American International Pictures and The Rise of New Hollywood Part 10:
The Feel Good 70s
With the blaxploitation cycle still going AIP continued to grow seeking out new filmmakers in the process. Samuel Arkoff screened a picture in Canada by first time director Ivan Reitman (Meatballs, Ghostbusters) and starring future SVTV players Andrea Martin and Eugene Levy called Cannibal Girls. The fact that the picture was made for less than $100,000 also impressed Arkoff and he handled all distribution outside of Canada.
Ivan Reitman introduced Arkoff to a fellow Canadian David Cronenberg who was shopping around his first directorial effort. The bloody horror picture “Shivers”, which was the biggest grossing Canadian picture of 1975, was picked up by Arkoff but he changed the title to a name more becoming of AIP, They Came From Within.
In the states John Milius was hard at work on his first directorial effort, Dillinger. Already highly regarded as a screenwriter, Arkoff figured they could coax their old writer back by offering him the directors chair as well. Dillinger starred the great character actor Warren Oates as the lead along with Ben Johnson as Melvin Purvis, Michelle Phillips (who was nominated for a Golden Globe for Most Promising New Comer), Cloris Leachman and Harry Dean Stanton and a young Richard Dreyfuss also made a turn as Babyface Nelson.
Buzz Feitshans, an editor (father Fred was an editor for AIP as well) was bumped up to producer on Dillinger. He was liked so much by all that he would produce more pictures like the notorious Act of Vengeance aka “Rape Squad”, and Foxy Brown as well as produce all of John Milius’ pictures including Conan The Barbarian and Spielberg’s 1941.
“Dillinger is the film, we may speculate, that John Milius was born to make: violent, tough, filled with guns and blood.” – Roger Ebert.
Dillinger didn’t do so hot at the box office but it got John into the director’s seat. His next picture would be for MGM and star Sean Connery The Wind and The Lion. Unfortunately it would be released a couple of weeks before JAWS, a film that easily could’ve been an AIP film in the 50s.
Jaws would show that the big studios can get the large youth audience in the seats and they could make an action picture with more money, better effects and bigger stars and use some of AIPs filmmakers, through Spielberg was always at Universal from TV to Features.
The mid-seventies is the period when I started going to the movies every weekend and that AIP logo always was exciting to see. It was also a time when it seemed Arkoff went back to the 50s. Pictures like Burt I. Gordon’s (his initials spell BIG) Food of The Gods, Empire of The Ants (staring a pre Dynasty Joan Collins) and co-produced with the Italian company Esse Ci Cinematografica Tentacles. This picture was an obvious cash in from the success of Jaws and had an all star cast including Henry Fonda, whose on the phone through the whole movie. He must’ve agreed to do it if they just shot him from his home. The picture was released on my birthday August 3, 1977 which is when I saw it! Tentacles scores pretty low on Rotten Tomatoes with an audience score of 9%! I liked it as a kid (I saw it on a double with Empire of The Ants) and I still do. It’s dumb fun and has a great soundtrack by Stelvio Cipriani.
Another Italian co-production A Matter of Time staring Liza Minnelli and directed by her father Vincente (An American In Paris, Gigi). Production took place in Italy and Minnelli fell behind schedule, Sam Arkoff had no choice but to take the picture away from him and had it recut. Minnelli disowned the picture and an angry former AIP employee Martin Scorsese took out an ad blasting AIPs treatment of Vincente.
“A Matter Of Time Vincente Minnelli’s first film in six years, has arrived at a moment in film history when its many virtues will probably pass unnoticed and its undeniable flaws be disproportionately emphasized. Minnell’s Film is unabashedly romantic, and I suppose it is what some would call old fashioned, but few contemporary films can summon up a tenth of its personal expression and intensity” – Film Comment
Meteor was another co-production this time with Hong Kong’s Run Run Shaw Productions (Sir Run Run Shaw was one of the founding brothers of The Shaw Brothers Studios and brought grand scale film production to Hong Kong with pictures like The Magnificent Concubine and many Kung fu pictures) Again this one had an all star cast Sean Connery, Natalie Wood, Henry Fonda. The picture had a budget the size of the meteor that is hurtling through space and was a massive disaster at the box office. I must admit I saw with dad when I was a kid and the picture sucked. AIP only had 2 million invested in the 16 million picture. Roger Ebert once said “beware of movie posters with photos of the cast lined up at the bottom”, well Meteor was one of those. Luckily for Sam Arkoff he had a couple of massive hits a few months earlier.
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Love At First Bite was the sleeper hit of the summer of 1979 and took everyone by surprise pumping fresh blood into George Hamilton’s career. Love At First bite tells the story of Count Dracula after he’s evicted from his castle by a communist takeover and moves to New York.
The film was universally loved and had a cast of solid comedians mostly from TV, which is what the film was almost sold to until Sam was able to get a theatrical release. The cast also included Susan St. James, Richard Benjamin, Artie Johnson, Sherman Hensley and Isabel Sanford! The film was one of the biggest grossing films of all time for a couple of years anyway, now I think it’s almost forgotten in a way.
When I look back at AIP‘s list of pictures, I’m often surprised at the amount of films and the various film genres produced. Like 1978’s Force 10 From Navarone, with Harrison Ford, Robert Shaw, and Franco Nero. I remember seeing this with school chums and having a blast. I haven’t seen it since then so I don’t know how it holds up today, though I’m sure I’d still like it.
Unfortunately despite having a phenomenal year, even out grossing Disney in domestic revenues, Arkoff knew to stay competitive he would have to have access to larger amounts of revenue. Ultimately Sam Arkoff chose the merge with the Conglomerate Filmways, owners of publishers Grosset & Dunlap as well as quite a few TV production firms.
“I’m an independent, and I just don’t want to merge with anyone, it goes against everything Jim and I stood for.” – Sam Arkoff
Arkoff would still run AIP and was promised autonomy and could make the type of pictures he wanted. As this was unfolding The Museum of Modern Art held a large tribute to American International Pictures with screenings of 39 of the films including their latest and one of their biggest hits ever 1979’s The Amityville Horror.
-Phillip López Jiménez
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