The Exploitation Teenpic And The Companies Behind It

Sam Katzman

The low-budget independent market started blossoming in 1956 when the first exploitation pictures that targeted specifically teenage audiences proved box office hits. The producer and film that were credited with launching the wave of exploitation teenpics which were to flood American cinema for at least a decade were Sam Katzman and his Rock Around the Clock (Sears, 1956 - see the Case Study on p. 160). With almost 200 films behind him as a producer or executive producer for Monogram, Columbia and his own Victory Pictures banner between 1934 and 1956, and with a vast experience in all aspects of the film business, Katzman was one of the few veteran producers in American cinema who 'managed to move comfortably from genre to genre with equal aplomb, giving the same care and attention to every film.'37 Furthermore he was one of the most, if not the most, prolific producers in the industry (with producer credits in an amazing thirty-seven films during the three-year period 1954-6), aiming at 'entertain[ing] the masses with simple, up-to-the-minute, topical, fast moving fare.'38

After the success of Blackboard Jungle, Katzman was the first person to realise the potential of rock 'n' roll as a new trend that was worth exploiting. As 'Rock Around the Clock', the song that was heard during the credits of Blackboard Jungle, had become an enormous hit, Katzman signed Bill Haley and the Comets, the band that sang the song, to appear in a film. Taking on the title of the song itself, the film Rock Around the Clock proved also a big hit. Immediately Katzman started planning a new production based on the latest craze. Eight months after the release of Rock Around the Clock (March 1956) and after six other films Katzman produced in between, he had out in the cinemas Don't Knock the Rock (Sears, 1956), 'the Real Story Behind The World-Wide Rock 'N' Roll Headlines!', as the film's tagline promised. In the next five years Katzman would produce three more music films with the final one, Don't Knock the Twist (Rudolph, 1962), trying to capitalise on a different teenage craze, the twist dance.

The success of Katzman's first film, which was produced under his Clover Productions and released through Columbia Pictures, made other independent producers and major and independent distributors jump on the bandwagon of the exploitation teenpic, starting with the music film itself. As film critic Thomas Wiener argued, 'the problem with Katzman's films was that they were so widely successful that they spawned endless variations of the formula',39 as some of the titles clearly illustrate: Shake Rattle and Rock! (Cahn, 1956); Rock, Rock, Rock (Price, 1956); Pretty Baby Rock (Bartlett, 1956); Rock All Night (Corman, 1957); and Jailhouse Rock (Thorpe, 1957).

American International Pictures

With the teenage market proving large enough to sustain music films and many other types of films with a teenage appeal, the low-budget independents found a new raison d'ĂȘtre, catering - in some cases almost exclusively - to this new audience which was ignored by the established powers. This was particularly true for American Realising Corporation (ARC), a small independent distributor that was established in 1954 and had been releasing, to that time, 'old-style' B films. By 1956, ARC had changed its name to American International Pictures (AIP) and was in the business of serving exclusively the youth audience. According to Richard Staehling, AIP, Sam Katzman and Richard Zugsmith (another producer who specialised in exploitation films) were responsible for almost half of the output of teenpics between 1955 and 1969.40

ARC was formed by Samuel Z. Arkoff, a lawyer and former television producer, and James H. Nicholson, a former theatre manager. With a small investment (rumours have it in the region of $3,000), 20 per cent out of which was provided by small exhibitors who were getting increasingly desperate for product,41 Arkoff and Nicholson entered the film business at an extremely difficult time for low-end independent companies. But despite the bad financial state of Poverty Row market leaders such as Republic and Allied Artists, Arkoff and Nicholson believed that conditions would soon improve. Their optimism lay in the belief that the gradual phasing out of the studios' B films would soon create a product shortage in the low-budget film market which ARC would be ready to exploit.

