Big Boss Man Samuel Arkoff (1917-2001)

Samuel Arkoff, who died this week at the venerable age of 83, looked the way you imagine a movie mogul should look. Broad-faced with an omnipresent cigar in his mouth, he had a gravely voice and a no-bullshit manner. He also regarded the over five hundred films he released as the owner of American International Pictures [AIP], from 1954 to 1980, with a peculiar combination of conceit and self-deprecation, taking pride in the fact that virtually every one of them made a profit, but not regarding any of them with much piety.

“I’ve never believed that any of us really make movies for posterity,” Arkoff stated in his 1992 autobiography, Flying Through Hollywood By the Seat of My Pants. He was a realist, interested in producing movies, particularly in getting the dollars he spent up on the screen and not in the pockets of self-obsessed stars or ponderous creative personnel. He disdained those he caricatured as the “arty-farty crowd,” who seemed to be more interested in their own sensibilities than the public who paid to view their work. He was fond of cutting to the chase: “The bottom line is that the bottom line counts.”

In truth, the bottom line was not all he thought about. Much as Arkoff reveled in the fortune he made, he was equally interested in the entertaining, inventive, and enduring films he brought to the public over the course of the last half-century. When he founded AIP with Jim Nicholson in 1954, the Hollywood studio system was in virtual collapse. Television had decimated the theatrical audience. A third of the 21,000 movie theatres had gone out of business. The major studios failed to realize that the economic dilemma they faced was in large part due to a change in the composition of the audience and the nature of their expectations about movies. Most adults no longer went to the movies, and the emerging audience of teenagers perplexed the Hollywood establishment. Their response was to recycle tired formulae or trot out novel but empty technologies like 3-D or Cinemascope, to no avail.

Arkoff understood how perilous times required creative thinking. He and Nicholson understood as well that their low-budget films would get lost in the shuffle if they simply accompanied a major studio feature. They therefore created their own double bills and crafted the films in what Hollywood regarded as an ass-backwards manner. They began with a title, then created artwork and promotional materials before even a word was written or a frame shot. And what titles they were: I Was A Teenage Werewolf, The Cool and the Crazy, It Conquered the World, and Panic in Year Zero. AIP exploited virtually every trend of the ’50s through the ’80s, and started a few of them, to boot. Monsters, bikers, big bad mamas, blaxploitation, beach party babes, gangsters with guns, and muscled men in togas — all were fodder for the company’s schedule.

Even though Arkoff recognized that the audience’s fascination with any one of these phenomena was short-lived, he admitted, “Once you’ve found something that works, why not milk it dry?” Consequently, there were more than a dozen beach party sagas with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. Teenage Werewolf bred Teenage Frankenstein. Wild Angels gave way to Hell’s Angels on Wheels and Cycle Savages. Roger Corman made a half-dozen adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe material. Such repetition could lead to refinement. Corman’s Poe films include some of the most visually graceful and sophisticated instances of the horror genre, most notably the last one, Tomb of Ligeia. The rash of blaxploitation features AIP released in the 1970s initiated the career of the female icon Pam Grier, who was discovered as a company receptionist.

But Arkoff’s legacy is more than his ability to hype. Anxious as he was to cut costs, he spent his money wisely. AIP films were not cut-rate schlock, much as the titles and promotion could lead you to assume otherwise. They called upon craft under pressure by relying on aging Hollywood veteran directors like Edward L. Cahn or William Whitney, as well as betting the bank on untried talents like Roger Corman, Frances Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese. Casts included the familiar and the untested. Film icons like Boris Karloff or Vincent Price would pair up with newcomers like Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro. AIP also hired crack craftsmen to shoot their films on seven-day schedules: I Was A Teenage Werewolf was filmed by Joseph LaShelle, who won an Academy Award for Laura. Floyd Crosby, the father of rock icon David, filmed many AIP pictures, including Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations; his credits included the western classic High Noon and F. W. Murnau’s 1931 Tabu.

Moreover, in Arkoff’s mind, speed did not have to mean slapdash. Look at many AIP pictures today and the attention to detail is striking, and their energy and pizzazz make most Hollywood product of the period look bloated and bombastic by comparison. And, even when the storylines were ludicrous, the acting uneven, and the special effects dubious, AIP pictures moved with a verve and vigor that are still captivating. Arkoff believed, as did Columbia Pictures founder Harry Cohn, that a picture was too long if his ass got tired. He therefore insured that the audience would keep their posteriors plastered in place by not letting a minute be lost on fluff or filler.

Arkoff did fail to comprehend some of the trends of his day. AIP never really latched on to rock ‘n’ roll, even though they distributed The T.A.M.I. Show, possibly the best concert feature of all time. Their dull beach party films were a weak substitute for stories that could have embodied the energy and audacity of rock ‘n’ roll. Furthermore, when the company distributed European features, they had an annoying habit of replacing the music scores and dubbing in altered dialogue. Mario Bava’s mesmerizing Black Sabbath got chopped up in the process, and Arkoff even compelled Federico Fellini to cut the “Toby Dammit” segment from Spirits of the Dead. In addition, while AIP frequently caught hell from the ratings board, the company did, on occasion, succumb to mindless self-censorship, as in the case of Corman’s LSD feature, The Trip. Fearful that the film might imply advocacy of psychedelics, AIP tampered with the last shot in the story to assert that mind-altering drugs were lethal in the extreme.

We are not likely to see any Arkoffs in our future. The current dependence on test marketing and decisions by committee were anathema to AIP. During the studio’s heyday, some people accused it of abandoning taste and good judgment as a matter of principle. And how could Arkoff defend Attack of the Giant Leeches or High School Hellcats? Much to the contrary, time has shown that his commitment to entertainment and customer satisfaction led to a body of work that retains its appeal long after more supposedly sophisticated cinema has proven pale and pointless. Samuel Arkoff may have flown by the seat of his pants, but many of us were happy to have been taken along for the ride.