“This is the only person to run a studio who knows how to make a movie,” director Allan Arkush exclaimed, hailing his former boss Roger Corman in front of a sold-out crowd at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica Saturday evening.
Now 97 years old, the unbelievably prolific Pope of Pop Cinema was the guest of honor at the genre-focused Beyond Fest, joining for a panel with Arkush, fellow directors Ron Howard, Joe Dante and Amy Holden Jones and producer Jon Davison — all of whom Corman helped launch into Hollywood under his independent production and distribution company New World Pictures, founded in 1970. After directing more than 45 features, Corman decided to create his own banner, which would go on to help jumpstart the careers of Jonathan Demme, Curtis Hanson and countless other talents.
“I made a picture for American International that made too much money, ‘The Wild Angels.’ It ran up this tremendous gross and they cheated me on the profits. We settled that because they wanted another one. So I directed ‘The Trip,’” Corman recalled, noting the feature that he co-wrote with frequent collaborator Jack Nicholson as a turning point for his career. “That one ran up a big profit and they cheated me again! I remember talking to Ingmar Bergman and he felt Svensk Filmindustri had cheated him of profits. I thought, ‘Well, if everyone is getting cheated of the profits from their distributor, the only thing I can do is become a distributor myself.’”
The Corman tribute followed Beyond Fest’s marathon of four 35mm features produced by the mogul — an all-day affair that began with Arkush’s Ramones romp “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School,” followed by Howard’s debut feature “Grand Theft Auto” and Dante’s horror comedy “Piranha,” the most expensive production in New World history (still economical at a resourceful $600,000 budget, co-financed by United Artists). The series was capped with a screening of Corman’s goofy mood piece “The Raven,” starring Vincent Price and Boris Karloff as sorcerers dueling once upon a midnight dreary.
After the marathon concluded, Beyond Fest played a pair of short video messages from Corman acolytes John Sayles and Todd Field. The first filmmaker offered the producer his congratulations on the tribute, while Field shared a humorous anecdote about meeting Corman at a test screening after acting in one of his films.
“We went to the concession stand and Roger didn’t want anything. I got a very large tub of popcorn. I sat through the movie and was paying very, very close attention, as any actor would, to my work. When I look down, I saw Roger’s hand escaping my popcorn tub and the tub was completely empty,” Field shared, drawing laughs from the crowd. “Smart guy. This is why you’re Roger Corman.”
After that, the eclectic ensemble of Howard, Jones, Arkush, Dante and Davison took the stage one by one, introduced by moderator Mick Garris. Each name earned a round of applause, though the crowd waited to get onto its feet for Corman, who was met with the “longest standing ovation in Beyond Fest history,” per the organization. During the nearly hour-long conversation, each of the panelists noted that Corman demanded hard work. But even that sentiment was voiced with overwhelming warmth, nostalgic for a time when the biggest headaches came on set and not inside boardrooms.
“I’ll never work for anybody again who knows as much about movies as Roger,” shared Dante, who went on to helm the “Gremlins” series. “It’s the hope to work for people who can help you because they know more than you do. There are almost none. They’re no help. In fact, they’re a hindrance. You spend a lot of time trying to please people who don’t know what they want and, if they did, they wouldn’t know how to express it anyway. All of us feel that the best years of our creative lives were spent with someone who knew more than we did.”
“The vast majority of people can’t tell good from bad,” agreed Jones, who helmed the cult horror feature “Slumber Party Massacre” under Corman. “You get notes on cuts that don’t make sense. You get reshoots that aren’t fixing what’s actually the problem. Mainly, the executives can’t tell good from bad. Roger knew it immediately.”
Corman first forayed into film as a critic for the Stanford Daily before going on to work under a producer, initially only compensated with first-hand experience. After producing two features, he decided to take on directorial duties for the third: his 1955 debut “Five Guns West.”
“I had no training as a director whatsoever. I saw what the directors were doing, and I thought, ‘I could do that!’” Corman said. “The picture turned out to be successful and suddenly people were hiring me as a director. I was essentially learning as I went along.”
