Posts Tagged ‘“American International Pictures”

We had high hopes for this constellation…

In the early 1990s Orion Pictures declared bankruptcy.  Soon after, I negotiated a deal with Orion’s head  of distribution, the late Jay Peckos, a personable who granted me theatrical distribution rights to the entire Orion film library, including Orion Classics, Filmways , and what they referred to as the Samuel Goldwyn “Trust” movies” (produced by the Senior Goldwyn, including “The Best Days of Their Lives” and “Guys and Dolls.”)   Orion also had a distribution deal with Alexander Korda’s London Films (“The Thief of Bagdad”, “Things to Come,” etc.)  I thought I had another breakthrough with a major studio.


Orion Pictures was founded in 1978 by the former top brass of United Artists.  Using their considerable clout, they signed class “A” talent like Francis Ford Coppola, Barbra Streisand, Woody Allen and many others.  But Orion turned out to be an up-and-down company, with some genuine hits like “Amadeus,” “Silence of the Lambs,” and “Platoon,” and “Dances with Wolves,” but a lot of also-rans.  Orion Classics was a subsidiary, and for a time was the de rigueur specialty distributor of its day, releasing films like “Ran,” and “Babette’s Feast.”


But, by the late 1980s Orion was in big trouble. Billy Crystal said it best at the 1992 Academy Awards ceremony, “’Awakenings’” is a film about people coming out of a coma; ‘Reversal of Fortune” is about someone going into a coma; and ‘Dances with Wolves’ was made by a studio in a coma.” 

Included in the Orion library was Filmways, Inc., a failing minor-league studio acquired largely to obtain its television library (“Mr. Ed,” and Cagney and Lacey” to name but two), and the 500 title American International Pictures library, which Filmways purchased in 1976 from AIP’s co-founder Samuel Z. Arkoff.  (Arkoff later told me it was the worst decision of his life.)


Jay Peckos gave me a printout of the entire Orion library, looked like a phone book.  Despite the sheer volume of titles, my customers pretty much took a “who cares” attitude, and the performance of the Orion library was only lackluster.  The Goldwyn and AIP libraries, turned out to be useless because it was too difficult to obtain prints on them.

Our one and only  Orion hit was a festival of 33 movies coined “Blaxploitation, Baby!” by the maestro of revival film exhibitors, Bruce Goldstein, programmer of New York’s Film Forum theatre.  Most of the films came from us; titles such as “Shaft!” and “Superfly,” but the most notable were the ones owned by Orion which were originally produced by American International Pictures, especially Pam Grier hits like, “Foxy Brown,” and “Coffy,” to which we were able to strike new prints.  The series was a big success and played around the country. 


In my previous blog I spoke about how studios would occasionally take pictures back from me in order to release them in-house to promote forthcoming home video releases.  Fortunately, Orion never took anything back, and frankly their home video division really didn’t know one old AIP movie from another, but when they saw the big publicity our series generated all across the country, they immediately put those titles out on VHS, and made a lot of money…with zero marketing costs.

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His cigar preceded him into the room.

There isn’t enough room to go into the history of American International Pictures (AIP), or a biography of Sam Arkoff. Here’s where to go for that:   Capsule history of AIP:   

Book on AIP: Fast and Furious: The Story of American International Pictures by Mark Thomas McGee (McFarland & Company, 1995)  Interview with Arkoff , Interviews with B Science Fiction and Horror Movie Makers: Writers, Producers, Directors, Actors, Moguls and Makeup” Tom Weaver (McFarland, 1988). BTW, In my opinion, Tom Weaver is far and away the best of the interviewers.  Must-read autobiography: “Flying Through Hollywood By the Seat of My Pants” By Sam Arkoff, with Richard Tubo (Carol Publishing, 1992).

 My wife and I first met Sam Arkoff, co-founder of American International Pictures in the in the late 1980s at a revival screening of “I Was a Teenage Werewolf” at the Strand Theatre in San Francisco where it seemed as though his giant cigar preceded him into the room. After the showing he invited us to walk over to get a hamburger. On the way there my wife told him that he made her favorite film at that time. Sam: I did? She was telling the truth…it was “Love at First Bite.” BTW When I was a kid, the AIP Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, beginning with The Houses of Usher (1960), were absolute movie-bliss for this 12 year-old.

Between 1971 and 2001 my firm, Kit Parker Films, distributed films to revival houses, colleges, and so on. After we ate our hamburgers Sam agreed to let me distribute the few films he still owned. By then he had sold his substantial AIP library to Filmways, which became Orion Pictures, and soon thereafter went kaput. This broke Sam’s heart. “The biggest mistake I ever made.” (The library is presently owned by MGM) Now he had too much time on his hands…especially tough for a creative hard-charging guy like Sam. BTW, he kept the “AIP” initials, but they now stood for Arkoff International Pictures.

(Trivia: AIP’s biggest hit was “The Amityville Horror” (1979), grossing over $250,000,000 in 2010 dollars)

Sam was a great raconteur, and throughout our friendship, hung onto every word of his many, many great stories. Meanwhile I arranged retrospectives of his films and he would give a talk and answer questions. Two especially memorable engagement were in Honolulu and New York City, where we both brought our wives. His wife, Hilda, a delightful, cultured woman, an accomplished sculptor. I remember having dinner with them and out of nowhere she said, “Sam, thank you for the great times we’ve had together.”   Sam was a very creative guy, not just a tough, shrewd, businessman, someone you wouldn’t want to lock horns with. He recognized talent, and was always happy to tell you about his AIP alumni, Roger Corman (of course), Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese…too many to list here. I was only able to come up with one he didn’t know, “Little” Stevie Wonder, who sang in both “Muscle Beach Party” and “Bikini Beach,” both 1964.

In his later years Sam would often call me, usually once, but sometimes 4-5 times a day. His secretary would ask for me and say “Mr. Arkoff is on the line.” Sam always had questions about his forthcoming biography, or the retrospectives> He did get keep his hand in at least a few films, remakes of early AIP pictures, including “Teenage Caveman” (1991) and “Earth vs. the Spider” (1992).  I heard his stories so many times that soon I could give his speech verbatim. My favorite Arkoff one-liner he only said once, “That’s complete unmitigated bullshit!”  In the 1959s AIP decided to cash in on the success of Hercules (1958), and Hercules Unchained (1959), so Sam went to Italy to buy pictures, knowing in advance they couldn’t use the name “Hercules,” as it was registered to another studio. So “Hercules” became “Goliath.” Typical AIP ingenuity. Anyway, he told me a story I don’t think I’ve ever heard before or since. Sam spent several days screening two gladiator movies simultaneously on the same screen side by side, taking notes and conducting business on the phone all at the same time. So, he was not only tough, shrewd, and creative, but also a master of multi-tasking and endurance!   He’s been gone 10 years now and I’d give anything to get one more phone call with one more story…I don’t care if I’ve heard it 50 times.