The co-founders of ARC were not wrong. By the mid-1950s, exhibitors were getting so desperate for product that they were 'willing to deal with any moviemaker carrying a 35mm print.'42 In November of 1955, ARC announced plans to expand its release schedule to one film per month, starting from April 1956. One month before the implementation of the new schedule, the company had changed its name to AIP and had five independent production units under contract (one of them headed by filmmaker Roger Corman) which would deliver the number of films per year the distributor promised.43

The first releases under the AIP banner were two juvenile delinquency films that clearly targeted a youth audience, Hot Rod Girl (Martinson, 1956) and Girls in Prison (Cahn, 1956). By October 1956 the company had out the first successful imitation of Katzman's Rock Around the Clock, Shake Rattle and Rock!, while the rest of its films for the year included other teenpics such as Runaway Daughters (Cahn) and two science fiction films, The She-Creature (Cahn) and It Conquered the World (Corman). The company's science fiction films were also in the process of being 'juvenilised' so that they could become more appealing to the new teenage audience. As Garry Morris has argued, irrespective of the genre to which they belonged, AIP's 1950s films focused specifically 'on teenagers and other socially unem-powered groups and their inability to assimilate into a society whose conventions (conformity, ambition) they ridiculed and rejected.'44 This meant that teenagers were consciously placed in the foreground, primarily as narrative agents, while their way of life, style and problems were also brought centre stage.

Equally importantly, the company made a conscious decision to minimise the participation of adults or other 'figures of authority' in its films, making even more explicit its intention to focus exclusively on teenagers and young adults.45 Thus, despite the fact that trade publications such as The Hollywood Reporter described repeatedly AIP pictures as 'badly-written, sloppily-edited, poorly-directed low-budget film[s]', their target audience did not care.46 The classical model of American filmmaking (as exemplified by the technical perfection of studio films) that was important for adult audiences was not important for teenagers, as it was not for immigrants, children, ethnic and rural audiences who enjoyed the B films and the Poverty Row 'quickies' in the previous decades. Apart from sharing a strong lineage with the old-style B films, then, independent filmmaking of the 1950s and 1960s can also claim to be performing the social function that low-end independents during the studio era performed, catering for the audiences excluded by mainstream cinema.

Although the financial success of AIP was relative compared to the profits of the majors, the company quickly established itself in the low-budget market as a leader. By 1958, its five independent units had already produced 58 features while AIP became the first new exploitation company to release its films in hardtop and drive-in theatres at the same time (no small feat as indoor theatres normally refused to play a film at the same time as a drive-in theatre).47 Working quickly and efficiently, AIP provided financing to its contracted producers who would make films on a budget as low as $100,000-$150,000 within two to three six-day weeks. However, AlP's total investment in its films was much higher than this figure (closer to the region of $250,000) as it spent wildly on the advertising of its product.48 Much more than for its actual films, which were characterised by a style 'as distinct and as identifiable as that of Orson Welles',49 AIP became famous for its approach to distribution and publicity, areas in which the company excelled.

The foundation for an AIP film was a sensational or topical premise around which the company's marketing campaign could be built. Arkoff and Nicholson have admitted unapologetically that their starting point for the production of a picture was a catchy and exploitable title before they moved to secondary questions such as writing a script for the film.50 A typical example of this process can be seen in the production history of The Wild Angels (Corman, 1966), which spearheaded the cycle of biker films, a production trend that continued well into the 1970s.

After a frustrating time at Columbia, Roger Corman was approached by Arkoff and Nicholson to discuss the possibility of a new film for AIP that would be produced in the spring of 1966 and exhibited during the summer drive-in season. After discussing extensively 'what was going on in the country at the time',51 Corman suggested a film about Hell's Angels, an idea he had got from a picture of a Hell's Angel funeral that he saw in Life magazine.52 As this was the time when the Hell's Angels phenomenon was coming to prominence, Arkoff and Nicholson found the concept highly exploitable and immediately greenlit the film. Corman then visited a number of Hell's Angels hangouts to research the screenplay but also to try to persuade the Angels to appear in the film, which would provide the picture with immense free publicity. The Angels shared with Corman a number of stories, some of which the filmmaker used in the film as distinct plot lines, while they also agreed to participate in the production. Not surprisingly, according to McGee and Robertson, the film 'emerged as more of a series of anecdotes than a cohesive story', but carried a stamp of authenticity that did not exist in similarly themed films.53

Figure 4.1 Their credo is violence. Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern and other Hell's Angels are ready for trouble in Roger Corman's The Wild Angels.

