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CRITIC AT LARGE

The Movie Mogul Who Can't Retire

July 10, 1986|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

Samuel Z. Arkoff is so much the very model of the classic movie mogul that it is possible to suspect he came from Central Casting.

He is comfortably stout and wears monogrammed shirts with cuff links that could double as paperweights. He smokes cigars the size of patrolmen's nightsticks and speaks with an authority to match.

The mogul look is not, of course, an illusion. Arkoff and his late partner, James Nicholson, put together American International Releasing in 1954 with an initial cash outlay of less than $5,000. It became American International Pictures the next year.

By the time Arkoff sold the company a quarter-century later, AIP had produced and co-produced something like 250 films and had distributed again as many.

Starting in 1963, AIP made "Beach Party" and 12 derivations thereof, launching a nouvelle vogue and making movie stars of Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon. From AIP came Roger Corman's "House of Usher" and another dozen chillers derived from Edgar Allan Poe.

"As independents," Arkoff said at lunch earlier this week, "we had to look to see where the big guys weren't." Frequently this meant dreaming up an arresting title ("I Was a Teenage Werewolf," starring Michael Landon in 1957) and then creating a film to go with it.

The budgets were laughably small even by the standards of the early '60s. AIP financed Francis Coppola's first feature, "Dementia 13," shot in Ireland for what Arkoff remembers as less than $50,000.

But by now the AIP archive has been honored by an admiring retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Some of the later AIP releases, like Roger Corman's 1966 "The Wild Angels," moved past fun and games to the rebellion and disillusion of the '60s and early '70s, nurturing en route such later stars as Jack Nicholson.

Sam Arkoff was in a fair way to retire after 1979. "The Amityville Horror," made that year and one of the original AIP's last ventures, is still thought to be the largest-grossing independently made and independently distributed film in modern times.

But moguls don't go quietly. "I didn't have enough to do," Arkoff says. "I need at least two crises a day to stir the blood." He had been a fixture at the Cannes Festival almost since AIP began, wheeling and dealing from the Hotel du Cap at Cap d'Antibes. But, with no deals to make and nothing to sell, he has stayed home and missed the action.

Now there is a new AIP, standing these days for Arkoff International Pictures. Arkoff and his son, Louis, start production in the fall on "Night Crawler," a thriller for release by the relentlessly prolific Cannon Group.

(There's a nice irony in that association. Cannon co-founder Menahem Golan's first Hollywood experience was as second assistant director on an AIP-Roger Corman film, "The Young Racers" (1963), on which Coppola was the first assistant. Later, AIP picked up Cannon's first six made-in-Israel films for U.S. release.)

"Night Crawler," which Arkoff's office has characterized as "a supernatural action adventure about a young college professor who becomes reincarnated from a man who died a violent death, who seeks the professor to avenge his death," does suggest that the world of independent film making, Arkoff style, hasn't changed since the innocent '50s.

But Arkoff has no doubt that, financially, the film world has changed profoundly. "The videocassette tail has begun to wag the theatrical dog," he says.

The present pattern of opening films in from 500 to 2,000 cinemas simultaneously, with massive ad campaigns costing upward from $6 million for the first two weeks, is essentially aimed at whetting the cassette-sale market, Arkoff says. There is seldom a fair chance of recouping even the costs of the prints and advertising from the blitz, let alone the production cost of the film itself.

The notion is that the ancillary revenues, notably from cassette sales, will make the difference. And, obviously, just one smash hit will salve a lot of wounds for the distributor.

The trouble is, Arkoff says, that with the blitz approach, the distributor knows--even before a film's first weekend--whether it's a boom or a bust. If it's a disaster, it goes, quickly and quietly, even before word of mouth has had a chance to operate. "Not," Arkoff says, "that you can develop any word of mouth out of an empty theater."

Arkoff finds it hard not to think of this approach as wasteful. AIP opened films regionally, changing ad campaigns until it found the right one. (The massive openings don't allow time to try a different advertising look.) Arkoff cites "Walking Tall" as an AIP film that opened poorly, then got a new campaign that worked so well the film spawned two sequels.

The trend toward gigantism and the $20-million-and-up production budgets (even before the additional $6 million-$10 million for the release campaign) Arkoff calls "stuffing bananas with bananas with bananas."

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