- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 4, 2000


LOS ANGELESThe titles screamed from drive-in marquees across America: "Reform School Girl," "Chrome and Hot Leather," "Boxcar Bertha," "Wild in the Streets," "High School Hellcats," "Female Jungle" and "Bloody Mama."

But in the mid-1950s, there was no scathing Federal Trade Commission report to be found.
While Washington was focusing on allegations of Hollywood's ties to the Communist Party, Samuel Z. Arkoff was discovering the riches of the youth movie market.
"That was an area the major companies had ignored," says Mr. Arkoff, now 82, whose American International Pictures (AIP) was arguably the most colorful film company of all time. "Their idea of a youth movie was an Andy Hardy film with Mickey Rooney getting into a fix and going to his dad, Lewis Stone, to get straightened out. That had no appeal for young people."
Today, the teen audience is a key source of studio profits and the object of a legislative firestorm over the selling of screen violence.
But Mr. Arkoff was a pioneer back in 1954, when he borrowed $3,000 with partner James H. Nicholson and launched AIP. With minuscule budgets and laughable special effects, the pair supplied date-night entertainment for millions of young Americans, who were enjoying newfound freedoms.
"Simple as it sounds today, when everyone is trying to sell everything to that audience, it was a breakthrough then," says film historian Leonard Maltin.
"Quality? There wasn't much. But I love the fact that they often did the posters before making the movie. They not only came up with the title — that had been done before in B movies. They had the title and the whole sales campaign mapped out before a foot of film was shot."
Mr. Arkoff's pinch-penny quickies exploited — and undoubtedly encouraged — such emerging social trends as the bikini and surfing culture, rock 'n' roll, revolt and protest, the drug scene.
But Mr. Arkoff didn't much care about social commentary or award-winning filmmaking; in more than 500 films he never came close to winning an Oscar. His goal was to sell movie tickets, pure and simple.
Unable to break the major studios' monopoly on theaters, Mr. Arkoff aimed his product at drive-ins, favored by the baby boomers.
Mr. Arkoff and his wife of 55 years, Hilda, still live on a shady offshoot of Laurel Canyon in a house they have owned since 1957. On a recent morning, he sat beside the deep-blue swimming pool and reflected on his career. One thing was missing — the once omnipresent cigar.
"I used to smoke 10 cigars a day — big cigars," he remarks. "I quit two years ago. I found I didn't like the taste anymore."
Even without the cigar, Mr. Arkoff seems the very model of a Hollywood mogul. He is portly, opinionated and dictatorial, but with a sharp sense of humor that allows a whimsical view of AIP's beginnings.
Everything at the studio was on the cheap, and that included actors and directors. Faded stars such as Ray Milland and Chester Morris worked for a fraction of their previous salaries. So did the classic scaremeisters of AIP's Edgar Allan Poe thrillers: Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, Lon Chaney Jr., Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone.
But the company also helped launch the careers of such stars as Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte, Michael Landon, Charles Bronson, Bruce Dern, Barbara Hershey, Peter Fonda and Mike Connors.
AIP also was a training ground for a new generation of directors, including Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, Peter Bogdanovich, Richard Donner and Mr. Arkoff's B-movie protege, Roger Corman, who directed more than 30 films for AIP.
So what does the discoverer of the teen movie market think of the current uproar over Hollywood's marketing of sex and violence to kids? Pure politics, he says.
"If ever I saw a political action, this is it," Mr. Arkoff says. "Senator [Estes] Kefauver went on the same crusade years ago. He came after AIP, and I didn't know why. We never had any nudity, four-letter words, anything of that nature. Apparently some PTA people complained about our posters."
The AIP beach movies starring Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon attracted a huge following, and also upset Annette's Mickey Mouse Club boss, Walt Disney.
When ads for the first in the series, "Beach Party," appeared, Disney phoned Mr. Arkoff to inquire worriedly, "Sam, what are you doing to my little girl?" Mr. Arkoff replied, "Walt, we're making her be the 19 that she is."
But despite the plethora of bikini-clad girls in those movies, Miss Funicello always wore a one-piece bathing suit — Mr. Disney's orders.
Mr. Arkoff also recalls hiring Mr. Scorcese, after seeing his student film at New York University, to direct a Corman picture, "Boxcar Bertha," with Miss Hershey and David Carradine.
The film was shot in Arkansas, and Mr. Corman hired a gang of rawbone locals for double duty, to do the heavy lifting on the set and then serve as extras, both for little cash. When Mr. Corman left town, the natives grew restless, and they commandeered a barroom set and let everyone go except Mr. Scorsese, who was held hostage.
"The leader called me and said, 'We're holding Scorsese until we renegotiate,'" Mr. Arkoff recalls. "I said, 'How do I know you've got Scorsese?' Martin came on the phone and said, 'Sam … get me outa here.' So we doubled the price for the workers."
AIP pictures were shot in a week or two at costs ranging from $29,000 to $50,000. That should have allowed a healthy profit, except that the company had trouble with bookings.
Between 1950 and 1960, television helped reduce the number of U.S. theaters from 20,000 to 14,000. Most of them played double-bills: a major release and a B movie. AIP played second fiddle at the bottom of the bill for little dough.
Mr. Arkoff began persuading neighborhood drive-in theater operators to feature AIP movies for the date-night crowd, and gradually the big theater chains came to recognize the value of the youth market.
Mr. Arkoff, who sold American International in 1979, remains active.
"Fortunately, I kept the remake rights to the AIP pictures," he says. "Four years ago, my son and I remade 10 of the teen-age pictures. We're about to do the same thing now with another 10 horror and sci-fi pictures.
"It's a mistake to remake pictures the same way; 'Anna and the King' is a good example. You have to change, because times change and people change. When we did the teen-age pictures, we didn't have any four-letter words, nudity or sex. Now we can be more realistic."
In contrast to AIP's beginnings, the new films average $3.5 million apiece to make.
The American Movie Classics network recently commissioned a documentary on AIP. "It Conquered Hollywood: The Story of American International Pictures" will appear on the cable channel early next year and is now playing at a Los Angeles theater — not a drive-in — to qualify for Academy Award consideration.


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