ARKOFF & CORMAN AT AIP
POSTER, THEN PRODUCTION, Part Two
by Frederick Bailey IAFT-LA
Michael Chasin’s recent blog published here is good advice for aspiring filmmakers: Figure out how you’re going to sell your movie before you start making it.
If you’ve read any biographical stuff about Samuel Z. Arkoff or Roger Corman when they were both at American International Pictures (AIP), you’ll have found they did exactly that—at a time when no one else was doing it.
They literally did the poster before they did the script.
AIP was a low-budget movie company founded in 1954 by Arkoff and James H. Nicholson on a $3,000 investment.
And ultimately, they way they made movies changed the face of Hollywood.
At a time when they were up against the seven giant studios with their big-budget prestige pictures, AIP specialized in high-concept, low-budget movies aimed directly at a teenage audience. An audience their competitors were ignoring.
That meant teenage heroes and monstrous creatures, fast hotrods, horror, semi-naked girls sprawled on beach blankets, rocket ships, flying saucers, and anything else that would sell to the youth market.
It worked spectacularly.
And now, more than 50 years later, that’s the primary target of any studio movie.
Arkoff and Nicholson hired Corman as their go-to director. Together, they’d come up with an exploitation concept they thought would sell a lot of tickets, design the poster around that idea, and then get someone to write the script to match the poster.
“We would often get the title first,” Arkoff told the L.A. Times in 1982. “Then we would work up a poster for the picture,” and an advertising campaign to go with it. “If it looked good, we’d go ahead with a script.”
Scorsese, De Niro, Coppola (the father), Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper, Bruce Dern—all got their starts working for Arkoff and Corman.
Arkoff tells a hilarious story about all this in his autobiography, Flying Through Hollywood by the Seat of My Pants.
Corman was an uncredited executive producer and director on The Beast With a Million Eyes in 1955, a film that began life as a poster featuring a many-eyed monster with tentacles, stalking a bikinied beach babe. The ad they created screamed about a movie shot in TERRORSCOPE!
But when they got around to shooting the movie in Palm Springs, Corman had so little money to work with (entire budget: $29,000) that he decided not to spend anything at all on actually making a beast.
In the story, the “beast” could feed upon the minds of animals, and that’s how it had a million eyes—from all the animals it occupied, it could see everything.
But Arkoff and Nicholson were not too happy when Corman’s editor delivered. Where’s the monster!? It didn’t live up to the poster.
So they decided to go back in and add footage of a beast at the end of the movie. But how?
They jerry-rigged a space alien out of a teakettle with dozens of holes punched in it! With water boiling inside, steam spewing out, it obscured the fact that there was really nothing there.
Two weeks later, Beast with a Million Eyes was released, reaping—on the basis of its newspaper ads—a respectable box office, if not respectable reviews.
It was the beginning of a powerhouse 30 years for a young, independent production company.
James H. Nicholson died in 1972, and Sam Arkoff in 2001. Roger Corman is still making movies.
- FLYING THROUGH HOLLYWOOD BY THE SEAT OF MY PANTS, by Sam Arkoff (NY: Birch Lane Press, 1992)
- HOW I MADE A HUNDRED MOVIES IN HOLLYWOOD & NEVER LOST A DIME, by Roger Corman with Jim Jerome (NY: Random House, 1990)
- ROGER CORMAN, Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches & Driller Killers, by Beverly Gray (NY: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2004)