With the passing of James H. Nicholson and the departure of AIP’s main filmmaking asset, Roger Corman to form his own studio, New World Pictures, Sam Arkoff had a lot to on his plate.
In 1971 MGM released the first, of what would be termed the “Blaxploition” Film, Shaft, starring Richard Roundtree as the titular hero. Shaft was one of three pictures that year that actually made MGM some money and it made a lot, insuring that MGM would be out of the clutches of bankruptcy for a few years. Shaft wasn’t the first blaxploitation flick released that year; a few months before saw the release of Melvin Van Peebles Indie Sweet Sweetbacks Baadaasssss Song, which was also a huge hit (15 million on a 150,000 budget!) that was independently distributed.
Once Sam Arkoff saw these numbers he decided, for the first time in the history of AIP, to jump on the bandwagon the following year with a picture called Slaughter.
The picture stared retired Cleveland Browns fullback Jim Brown as an ex Green Beret out to seek revenge against the murder of his parents by the mob. Slaughter was directed by actor Jack Starrett (Billy Jack, First Blood) who would also go on to direct Cleopatra Jones for Warner Bros, yes all the majors were jumping on the blaxploitation soul train. Slaughter proved to be quite successful and a sequel was quickly made, Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off.
Meanwhile on the other side of the globe Roger Corman with his new company New World Pictures stuck a deal with an old AIP alum, actor John Ashley. John Ashley had stared in AIP flicks like High School Caesar, Hot Rod Gang, and a few of the Beach Party pictures, but after his divorce from another AIP starlet Deborah Walley he moved to the Philippines to Star in the great Filipino exploitation filmmaker Eddie Romero’s Brides of Blood. He would make a series of these Blood films for Hemisphere Pictures as producer as well, which lead him to the Filipino film board were he acted as a scouting liaison to bring production to the Philippines. He told Corman he could shoot there for cheap as he would put up the above the line monies and Corman would put up the rest.
A script was written by AIP alum James Gordon White (The Thing With Two Heads) and it would be directed by Corman protégé and Coppola UCLA classmate Jack Hill. Hill would snatch up AIP receptionist Pam Grier and cast her in the now classic ‘Women In Prison’ picture The Big Doll House and its sequel The Big Bird Cage. I know this article is about AIP but by the 70s the AIP “students” if you will, had graduated and were out there executing their lessons. Pam Grier would make several pictures out in the Philippines, not only for New World but also for Hemisphere, and Dimension (not the Weinstein dimension), before making a picture for AIP with Eddie Romero called Black Mama, White Mama. Kind of a female version of The Defiant Ones and was co-written, and based on, a story by young Jonathan Demme, who was now employed at New World Pictures.
Pam Grier proved to be popular in these WIP pictures and Arkoff signed a multi picture deal with her for AIP, starting with Coffy directed by the The Big Doll House’s Jack Hill. Coffy proved to be successful so a sequel was ordered up and Foxy Brown went into production with Jack Hill as director as well, but at the last minute AIP decided it would not to be a sequel but an entirely different character, which is why the two pictures are similar.
Despite the Blaxploitation genre being a fairly male dominated action genre, Pam Grier would become quite possibly the biggest star of it. She was a positive role model for African Americans and strong women alike. She would star in more AIP pictures Bucktown, Sheba, Baby, Scream Blacula, Scream, and Friday Foster as well as Roger Corman’s New World Pictures like Women In Cages, and The Arena. AIPs blaxploitation films not only shined a positive light on women of color but also on black lives in America. Especially in films like Cornbread Earl & Me and in particular Michael Schultz’s Cooley High.
Cooley High’s raison de’être was to cash in on the success of George Lucas’ American Graffiti, even the Poster was reminiscent of Graffiti. Though Graffiti was groundbreaking (a plotless story line, with intertwined stories that would hugely influence ensemble TV shows.) Cooley High was more dramatic and introspective and rose above most of AIP’s more exploitive pictures. Michael Schultz would go on to bigger pictures for Studios like Universal and Warner Bros. directing films like Car Wash, Greased Lighting, Which Way Is Up, and Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, which had the largest budget ever given to an African American director at the time. At 79 years old he his still actively directing episodes of the show Black-ish.
for 11 x 14″ image.; 12 x 15″ outside dimension
In 1973 while the Blaxploitation cycle was going strong AIP’s “Students” were booming.
- Francis Ford Coppola had won an Oscar for writing the screenplay for Patton and struck paydirt with The Godfather for Paramount. (Roger Corman even made a cameo in Godfather II)
- Peter Bogdanovich scored Oscars for Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman, and nominations for himself as Best Director for his film The Last Picture Show.
- Willard Huyck a writer for AIPs war picture The Devils Eight co-wrote George Lucas’ American Graffiti, and was ghost writing a secret space adventure for Lucas.
- The other writer on The Devils Eight, John Milius, had ghost written Dirty Harry, officially wrote Magnum Force, Sydney Pollocks Jeremiah Johnson and Walter Huston’s The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean.
Gangster pictures were still happening and Arkoff wanted to make a picture out of Dillinger. It had been done before as a B-picture from Monogram Pictures starring Lawrence Tierney (Reservoir Dogs.) Sam Arkoff knowing writer John Milius would be perfect to script the story (and also really wanted to direct) immediately thought of him. Sam asked, “Will you write this script for us?” Milius’ reply was “You don’t have enough money to pay my writing fee.” Sam offered, “Well what if you direct it as well?” Milius changed his tune and jumped on it!
-Phillip López Jiménez