Although the participation of the Angels in the film did give the project great publicity, AIP and Corman did not stop there. The film was advertised with the controversial tagline 'Their Credo is Violence, Their God Is Hate . . . and They Call Themselves the Wild Angels', while further advertising referred to it as 'the most terrifying film of our time', promising a shocking spectacle that would unsettle audiences. The accompanying poster featured the leather-clad Peter Fonda and Nancy Sinatra while giant flames and a bikers' parade were featured in the background. With a number of theatre owners refusing to book the picture after its preview, the film generated 'a storm of controversy unequalled in the genre [of Juvenile Delinquent films] since the days of Blackboard Jungle.'54 The outrage and controversy, however, did not discourage audiences; on the contrary, the box office performance of the film justified fully AIP and Corman's exploitation approach. The picture grossed more than $5 million during the first month of its release, becoming AIP's highest-grossing title to that date.

Although The Wild Angels was produced and released towards the end of the second era in low-end independent filmmaking, it nevertheless demonstrates clearly AlP's expertise in low-budget films which were based on exploitable subjects. Throughout the years, the company became such an expert in this type of filmmaking that it created a number of production cycles and trends that other independents (and often major studios) followed, while also maximising the exploitation of cycles started by others. Since its inception and until the late 1960s, AIP virtually created:

1. the low-budget science fiction/horror trend

2. the 'sand and spear' cycle (which even though it was started by Embassy Pictures became another of AlP's specialties)

3. the classic horror cycle (mainly Corman-produced films based on Edgar Alan Poe's short stories)

4. the beach films (launched with the extremely successful Beach Party [Asher, 1963])

5. the biker/protest film (The Wild Angels spawned a large number of imitations and variations, at least twelve of which produced by AIP)55

Besides Arkoff and Nicholson's ability to read the teenage market and establish trends, the company's success was undoubtedly founded on its '"state-of-the-art" marketing campaigns',56 which exploited every possible outlet that could publicise their films. Table 4.157 offers a codification of the principles behind AIP's approach to marketing (the formula for success) and the rationale behind choosing to cater for the teenage audience (the Peter Pan Syndrome).

Another important reason for AIP's success was that its co-founders and senior executives understood from the very beginning that the company operated firmly within the exploitation market and therefore had no pretences about making art (unlike the majors and the top-rank independents). This realisation allowed the AIP officials to place an unabashed emphasis on the commercial aspects of their pictures, being neither afraid nor ashamed of creating a coarse image for their company during the 1950s and 1960s, which was far removed from the dignified image of the majors.58

The success of AIP in the exploitation arena mobilised other low-end independents. By the late 1950s/early 1960s the company was facing great

Table 4.1 American International Pictures' approach to marketing and audience

The formula for success

OBSERVE trends and emerging tastes

KNOW as much as possible about your audience

ANTICIPATE how you will sell your chosen subject PRODUCE with prudence, avoiding expense for what won't show on the screen SELL with showmanship in advertising and publicity USE imagination HAVE good luck: even if you do everything else right, you'll still need it

The Peter Pan Syndrome a younger child will watch anything an older child will watch;

an older child will not watch anything a younger child will watch;

a girl will watch anything a boy will watch;

a boy will not watch anything a girl will watch; therefore to catch your greatest audience you zero in on the 19-year old male competition from a number of imitators who had one advantage over AIP, namely they could produce exploitation pictures for the youth audience even more cheaply than AIP. According to Arkoff, as early as 1959, AIP was in no position to continue with its teenpic double bills as such combinations by other companies had flooded the drive-in market, making a serious dent in AIP's profit margins.59 The threat of imitators overtaking the innovator was permanent for AIP, forcing its founders to look constantly for the new fad that would create the new trend or cycle, which would place the company ahead of competition once again. Two of AIP's biggest competitors at the beginning of the 1960s were Joseph Levine's Embassy Pictures and William Castle Productions.

