker named Roger Corman. “The Fast and the Furious” was a gritty action film starring John Ireland and Dorothy Malone.
The $60,000 film grossed $250,000, and a long-term partnership was forged with Corman, who kept a steady supply of quickie films coming into the company.
Independent acquisitions were not enough, however, and soon AIP went into the business of producing, churning out more than 200 films, including “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The House of Usher,” “The Trip,” “Machine Gun Kelly,” “Dillinger” and all the “Beach Blanket” movies.
“I Was a Teenage Werewolf,” made in 1957 and starring Michael Landon, cost $100,000 and was shot in six days. It grossed $2 million.
Arkoff was always onto the latest trend. Horror was a mainstay, especially gothic-style horror films based on Edgar Allan Poe stories, as were war movies and gangster films. He capitalized on the Southern California beach culture with the “Beach Blanket” series starring teen idol Frankie Avalon and Disney’s belle Annette Funicello, incurring the wrath of Uncle Walt. When the drug culture of the 1960s emerged, Arkoff was there with such films as “The Trip,” “Wild Angels” and “Wild in the Streets,” in which all people over 30 were exterminated.
In the 1970s he directly courted the black audience with “Blacula” and “Black Caesar,” and also hooked into the redneck cycle with “Walking Tall” and “Return to Macon County.” He released Ralph Bakshi’s X-rated adult cartoon “Heavy Traffic” and another item that the studios passed on, “Mad Max,” starring Mel Gibson.
Low costs and exploitable elements kept AIP in profits for most of its history, culminating with “The Amityville Horror,” which brought in $65 million in domestic theatrical receipts, making it the largest grossing independent film until New Line’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”
His judgment was not perfect, he admitted. He passed on such films as “Billy Jack” and “Easy Rider.” Nicholson left the company in 1972 and died shortly thereafter. In 1979, the same year “Amityville Horror” was released, Arkoff merged the company with Filmways Intl. (which was later sold to Orion Pictures).
Shortly thereafter he began Arkoff Intl. Pictures, but since 1983, despite several comeback attempts, he remained largely in retirement. Mainstream movies had caught up with his style of exploitation. The ancillary and global market had altered the way films were financed and distributed. Many independent companies went under, including Orion.
But by then Arkoff had become a sort of legend. His cheapie films were now cult items — studied and venerated, influencing a new generation of filmmakers. The humor of this was not lost on Arkoff, as detailed in his biography, “Flying Through Hollywood by the Seat of My Pants,” published in 1992.
The biography was dedicated to his wife, Hilda, who died this past summer, as well as his son Louis, also a producer, and daughter Donna.