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Thrifty Corman healthy in 4th decade

Roger Corman’s cameo in “Apollo 13” as the penny-pinching congressman eager to slash NASA funding is an in-joke among Corman alumni like “Apollo” helmer Ron Howard, who got his directing start on “Eat My Dust,” a 1976 Corman quickie.

Wags around Corman’s cramped Westwood offices and spartan Venice production lot are saying that if anyone would – or could – run a low-budget trip to the moon it would be the famously thrifty “King of the Bs.”

While Hollywood studio film budgets are increasingly out of this world, the silver-haired but forever-young chief of Concorde-New Horizons Pictures keeps his feet on the ground and money in the till making cheap genre movies, a career that began with his $12,000 “Monster From the Ocean Floor” in 1954. He has since produced more than 250 films and directed 50 others.

“We consider a low-budget film anything under a million dollars,” says Corman. “A medium budget from a million to anything around $2 million, and the big budget films… we’ve been up to $3 million-$4 million with films like ‘ Dillinger and Capone’ (starring Martin Sheen and F. Murray Abraham) and ‘Babyface Nelson’ (with C. Thomas Howell).”

Ironically, at a time of year when Corman films have traditionally occupied summer date-night screens across the country, only one Corman film – the un-typically arty and critically well-received “Reflections in the Dark,” starring Mimi Rogers, for which she won a best actress prize at the Seattle Film Festival – will be in limited release.

The consolidation of regional theater circuits has made Corman’s customary mode of theatrical release – moving a handful of prints and a spoonful of advertising money from region to region – more difficult, especially during summer blockbuster season.

“The other thing that’s hurt us,” says Corman, “and this has hurt us a great deal, is the end of the drive-ins.”

No wonder then, that almost all of the 15 to 24 pictures made each year by Concorde, the production company founded in 1983 after the sale of Corman’s New World Pictures, have gone directly to video via the company’s distribution arm, New Horizons.

With the video market becoming softer, however, Corman says his new strategy (like other indies such as Live and Trimark) is to boost video sales for certain movies like “Reflections” and “Dillinger and Capone” by giving them bigger budgets, more stars and limited theatrical releases.

But part of the blame for Corman films losing screens, say company insiders, is due to deeper changes within the industry.

“I’m reading fewer and fewer crazy, way-out ideas like ‘Deathrace 2000,’ ” laments Frances Doel, Corman’s longtime story editor. Doel says that scripts coming in (mostly from students and aspiring filmmakers – the company does not employ Writers Guild, or any other union members for that matter) suffer from the “derivative movie syndrome.” Partly the result of too many screenwriting courses, she sighs.

Another reason for the dearth of good B-movie scripts is the race among would-be filmmakers to make it big, fast. Doel says, “There’s pressure to be thinking already in film school of writing the kinds of movies that will get you an agent, get you a studio deal.”

Indeed, the studios have not only squeezed indies like Corman’s company off the screens, they’ve stolen Corman’s fire onscreen as well. The majors are now making the kinds of movies that Corman once made: Films based on comic books like “Judge Dredd,” monster movies such as “Species” and sci-fi genre pics along the lines of “Lawnmower II.” Essentially B-movies with A casts and budgets.

The only place you can see the kind of movies Corman produced in his glory days this summer is on the small screen. Beginning July 11, Showtime is airing “Roger Corman Presents,” a 13-part series of originals as well as re-makes of vintage Corman films, including “Not of This Earth” and the John Sayles-penned “Piranha.”

Though times have changed since Corman slapped Edgar Allen Poe’s name on versions of the author’s horror classics and lured audiences to theaters for “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “House of Usher,” old habits die hard.

Last year, Dean Koontz’s name appeared in big letters on Corman’s direct-to-video product “Watchers III.” The bestselling horror scribe threatened to sue, claiming the picture had nothing to do with his novel and that Corman was over-emphasizing his name to make a buck. The matter was settled when the video box art was altered to suit Koontz’ wishes. Despite the flap, a Corman writer has turned in a final draft on “Watchers IV.”

Sequelmania

“Carnosaur III” is also prepping to shoot this summer. The 1993 original was a $2 million project that in fine Corman style beat that other dinosaur movie, “Jurassic Park,” to theaters by two weeks.

“Carnosaur’s” third incarnation (“Back for another bite” goes the tagline) will get a different spin, promises story editor Doel, who admits she had to “rack my brains” to come up with new angles for Corman franchises. “We’re going to treat it like the monster in ‘Beowolf,’ ” she says.

Corman’s paradoxically highbrow taste (he reportedly loved “The Madness of King George”) has led him to develop a first screenplay from British playwright Steve Gooch, whose play, based on female pirates Anne Bonney and Mary Read, was performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in London. With the working title “Seachange,” the project parallels Jon Peters’ big budget project “Mistress of the Seas,” long in development at Columbia Pictures. “We can probably make ours before that happens,” predicted Corman correctly, as “Mistress” has gone into studio turnaround.

Corman’s operation is still considered one of the few places in town where newcomers to the movie business can get a break. In little over a year, Marta Mobley has worked in various capacities on 17 movies, progressing from production assistant to her current post as production coordinator.

Few directing talents of the caliber of Francis Coppola (“Dementia 13”), Martin Scorsese (“Box Car Bertha”), John Sayles or Ron Howard have emerged lately. But Corman execs point proudly to recent grads Carl Franklin, whose first big move after helming “Eye of the Eagle II” was “One False Move”; Luis Llosa, who went from writing-directing several pics for Corman to helming Sharon Stone and Sylvester Stallone in “The Specialist”; and cinematographer Janusz Kaminiski, who lensed a half-dozen pics for Corman before segueing to “Schindler’s List” and an Academy Award.

Breakout talent

Around the shop the word is that Louis Morneau (“Carnosaur”), Kat Shea (“Stripped to Kill”), Jeff Yonis (“Blackout”) and Jon Purdy (“Reflections in the Dark”) are the ones to watch. Coppola’s sister, actress Talia Shire, is said to have made a promising directing debut in Corman’s upcoming erotic thriller “One Night Stand.”

As for acting discoveries like Jack Nicholson (“The Cry Baby Killer”) and Sylvester Stallone (“Deathrace 2000”), the newest star of the Corman stable is Don (The Dragon) Wilson, martial arts hero of six installments of “Bloodfist.” Wilson was persuaded by “Bloodfist” fan Joel Schumacher to play a gang member in “Batman Forever.”

Two films in the can feature stars who have broken out in bigger movies. One is “Fire on the Amazon,” starring Craig Sheffer and Sandra Bullock. Corman has been holding onto the film since Sheffer was cast in “A River Runs Through It.” Set for release after “River,” the film was held back when Bullock was cast in “Speed.” The film will go out soon, says Corman, with Bullock and Sheffer billed above the title, of course.

Another one in the can is “Cry of the White Wolf produced by Corman’s wife and partner, Julie Corman. The wholesome, outdoorsy family film features Elizabeth Berkeley, starring later this summer in “Showgirls,” about not-so wholesome Las Vegas lap dancers. In “White Wolf,” Berkeley plays a college girl hiking in the Sierras.” If we’d only thought to let her take a swim,” says Corman regretfully, “or let her wash herself in the stream or something.”

Corman turns 75 next year.

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