Samuel Z. Arkoff

The American film producer Samuel Z. Arkoff (1918–2001) was long the primary creator of “B movies,” low-budget films that are rapidly created, with little attention directed to their production values or script. One of Arkoff's most famous titles was I Was a Teenage Werewolf, and many others trafficked in similar shock value. His production company, American International Pictures, was extremely prolific, releasing about 500 films between its founding in 1954 and its merger with Filmways International in 1979.




Samuel Z. Arkoff





AP Images/CHRIS MARTINEZ

The founder of American International Pictures (AIP), Samuel Z. Arkoff had an unusual system for producing motion pictures: he and his staff came up with a catchy title and then created an eye-catching poster (originals of which are now treasured collector's items). If both title and poster seemed promising, a script was written and shooting began, generally to be finished within two weeks. Arkoff insisted that he never had artistic value in mind during production and made films for purely financial reasons. Yet by the end of his life, his B-movies were embedded in pop culture and were screened in film retrospectives and studied by college-level film societies. “I suppose that time can dignify anything,” he was quoted as saying in the London Guardian.

Highly regarded filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, and actors including Jack Nicholson, began their careers by making films for Arkoff, and he had excellent commercial instincts, abandoning one film subject craze and anticipating the next one with perfect accuracy. First on late-night broadcast television and then on cable movie channels, Arkoff's cinematic creations have remained programming staples for decades.

Survived Stroke

Rejected for Army service because of high blood pressure—even at this point he weighed 230 pounds, and he later became even more rotund—Arkoff passed an Air Force physical by taking blood-pressure medication just before the exam. He was unable to fit into a bomber seat, so he completed his wartime service by working as a cryptographer in the Azores islands. The GI Bill enabled Arkoff to enroll at Loyola University Law School in Los Angeles, where he moved after the war to be nearer the booming film industry. He graduated from Loyola in 1948, married Hilda Rusoff, and had a son, Louis, and a daughter, Donna.

Arkoff now opened a small entertainment law practice, viewing this as his entré to Hollywood. A few years later, in 1952, he survived a stroke that left him in a coma for seven days; doctors told him that it was uncertain that he would survive for five years, but that if he did, he was likely out of danger.

Arkoff broke into films when he impressed an industry sales manager, James H. Nicholson, with his negotiating ability in a copyright infringement case. The two decided to go into the film business as partners, taking out a $3,000 loan, forming American Releasing Corporation in 1954, and producing the film Monster from the Ocean Floor. The film's young director, Roger Corman, would work with Arkoff on many other films and become legendary in the B-movie realm. Monster from the Ocean Floor made $850,000 on its initial $50,000 investment.

Some sources list the original The Fast and the Furious, a Corman-directed film about auto racing, as the company's first release; that film, too, was strongly profitable. In 1955 the company's name was changed to American International Pictures. Arkoff quickly plowed his filmmaking profits back into the business, producing several Westerns because they could be filmed outdoors and did not require the rental of studio space.

The choice to enter the movie business in the 1950s was an unusual one because film studio profits were currently falling due to competition from a new medium: television. Arkoff soon switched from Westerns to horror films, reasoning that teenagers wanted to see movies, especially at the then-burgeoning drive-in venues, in groups where their parents were not present. He reaped large profits on such films as The Beast with a Million Eyes (1955), Terror from the Year 5000 (1958), and The Spider (1959). These films were made so quickly that crucial details were sometimes left unfinished; as The Beast with a Million Eyes approached its release date, Arkoff realized that the promised beast of the title did not actually appear anywhere in the film because Corman, the director, ran out of money before it could be introduced. “So what we finally did,” Arkoff recalled to Myrna Oliver in the Los Angeles Times, “is we got a teakettle and we put about 50 holes in it and got steam going through it. That became our beast with a million eyes.” Every single film Arkoff released between 1954 and 1960 made a profit.

Filmed Teen Beach Stories

Arkoff proved canny at guessing the next hot teenage cultural trend, partly because he had two children of his own and he paid attention to their preferences. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he added hot rod films to AIP's repertory, releasing in quick succession Hot Rod Girl, Dragstrip Girl, Hot Rod Gang, and Dragstrip Riot. In 1963 Arkoff was quick to spot the crossover commercial potential of the Beach Boys' music and capitalized on it with a series of films with beach settings. These films made stars of Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello; the first was 1963's Beach Party, and the franchise remained profitable through Beach Blanket Bingo (1965) and beyond. Arkoff also combined the beach party and horror genres in 1966's The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini.

