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“The audience just didn’t want to see that film at that time,” Corman says in the deliberate, carefully enunciated way he says just about everything — a voice destined for audio books. “So I came up with a different idea, that I would make films that were entertainment, particularly on the surface, but if I did have some theme that was important to me, I would put it in the picture, subtextually. If I did a picture such as The Wild Angels(1966), about the Hell’s Angels, or The Trip(1967), about LSD, or Bloody Mama(1970), about a woman gangster and her sons in the South during the Depression — on the surface, they would be the entertainment/shoot-’em-up action pictures that the audience expected, and underneath would be a little social comment from me as an added bonus. Some people wouldn’t even notice. Other people, if they did notice, would recognize that the picture was a little more complex than they expected.”
In 1970, on something of a whim, Corman started his own full-service production and distribution company, New World Pictures. And while the demands of the operation effectively put an end to his directing career, it marked the ascent of Roger the impresario, the penny-pinching paterfamilias who would give many a young filmmaker his or her (with the emphasis on “her,” for Corman has long been a forthright equal-opportunity employer) proverbial break. It was a natural transition, for Corman had already been instrumental in advancing the careers of young actors like Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda, and former assistants Peter Bogdanovich and Francis Ford Coppola. Among the many who would go on to pass through the New World revolving door: Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard, Joe Dante, the producer Gale Ann Hurd and Titanicdirector James Cameron, then a lowly special-effects technician with his eye on directing. (More recent students at the Corman academy, now called New Concorde Productions, include One False Movedirector Carl Franklin and Night Watchdirector Timur Bekmambetov.)
It was the heyday of grindhouses and drive-ins, and New World pumped out one hit after another — The Student Nurses(1970), Private Duty Nurses(1971), Night Call Nurses (1972) and Candy Stripe Nurses(1974)among them. But by the mid-1980s, the theatrical marketplace had all but dried up for independently distributed exploitation fare, while Miramax and the new wave of boutique art-house distributors had scooped up Corman’s foreign-language business. He admits that the last 25 years have been tougher than the first, but somehow Roger Corman always manages to land on his feet.
“When we were being forced out of the theatrical business, luckily HBO and Showtime started and suddenly we had a new market, so it didn’t bother us that much,” he says. “We were doing just as well with cable, but gradually the major studios started taking over cable too, and HBO and Showtime started making their own movies. Again, something happened: Home video came up and suddenly everything was fine. But while home video is still strong, it’s slipping a little bit. So, recently we experimented: We put 10 pictures out on video-on-demand and the results were amazing, and I said, ‘It’s happened again!’ Every single time a market has started to slip, a new one has come up.”
Corman’s just-plain-folks reasoning belies the fact that he’s an incredibly savvy businessman who has weathered industry sea changes that have crushed many a colleague. (Case in point: Cannon Pictures, the 1980s exploitation factory started by former Corman assistant Menahem Golan.) He is the king of the favorable deal: Ask him about The Fast and the Furious, the Paul Walker/Vin Diesel street-racing drama that borrowed the title of an early Corman film, and he’ll tell you how he “gave” the title, which he wasn’t even sure that he owned, to Universal in exchange for stock-footage rights to the new movie — shots he has already recycled into productions of his own. That relentless, Depression-minded frugality and aversion to risk has earned Corman his share of criticism. At the time of Corman’s last Los Angeles tribute, when he received the Los Angeles Film Critics Association’s lifetime-achievement award, Varietyfilm critic Todd McCarthy (who started out as the head of publicity at New World in the mid-’70s) complained to Los Angelesmagazine that Corman had missed out on his opportunity to follow some of his more celebrated protégés into the big time: “He had Peter Bogdanovich, so why didn’t he produce The Last Picture Show? He worked with Jack Nicholson, so why didn’t he produce Easy Rider?”
But Corman begs to differ. He has few regrets, likening himself to the college football coach who looks on admiringly as his players advance to the NFL, while he stays behind, fostering the next generation of talent.
“It’s a combination of pleasure and pride to see what they do,” he says of his “graduates.” “I’m still friendly with all of them, a number of whom have asked me back to be an actor in their films, and I think one of the reasons is because I was fair. If I had said, ‘I’m gambling on your untried talent and I’m signing you for five more big pictures,’ it would not have been a fair deal, and they probably would’ve broken the contract. Instead, I was giving them a large piece of my limited resources, which was enough to make a low-budget picture, and in return I was trusting them to do a good job and giving them the opportunity which would lead them from that to a major studio.
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