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American International Pictures and Teen Films

High School Caesar was one of the many AIP teen films of the 1950s – with a neat twist.

High School Caesar – a great title, by the way – was one of the many teen exploitation films released through American International Pictures in the mid to late 1950s, and represented the first time that a film production company directly targeted a teenage audience.

While the majors dithered and tried to return to the past, AIP – headed by co-founders James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff – stepped in to fill the gap the studios wouldn’t; films aimed at teenagers, which were as up to date as could possibly be.

In many ways, AIP changed the film business entirely in its most influential period from roughly 1955 through 1967, working closely with house director Roger Corman, who directed most of AIP’s output. But AIP also did a brisk business in “pick up” films, which were made by smaller companies and then distributed through AIP. High School Caesar belongs in the latter category.

Shot in Chillicothe, Missouri by the small company Marathon Productions, and directed by O’Dale Ireland, the film stars smooth-talking, baby faced John Ashley as Matt Stevens, who, unbeknownst to the teachers and principal at the local high school, runs a protection racket and other assorted graft schemes, terrorizing the students with impunity.

Made in a few weeks for roughly $100,000, the film was shot on actual locations, featured local residents in bit parts, and represents a kind of home-brew egalitarian filmmaking from an era in which anyone with a minimal budget and a good idea could get a theatrical release for their film – impossible today.

And if you can lift a great plot from William Shakespeare while keeping things contemporary – hey, why not? It also worked because the film spoke directly to its intended audience – not down to it. In general, AIP flourished because:

*AIP realized that no one was making films teenagers really wanted to see. AIP churned out one teen film after another, in a variety of genres, from horror to comedy to science-fiction to musicals, usually shot in a week, in black and white, on budgets in the $100,000 range – no more.

*AIP realized the importance of advertising, and would often spend more on promoting a film than actually making it. In addition to garish posters and “sensational” trailers, AIP’s sales staff would speak directly to teenagers, theater owners, and keep up on the latest trends, to deliver product that would find a ready audience.

*AIP invented saturation booking. Saturation booking, which has now become the standard for major film releases, opens a film everywhere at once so that it makes as much money up front as possible, before negative word of mouth sets in.

*AIP realized they had to control both halves of the double-bill. From the 1930s though the end of the 1970s, movies usually weren’t “stand alone” releases as they are today. Films were paired in a double bill, with an “A” on the top half, and a “B” or re-released film as the second part of the program. The second feature was often rented for a flat rate, rather than a percentage of the box office, so –

*AIP made double-bill combo pictures and sold them only as a double-bill, thus retaining all the box-office revenue, rather than splitting the box office receipts with another, larger company.

*AIP made their films available to drive-ins and distributors on a much more favorable financial basis. Where the majors would often insist on a 90/10 split of box office revenues for the first week of a film – which is why concession stand prices are so high – AIP would deal directly with theater chains and drive-ins (then a major factor in distribution) on a 50/50 basis, thus undercutting the majors.

*And finally, and amazingly, AIP was the first company to realize that summer was a great time to release a film. Until AIP came along, the majors thought that in the summer, everyone was on vacation, and didn’t want to see any movies until the Fall and/or Winter. AIP immediately swept in with summertime double-bills that caught teen audience attention, and pretty much created the summer movie season as we know it today.

So, back to High School Caesar. The film was a solid hit when released by AIP, and director O’Dale Ireland made a few other films, but nothing with as much box-office impact, a film that even spawned a hit single with the same title. But the residents of Chillicothe, where the film premiered at the local theater to record crowds, never forgot the film – which is run on TCM from time to time – or the impact it had on the community.

So in 2014, the local high school drama group decided rather than staging a traditional play for the year, they would do a video remake of High School Caesar, using a completely non-professional cast. Shot in a matter of weeks, with many of the local residents from the original film returning to the cast – now as mothers, fathers, grandfathers and grandmothers, in supporting roles – the new version was warmly received by the community. You can read the whole story of the 2014 remake by clicking here.

A remake of a local “classic” – a fitting tribute to the film, and to AIP.

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About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

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Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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