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Summer SNEAKS

A Teen Movie Machine

Sam Arkoff built 'em fast and he built 'em cheap. His summer movies drove teens wild with a blend of bikinis, bikes and blood.

May 10, 1998|Patrick Goldstein | Patrick Goldstein is a Times staff writer

Even before Sam Arkoff had thumbed through the Hollywood trade papers and a faxed report on the weekend box-office results, as is his custom each Monday morning, he was already convinced that one new movie would be a sure-fire flop. Titled "Suicide Kings," the film is a low-budget kidnapping thriller--but it wasn't the subject that concerned Arkoff. It was the film's title.

"I told everyone that picture would never make any money," says Arkoff, co-founder of the legendary B-movie assembly line known as American International Pictures. "The title is a total turnoff. Put 'suicide' in your title and you're just asking for trouble. There's no way kids would want to see something with a title like that."

Arkoff should know. Before "Godzilla," before "Jurassic Park," even before "Jaws," he was the first King of Summer Movies. During its heyday from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, American International, known as AIP, chronicled America's youth culture, exploiting its teenage audience's fascination with drag racing, monsters, beach parties, motorcycle gangs and drugs. Years before Hollywood began its pursuit of free-spending young moviegoers, Arkoff and his partner, the late James Nicholson, had a tight grip on the pulse of teen movie habits.

"We picked up on things really fast," recalls Milton Moritz, who was AIP's head of advertising and publicity for 25 years. "I remember seeing a gang of Hells Angels on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post and showing it to Jim Nicholson. Before you knew it, we'd made 'The Wild Angels.'

"The big studios were still being run by the old moguls who weren't in touch with the culture of the day. They didn't recognize teenagers until it was too late. By the time the studios tried to copy our beach-party pictures, the kids had moved on to something new, and so had we."

At AIP, the bywords were fast and cheap. The company often made 25 to 30 pictures a year, most with budgets that would barely pay for a movie star's personal trainer today. AIP couldn't afford marquee names, so it hired hungry young actors and directors, including such future luminaries as Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Francis Coppola, David Cronenberg and Dennis Hopper.

Arkoff and James Nicholson never made a movie until they first had a catchy title, a vivid ad campaign and topical subject matter. "We went by the headlines," says Arkoff, who will turn 80 in June but remains active, speaking at industry seminars and finding new ways to repackage the portion of the AIP catalog he still owns. "If teenagers were involved in something new, we made a movie about it."

In teen culture, trends come and go at lightning speed, often leaving Hollywood far behind. AIP's production schedule was far faster than today's movies, which are often two years in the making. A typical AIP film cost $300,000 and was shot in a week.

"Sam and Jim were the Barnum and Bailey of the film business," says producer Larry Gordon, who started at AIP as a story editor in the late '60s, ending up as head of production. "When we found a trend, it didn't take any time to get the movie done. We were like airborne commandos; we knew we had to be in and out of the theaters before the trend was over."

Burt Topper, a writer-director who was also in charge of AIP's physical production in the late 1960s, says "Diary of a High School Bride," which he directed in 1959, was shot in seven days for $80,000. (To save money, longtime AIP director Roger Corman shot much of his movie, "A Bucket of Blood," on "Bride's" leftover sets).

"I had a director's chair," Topper recalls. "But I never sat down when I did an AIP picture. I was way too busy."

At the end of the 1950s, when AIP began to flourish, summer was off-season for the movie business. In most parts of the country, theaters were aging relics from the Depression--old, stuffy and rarely air-conditioned. The summer months were considered a risky time to release an important film--it stayed light until 9 p.m. and moviegoers had too many other things to do. Filmgoers had also begun moving to the suburbs, and were content to stay home and watch television.

In 1950, there were roughly 21,000 movie theaters. By 1960, the number had shrunk to 14,000.

But even if the major studios were hurting, the growth of suburbia, coupled with the arrival of baby-boom teenagers, proved to be a huge boon for AIP. As an upstart, its films were frozen out of theaters with relationships with major studios. But AIP discovered that the one place where it could get its movies played was the one place teenagers wanted to go: the drive-in.

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