Embassy Pictures

Levine was another great believer in the importance of showmanship, even though he was firstly interested in good scripts and secondly in whether the stories in these scripts were 'promotable'.60 Originally a small exhibitor based in New Haven, Connecticut, Levine set up a regional distribution company, Embassy Pictures, to release foreign art-films (especially Italian neo-realist successes such as Bicycle Thieves [De Sica, 1948]) in the New England territory. As interest in foreign films increased during the 1950s, Embassy was not in a position to compete with Lopert or other distributors of art-house films that operated nationally. Still, the company was successful enough to expand its operation along the East Coast of the United States. In 1956, Embassy scored a substantial commercial success with a dubbed version of Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (Honda, 1954; extensively re-edited by Terry O. Morse in 1956), which it distributed in the eastern states.

Swapping the foreign art-film for more popular, action-oriented non-US films was a major coup for Embassy. In 1958, Levine bought the US distribution rights for an Italian production based on the legend of Hercules under the title Le Fatiche di Ercole (Francisci, 1958) for $125,000. After changing the film's title to Hercules and dubbing it into English, Levine spent almost 10 times the acquisition fee in promotion and advertising ($1,156,000), while also saturating the market with 600 prints. The film grossed $15 million and established Embassy as a very promising new distribution outfit.61 During the 1950s and 1960s, however, Embassy remained first and foremost a distributor of imported art and popular European films, while only occasionally venturing into the finance, production and distribution of American films, exploitation or otherwise. Thus Embassy Pictures was the financer and distributor of the prestigious film adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's masterpiece Long Day's Journey into Night (Lumet, 1962) with Katherine Hepburn and Ralph Richardson, while also distributing low-budget exploitation films such as Village of the Giants (Gordon, 1965). Embassy became a major player in the American market after 1967, when it distributed The Graduate (Nichols, 1967), one of the key films of the next phase in the history of independent cinema.

William Castle Productions

Unlike AIP and Embassy, William Castle Productions was just a production outfit with no stakes in distribution. Operating under the rule that a producer is equally responsible to the distributor for publicising his/her pictures, William Castle, the head of the company, brought this rule to the extreme. Castle had been working for Columbia as a director of B films from 1943 until the mid-1950s, often directing Sam Katzman productions. In 1958, he established his own production company, which in a way was a throwback to the studio times as all creative personnel were under contract to Castle. Like the other exploitation companies in the low-budget arena, Castle realised that he had to make films that were tailored to a young audience. Unlike his competitors, however, Castle did not only concentrate exclusively on the teenage and the young adult demographics. He also targeted aggressively children as young as nine years old, creating a core audience (spanning from nine- to sixteen-year-olds) for his low-budget horror films.62 Furthermore, and unlike any of his competitors, he made himself a well known public figure by making cameo appearances in his own films as a narrator, often talking directly to the camera, providing prologues and epilogues to the stories his films told or introducing his latest gimmick that more often than not was the main attraction for the audience of his films. From the very beginning he placed his name on the marquee advertising his films, while the phrase 'William Castle Presents' always preceded every other title in the opening credits.63

Castle's panache for introducing often very elaborate gimmicks to increase ticket sales of his films has been unequalled in the US film industry and has brought onto him, not unjustifiably, the label 'King of the Gimmicks'.64 For his first film under the banner William Castle Productions, Macabre (1958), he took an insurance policy with Lloyd's of London for each ticket-buying customer, in case someone died during the run of the film from fright. For his second film, House on the Haunted Hill (1959), Castle came up with 'emergo', a black box installed close to the screen of theatres, out of which a twelve-foot plastic skeleton would emerge to scare audiences at a specific time during the film. The production of the film cost Castle $150,000, but the creation of 'emergo' proved a much more expensive investment, in the region of $250,000.65 The gimmick enabled Castle to enhance the audience's experience of House on the Haunted Hill, creating a show that was more memorable than the film itself, while at the same time building up a very young clientele that clearly did not visit the cinema in order to obtain pleasure from the narratives of his films. As filmmaker John Waters remarked:

Emergo was perfected and installed in theatres all over the country.

