Creature Feature Crypt by Count Gore De Vol

AIP and Sam Arkoff - the Birth of the ‘Drive-In Movie’


    Samuel Zachary Arkoff was an entertainment lawyer in the early 1950s when a chance meeting brought him into contact with a distribution company executive named James H. Nicholson. Both men had a desire to become movie producers, and joined forces in 1954 to form the American Releasing Corporation, originally intending to produce B-pictures to run as second features. Soon however, they realized they couldn’t make money this way, as distributors were paid only a flat rate for second features, as opposed to a percentage of ticket sales that they received for the A-pictures.

    The difficulty lay in the fact that the majors, who despite several Supreme Court rulings that broke up the studio system still exercised tremendous influence, refused to allow the upstart company access to the conventional theaters with first-run A-pictures. For ARC, soon to become AIP, they needed a market to which to sell first-run main features—and the Drive-Ins were hungry for first-run product. Arkoff and Nicholson decided to tap-in to this market, circumventing the majors who had very little interest in the Drive-In side of the business. It was the perfect example of ‘right place, right time’, and with the right product.

    ARC soon began an association with a young, unproven filmmaker named Roger Corman, and agreed to distribute a film he had produced, co-directed by John Ireland (who also starred) and Edward Sampson. The Fast and the Furious, released in 1955, established many of the rules Arkoff, Nicholson, and Corman would use to become successful—work quickly, work cheaply, and know your audience. Shot in nine days, Arkoff and Nicholson offered Corman a three-picture deal with ARC if he’d let them distribute it. Of course, they had no funds available to distribute the movie, let alone with which to produce those three films. Nevertheless, the two men, confident they could make it work, had a willingness to gamble that paid off handsomely.

    Before AIP, there was no such thing as a “Drive-In Movie.” Drive-Ins simply exhibited what they could, usually films that had completely exhausted their value for conventional theaters. By marketing directly to Drive-Ins, and by tailoring their product to appeal to the burgeoning teen audience, Arkoff and Nicholson were creating the prototypical Drive-In movies—low-budget, exploitative, commercially-oriented and aimed at the mass market. These were not movies about which one had to think. These movies were entertainment for its own sake. If they carried a message, it was secondary to the film’s main purpose of giving the customers what they wanted.

    As Joe Bob Briggs states in Joe Bob Goes to the Drive-In, “There’s always been basically three kinds of drive-in movies: Blood, Breasts, and Beasts.” Violence, the “blood” portion of the equation, had been part of the cinema since Edison’s The Great Train Robbery of 1903, and it was a vital component of the successful Drive-In Movie. Most Drive-In movies had some violent content, even movies one would not consider overtly violent.

    Take for example Thunder Road, a 1958 film described by some as “the ultimate Drive-In movie. ” A mix of Motorized Mayhem and Hicksploitation, it was a precursor to films such as Eat My Dust, Convoy, and Smokey and the Bandit. Starring Robert Mitchum as hard-drivin’, hard-fightin’, hard-lovin’ moonshine runner Lucas Doolin, the film featured bombings, shootings, car crashes, and sundry other violent acts. Likewise Porky’s, the 1985 sex comedy from director Bob Clark, was an extremely violent film, considering the otherwise light subject matter.

    Another vital ingredient in the mix was sex—the “breasts” in Briggs’ equation. Even in the prim and proper decade of the ‘50s, sex sold, if not quite as openly as it would a mere two decades later, then certainly as well. Though sex had been all but eliminated in mainstream film by the Production Code and the Hays Office, it had found a happy home in the exploitation films that were the precursors of the Drive-In movie. From early ‘road show’ staples such as Child Bride and Mom and Dad, on through the nudist-colony ‘exposes’ of the ‘50s, to the porno-chic ‘70s, sex was always a part of the cinema, although not the cinema with which most were familiar, or which Hollywood wished to acknowledge. Still, the public’s fascination with sex is far from a 20th century invention, and Drive-Ins were quick to recognize the marketing potential of heaving bosoms and throbbing passions.

    Potential was one thing; translating it into box-office revenue was quite another. Public-minded “watchdog” groups, already suspicious of Drive-Ins for their reputation as corrupters of youth, “[un]clean from a physical or moral point of view, ” were quick to seize any opportunity to criticize ozoners for screening salacious films. As early as 1951, Boxoffice Magazine wrote of a series of complaints about Detroit exhibitors who were screening so-called ‘Adult Films’ as the season drew to a close. H. F. Reves, the author of that Boxoffice article, believed that, “[the] reaction of the public indicates that people are quicker to suspect trouble on film content at a drive-in because of the reputation flamboyantly given to the outdoor houses by some newspapers and magazines.” It would be difficult to argue against this premise, as the films that drew Reves’ attention—The Burning Question (aka Reefer Madness), Guilty Parents, and How to Take a Bath—had already enjoyed full runs at Detroit indoor houses without a murmur. All were films produced by exploiteer Dwain Esper, and perfect examples of the type of fare Drive-Ins were used to, all having been released in the 1930s. Still, the audience for pictures dealing in a frank, open manner with sexuality did exist, if you could find a way to avoid the censorship laws.

    Arkoff, and AIP, recognized the value of sex early on, but were careful not to carry things too far. They knew there was a line between being a respectable producer—even if not a respected one, and one who was regarded as a ‘smut peddler’. They were experts at dancing along that line, and as the standards changed through the decade of the ‘60s, moving that line ever further towards outright pornography, so too did their content.

    The third leg of the Drive-In Movie ‘triad’ was the “beasts”—the various and innumerable creatures, monsters, and mutants that populated the movie screen of the 1950s. This is where AIP had no equal. Their 1955 Roger Corman-directed film The Beast with a Million Eyes featured “little Hercules,” the first creature designed and constructed by Paul Blaisdell. Blaisdell, who came recommended to Nicholson and Arkoff by Forry Ackerman, constructed the 18-inch tall, articulated ‘alien’ for the sum of $200, plus expenses. From such humble beginnings, B-movie legends are created, and Blaisdell’s work would help make AIP the monster-movie kings of the Drive-In.

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