American International Pictures and The Rise of New Hollywood Part 11:
Horror and Mayhem
One day in 1977 Sam Arkoff was browsing through his local bookstore looking for a book to take on his vacation, the store clerk handed him one and said “You have to read this one. Everyone says it would make a great movie!” Sam looked at it and recognized the name of the author, Jay Anson, and bought it, though he didn’t take it with him on his trip.
Jay Anson at the time was the prolific writer of those really cool mini documentaries on newly released films. These shorts would often be attach to films being shown on TV to hype current movies, similar to the stuff you now might see on Facebook or HBO today. My favorite of these is the one he did for The Dirty Dozen, called Operation: Dirty Dozen. “This is Academy Award Winner Lee Marvin, an ACTION GUY!” They had some really cool music and were similar in style to the NFL Films docs that were on TV. He continued to write these and sometimes direct them but in the mid seventies he wrote a book based on the supposed true story about a haunted house. The name of that book was The Amityville Horror and it was phenomenally successful.
When Arkoff came back from his trip, his daughter had read it and gave it positive reviews. So he read it in one sitting and immediately contacted the publishing company. Unfortunately CBS-TV had already negotiated a deal for a TV movie, but Sam was determined to have this property. He met with the executives and convinced them that AIP should make it, he even had CBS give him 1.7 million for the rights to air it on their network after its theatrical run!
Harrison Ford was considered to star but it went to James Brolin who worked for scale in exchange for 10% of the gross making him 55 million in today’s money. Not to bad considering most involved thought it was a schlocky film, especially Margo Kidder!
“What a piece of shit! I couldn’t believe that anyone would take that seriously. I was laughing my whole way through it, much to the annoyance of Rod Steiger, who took the whole thing very seriously.”
-Margot Kidder on The Amityville Horror
Shot in seven weeks on a budget of 4.6 million by director Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke, Pope of Greenwich Village) and despite rumors of a cursed production (AIPs marketing people to be sure.) it came in on time and on budget and became the biggest grossing independently made film since Easy Rider and it wasn’t topped until New Line Pictures The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in 1990! In 1979 and in 810 theaters it grossed a whopping $86,432,520. making it the number two biggest grossing picture that year behind Kramer vs. Kramer, out grossing Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Rocky II, Apocalypse Now, Alien and The Muppet Movie and for a time it was in the top 10 list of all time grossing pictures.
The Amityville Horror would be the last 100% AIP film, after that Sam Arkoff now had to answer to Filmways. It was a merger that Sam was really beginning to regret, and the thorn in his side was real estate developer, investor, and H&R Block founder Robert L. Block who was CEO of Filmways and had merged with AIP. Block started to see himself as a studio mogul and wanted to spend lavishly on pictures like Roman Polanski’s Pirates and Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In America (one of my all time favorite pictures.) but Arkoff wisely convinced the board not to make these pictures. (Pirates is god awful and had a huge budget. At one point the film was seen as the worst flop in history; 30 million budget and only made 1 million. The production design was excellent though and I love the poster, it was a satirical picture along the lines of Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers, yes I actually sat through this one in 1986. Once Upon A Time In America is a masterpiece from Leone that was extremely long 4 hrs and flopped hard. It was financed by Arnon Milchan who likes taking risks on pictures he believes in like Brazil, Legend, The Revenant, but also finances stuff like Pretty Woman and Alvin and The Chipmunks which brings in the money.) Arkoff was now trying to figure out an escape plan from Filmways but in the meantime time he picked up a film from down under for US distribution. Enter…
The Lone Man of The Apocalypse: Mad Max
Medical Doctor George Miller was tired of seeing messed up bodies in the ER from car crashes that he decided to make a picture about messed up bodies from car crashes. His film Mad Max is about a dystopian future where gangs of thugs terrorize the Australian outback and a lone police officer “Mad” Max Rockatansky (then newcomer Mel Gibson) Goes after the gang that killed his wife and child.
“Miller, a film buff making his first feature, shows he knows what cinema is about. This is the most audience-involving film since Halloween (in fact, Miller’s work is reminiscent of John Carpenter’s and also of the Canadian David Cronenberg.)” -Variety
The film was a twist on the then popular car chase films and director George Miller became part of the new wave of Australian filmmakers like Peter Weir, Richard Franklin, Bruce Beresford, Brian Trenchard-Smith, and Gillian Armstrong to name a few.
Mad Max was released by Roadshow Film Distributors (now Village Roadshow Pictures after they bought up De Laurentiis Group. Roadshow started out owning drive-ins in Australia and are responsible for the creation of multiplexes with stadium seating and sophisticated sound systems we have today) the picture would go on to be Australia’s biggest hit ever, even out grossing Star Wars there!
Roadshow was AIP’s Distributor in Australia and they told Sam about its success and he immediately bought the North American rights sight unseen for 1.8 million. Once Sam Arkoff finally saw the picture he was blown away.
“I was struck by its quality and originality…an action picture at its best.”
– Flying Through Hollywood By The Seat of My Pants by Sam Z. Arkoff
The Australian didn’t have many rules and unions so Miller and Company put their cameras anywhere they pleased, making for some hair raising action sequences like no other. Sam noticed though, the thick accents and local slang that is spoken and he figured these cigar chomping exhibitors would say “These are a bunch of limeys talking.” and they wouldn’t want to book it. So Sam made the horrible decision to have the picture dubbed. Unfortunately Mel Gibson, who was born here in the states then moved to Australia and never had a heavy accent, didn’t re-dub his own voice and the picture really suffered from it.
I remember wanting to see this film so bad but it was rated R, my childhood friend Jack did get to and he told me all about it. Man, I thought I’d never be able to see it, this was before VHS or rather before it was affordable. The dubbing hurt and it didn’t do very well here but it did become a cult classic. Warner Bros. handled distribution for the rest of the world where Mad Max would make over a hundred million making it one of the most profitable pictures ever and started a franchise that is still around.
After Mad Max, Sam Arkoff decided to part ways with Filmways. He also decided he didn’t want to be involved with distribution any longer. This was 1980 and he still had one more picture he made in ’79 to be released Brian De Palma’s homage to Hitchcock (and Dario Argento if you ask me) Dressed To Kill.
-Phillip López Jiménez
Next: AIP The Final Chapter, Dressed To Kill
The different companies AIP becomes
A New AIP, Arkoff International Pictures.
Sam Arkoff and James Nicholson’s Legacy.
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