The kids went wild. They screamed. They hugged their girl friends.

They threw popcorn boxes at the skeleton. Most important, they spent their allowance and made the film a huge hit.66

The great success of House on the Haunted Hill (the film grossed over $3 million) encouraged Castle to come up with progressively more outrageous gimmicks, which broke many of the rules of classical filmmaking by becoming integral parts of the film narratives themselves, calling attention to the artifice of filmmaking. For his third film, The Tingler (Castle, 1959), the filmmaker made use of 'percepto', a device that sent slight electric shocks to a number of theatre seats at a specific point in the film - when the narrative was interrupted by Castle's voice asking the audience to scream - causing spectators to jump off their seats in fear. Next came 'Illusion-O', a sort of ghost viewfinder that was handed to viewers upon entrance to the cinema, which allowed them to see at specific times one or more of the film's 13 Ghosts (1960). While the narrative was being unravelled, the phrase 'look through your ghost-viewer' appeared at the bottom of the screen several times cueing the audience (and attracting attention away from a thinly plotted story) to expect the appearance of ghosts which could only be seen through the device.

For his fifth film Homicidal (1961), Castle introduced the 'Fright Break'. Once again the narrative was interrupted and Castle's voice was heard saying: 'This is a Fright Break. You hear that sound? The sound of a heartbeat? It will beat for another sixty five seconds to allow anyone who is too frightened to see the end of the picture to leave the theatre. You will get your full admission refunded.' To ensure that a minimum of cinema patrons would ask for their money back, Castle came up with 'Coward's Corner' whereby if a person wanted to leave the auditorium and ask for a refund, they would be humiliated in front of the entire cinema audience by having to follow yellow footsteps up the aisle, past written messages that read 'Cowards Keep Walking', and under the sound of a recording that shouted 'Watch the chicken! Watch him shiver in Coward's Corner!'67 For his next feature, Mr Sardonicus (1961), the filmmaker allowed the audience to determine the end of the narrative by inviting them to fill in polling cards with which they would decide the fate of the film's villain. For that reason he prepared prints with two endings, letting spectators decide which ending would be screened. By the time of 13 Frightened Girls (1963) and Straight-Jacket (1964), the course of the extreme gimmick had reached its end. Taking on board the reviewers' criticisms that he could not produce a successful film without gimmicks, Castle moved into more conventional filmmaking. He did manage to prove his critics wrong, however, as a few years later William Castle Productions became responsible for the seminal horror film Rosemary's Baby (Polanski, 1968), which was produced for approximately $3 million and grossed more than $30 million at the US box office.68

Roger Corman and the Filmgroup

Although both Embassy and William Castle Productions were important exploitation companies throughout the period, they nevertheless did not directly compete with AIP, opting instead to concentrate their efforts on different segments of the youth audience (young adults and young children respectively) thus leaving the bulk of this audience, the teenagers, to AlP's exploitation fare. Ironically, one of the most important competitors of AIP was one of the company's producers, Roger Corman. Arguably as prolific as Katzman, Corman made low-budget teenpics at such a fast pace that he was distributing them theatrically through three different companies, AIP, Allied Artists and his own small distribution outfit, the Film-group, while occasionally making pictures for other distributors such as The Woolner Brothers Pictures and Howco International Pictures. Because of his long-term association with AIP (1954-69) as a producer-director, it is easy to overlook his contribution to the rise of the various forms of exploitation teenpics in the mid-1950s, giving the credit instead to the distributor. However, Corman's impact on the field of low-budget teenpics and his methods of exploitation were as important as Arkoff and Nicholson's, if not more so. For instance, film historian Wheeler Dixon maintains that 'outside of William Castle no other director used as much gimmickry as Corman did.'69 For all these reasons, Roger Corman deserves as much credit for AIP's success as its co-founders.