The seasoned group of directors traded stories about working at New World under Corman, whose improvisational, bootstraps temperament fostered a training ground for young talent to learn the ropes of filmmaking and get a crash course in cinema history. Arkush remembered that Corman prodded him to take inspiration from Sergei Eisenstein’s silent epic “Ivan the Terrible” while planning for his post-apocalyptic B-film “Deathsport.” New World employees would do color-correcting on “Candy Stripe Nurses” and “Cries and Whispers” in the same afternoon.
“Luckily, we had Yoda!” Arkush said, gesturing toward Corman. “He let us run free. I remember showing him a comic book from Punk magazine that said, ‘Mutant Monster Beach Party’ with a picture of Joey Ramone. He looked at it and he said, ‘Those are our boys.’”
Howard recalled how his wishes to become a director after working as a child actor were seen as unorthodox at the time. Corman was the first executive Howard met who didn’t patronize the idea, offering him second-unit director responsibilities in exchange for starring in “Eat My Dust!” After that film’s success, Howard got to helm “Grand Theft Auto.”
“I pitched all kinds of things — noir, thriller, sci-fi. Finally Roger said, ‘Well, those are all very interesting. But I’m very interested in young-people-on-the-run and car-crash pictures. When we were testing titles, a title came in a very close second: “Grand Theft Auto.” If you can fashion a comedy you can star in called that, I’d let you make that picture,’” Howard shared. “It probably wound up being the fastest greenlight I ever got in Hollywood.”
It wasn’t entirely smooth sailing for the now-Oscar winner. Then just 23, Howard had to face down an upsetting test screening that didn’t draw the film’s target audience.
“It was full of geriatrics. Literally blue-haired ladies… I went to Roger and said, ‘Roger, this is the wrong audience.’ He said, ‘Ron, a laugh is a laugh,’” Howard shared, acknowledging that a later crowd of younger viewers erupted at the same moments that this first audience did. “When the movie was over, the little old ladies in front of us got up. We had seen them laughing! And they just said, ‘Oh, that was just disgusting and rude.’”
Everybody onstage had a test screening story tied to Corman, whether a triumph or a failure. Jones looked back on showing “Slumber Party Massacre” to a rambunctious crowd.
“I called it ‘Sleepless Nights.’ Roger called it ‘Slumber Party Massacre.’ And that was a smart move,” Jones quipped. “They loved it. The killing. I went out and Roger was by the popcorn. You could hear them inside screaming. I said, ‘My god, Roger. What have we done?’ And he said, ‘We’ve made the best preview in New World history.”
Arkush jumped in to brag that he landed the worst preview in New World history with “Deathsport.”
“It was not playing well. People were yelling at the screen. At one point, David Carradine says, ‘We will now have our duel.’ And somebody in the audience yells, ‘It’s about fucking time.’ And then, while the duel is going on, they close the curtain,” Arkush shared, smiling and shaking his head. “Afterwards, we stood on the sidewalk. ‘What should we do, Roger?’ He goes, ‘Oh, just ship it.’”
New World Pictures would also distribute films from auteurs like Federico Fellini and Akira Kurosawa, but its bread and butter in the ’70s was courting an audience of young viewers with movies that were entertaining, loose and cheap. Corman noted that many studios at the time put together major releases with “a 50-year-old leading man and a 40-year-old leading lady.” The juvenile demographic was going untapped.
“It had to have sex, violence or humor,” Jones said, explaining Corman’s credo. “This is a mass medium. We are here to entertain. I never made anything again that didn’t have one of those three elements in it.”
“Within the parameters of things he knows he needs to sell a movie, he gives you a tremendous amount of freedom,” Dante added.
Howard agreed: “While budget was always a concern, quality was always the conversation. How do you gain what’s essential in a scene and make it good, but do it in a timely and responsible way?”
At New World Pictures, filmmakers were afforded the space to hone their technique. But Corman, who has directed 55 films and produced hundreds more, also operated on the virtues of disposability. Not every picture was a success, but the ethos (and business necessity) was for artists to evolve, learn and then leap to the next project.
Or, as Corman put it to the crowd, with typical succinctness and a big grin: “No matter what happens, keep shooting.”