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American International Pictures and Teen Films

Friday, January 27th, 2017

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.

Beach Party Movies

Wednesday, July 25th, 2012

Here’s my latest Frame by Frame video episode, directed and edited by Curt Bright, on the AIP Beach Party films from the 1960s, just perfect for the current heat wave we’re having. Enjoy.

As William Asher, the director of most of the films in the series, told me during an interview in late 2004, “I got a call from my agent. He said, ‘AIP called, and they want to know if you want to do a beach picture.’ Well, that was a natural, because I was a surfer from way back. When I lived at the beach, I used to surf all the time, so I had a real connection to the whole thing. So I said, ‘sure,’ and I went over to AIP, knocked the script into shape, and shot it.

The first picture we did, Beach Party, was shot in 12 days, for about $350,000, in Panavision and Pathécolor, so it had a decent budget. And when we were shooting it, I knew it was gonna be huge. It was a teenage dream; the perfect world.

But working at AIP had problems. With Jim Nicholson, I got along great. Arkoff hated me; he didn’t like me. Nicholson was the creative one, and Arkoff was the businessman. Arkoff hated the idea of the beach pictures; he just didn’t think they would go. He came down, and watched the first day’s dailies, and just said, ‘this will never work.’ So Nicholson would baby me along, and tell me not to pay any attention to Arkoff, and that’s the way we worked.

We shot those films very quickly. Since the whole schedule was 12 days, we had no rehearsal time at all. Frankie Avalon was great to work with. I just got along great with them; Frankie, Annette, Harvey Lembeck, the whole cast. I don’t know why that was. I just had a quality that they liked.

We had a big hit with Beach Party, and then I shot Muscle Beach Party, Beach Blanket Bingo, and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini. I loved making these films; it was the way that I wished that I’d lived my childhood. They’re really fantasy dreams of what it’s like to be young. Nobody ever got in trouble, no matter what they did. Nobody got pregnant, and there was no drinking, or cigarette smoking, or drugs. It was just a beautiful dream of what it was like to live in California at the time.

The scripts of were sheer nonsense, but they were fun, and positive. It was the life I wished I’d had growing up. When kids see the films now, they can get some idea of what the 60s were like. The whole thing was a dream, of course. But it was a nice dream.”

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.

In The National News

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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