Corman started his career in the late 1940s as a messenger and later story analyst at 20th Century-Fox, but quickly got disillusioned with the cumbersome manner in which filmmaking took place within the major. After a short stint in Europe, he came back to the US to write, direct and/or produce low-budget films, but almost immediately dropped the writing to concentrate on the other two roles. Between 1954 and 1959 Corman produced and directed twenty-three films, while taking the producer credit in ten additional pictures that were directed by others. According to Peter Lev, it was Corman who recognised first the emergence of the teenage audience,70 but as he was mainly working within the science fiction/ horror genre, he did not initially participate in the outburst of music films in the mid-1950s that have been recognised as the first wave of exploitation teenpics. Instead, he worked actively in shaping the conventions of the science fiction/horror cycle (the films of which are often called 'weirdies'), making it also appealing to a younger audience and in the process 'setting in granite the teenpic exploitation style.'71

Corman's approach to filmmaking was very similar to Arkoff and Nicholson's. According to Dixon, 'the Corman formula' consisted of four main elements:

1. spend no money

2. play up the basest, most sensationalistic angle

3. exaggerate wildly in the advertising

4. book each film in as many theatres at once as possible to forestall negative word-of-mouth72

Despite the emphasis on exploitation, Corman's extremely speedy and efficient way of filmmaking, which often involved only one day of pre-production per film,73 allowed him to experiment with the formal elements of filmmaking, repeatedly transcending the boundaries of his chosen genres and the limitations of his cheap productions. His filmmaking practices and the emphasis he placed on topical issues, even within the 'weirdie' movie framework, allowed him (and some other exploitation filmmakers) 'to achieve a particular topicality and cutting edge social relevance which the mainstream industry could not match.'74 This was particularly evident in his science fiction films which have been interpreted as allegories for the anxieties about nuclear destruction during the 1950s and 1960s as well as in his ultra-low-budget, black comedy feature The Little Shop of Horrors (Corman, 1960) which shows the dark face of the consumer revolution of the 1950s.75 Whether Corman's success was through 'accidental incompetence' and/or 'deliberate subversion of industrial codes', as David E. James speculates,76 his films left an indelible stamp on the 1950s and 1960s. Furthermore, and during the mid-1960s, Corman attempted to bridge his exploitation film techniques with influences from the European art-cinema (particularly evident in The Wild Angels) in the hope of having his films played at both art-houses and drive-ins.77 The result was a new style of filmmaking that was recuperated by the exstudios and became one of the precursors of what film historians have called the Hollywood Renaissance (see Chapter 5).

Finally, Corman also ventured into film distribution through the formation of The Filmgroup, a very small releasing company operating with a skeletal staff and a few booking exchanges. Although The Film-group's distribution output remained very limited (twenty titles in five years) and the company recorded minimal profits (between $1,500 and $3,000 a year),78 it nevertheless proved a very important stepping stone for Corman in terms of learning the distribution business. Thus, in 1970 and after a falling-out with AIP over the release of Gas-s-s-s (Corman, 1970), the filmmaker was ready to make much larger steps in the field of distribution. He established a new production/distribution company, New World Pictures, which became very successful in the exploitation sector.

Corman, Levine and Castle were only the tip of the iceberg in the low-end independent production/production-distribution market. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s and as the youth audience continued to embrace exploitation pictures, there has been a very large number of producers and distributors that were set up to 'exploit' the opportunities offered by the teenpic. Most distributors, however, enjoyed a rather short lifespan, releasing only a small number of films before eventually going out of business.

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