Whatever the genre, Arkoff followed what he called the “ARKOFF Formula” to ensure a hit, and his films very rarely lost money. Sharing this formula with Tom Weaver, as reported by the Internet Movie Database, he explained that a film should contain “Action (excitement and drama), Revolution (controversial or revolutionary ideas), Killing (a degree of violence), Oratory (memorable speeches and dialogue), Fantasy (popular dreams and wishes acted out), and Fornication (sex appeal, to both sides).” Critical reaction to AIP's films ranged from amusement to disparagement, but these productions, often marketed as double features, had a major impact on the industry: in the days before theaters were air-conditioned, the summer was traditionally a slow season, but he showed that there was money to be made, and in 1975 his film Jaws inaugurated the era of the summer blockbuster.

In 1966, noting a current Life magazine issue with a picture of the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang on the cover, Arkoff once again sensed a shift in the cultural winds. He responded with The Wild Angels, a film about a restless biker gang that starred the then-unknown Peter Fonda, son of Hollywood film star Henry Fonda. The film was made in 15 days under a budget of $360,000. Arkoff followed it up with Devil's Angels (1968), The Wild Racers (1968), and Hell's Angels (1969). He planned to cap the series with Easy Rider, with Fonda and another unknown, Dennis Hopper, in lead roles and with Hopper as director. Negotiations fell apart after Hopper demanded creative control and Arkoff was unwilling to grant it. The film, with a soundtrack featuring leading rock bands of the day, moved to the Columbia studio and became one of the major hits of 1969.

Launched Woody Allen's Career

Other actors who appeared in AIP films as unknowns included Jack Nicholson (The Cry Baby Killer, 1958), Charles Branson (Machine Gun Kelly, 1958), and Bruce Dern (The Wild Angels, 1966). Director Francis Ford Coppola's Dementia 13 was also an Arkoff production, as were Martin Scorsese's Boxcar Bertha (1972) and John Milius's Dillinger (1973).

Nicholson left AIP in 1972, and Corman also formed his own production company that year. Due to high production costs, Jaws and other summer films put a dent in Arkoff's profits, and the large cinema multiplexes now being built used high-tech equipment which was ill suited to AIP's low-budget product. AIP never had a money-losing year, but in 1979 the company merged with production studio Filmways International. Arkoff clashed with Filmways management, however, and he decided to form a new company, Arkoff International Pictures. While he never fully recaptured his earlier success, during the 1980s and 1990s he was a familiar film-industry figure, throwing an annual lunch party at the Cannes Film Festival in France where he would proclaim that the attendees were there solely to enjoy themselves. He lived long enough to see some of his productions become cult favorites among younger viewers.

In 1992 Arkoff penned an autobiography, Flying through Hollywood by the Seat of My Pants, and a film documentary, It Conquered Hollywood: The Story of American International Pictures, was released in 2000. Arkoff also served as executive producer of Creature Features, a five-episode television series inspired by AIP's 1950s horror films; the shows were produced by his son, Louis Arkoff. His daughter, Donna Roth, also became a film producer. Hilda Arkoff died in July of 2001, and Samuel survived her by only months, dying on September 16, 2001, in Burbank, California.

Books

Arkoff, Sam, with Richard Trubo, Flying through Hollywood by the Seat of My Pants, Birch Lane, 1992.

Periodicals

Independent (London, England), September 18, 2001, Tom Vallance, “Samuel Z. Arkoff,” p. 6.

Los Angeles Times, September 18, 2001, Myrna Oliver, “Samuel Z. Arkoff, 83; Produced Many Teen Movies.”

New York Times, September 19, 2001, “Samuel Z. Arkoff, Maker of Drive-in Thrillers, Dies at 83,” p. C1.

Online

Guardian (London, England), https://www.theguardian.com/news/2001/sep/27/guardianobituaries (September 26, 2001), Ronald Bergan, “Samuel Z. Arkoff: Film Producer Whose Successes Included I Was a Teenage Werewolf,” p. C1.

Internet Movie Database, http://www.imdbcom/ (June 30, 2017).

Roger Ebert, http://www.rogerebert.com/interviews/samuel-z-arkoff-in-memorium (June 30, 2017), Roger Ebert, “Samuel Z. Arkoff: In Memorium.”□

(MLA 8th Edition)