Roger Corman: 25 years of Concorde-New Horizons


The late New York Times film critic Vincent Canby once proclaimed: "What is 'Jaws' but a big-budget Roger Corman film?" The 82-year-old director and producer -- who is celebrating the 25th anniversary of his company Concorde-New Horizons by bringing two new titles to the Cannes market -- envisioned the rise of Hollywood's blockbuster exploitation epics, but many know him simply as the "King of the B's."

"There is a tendency, especially in our industry, to try to categorize people," observes Julie Corman, his wife and longtime business partner. "Roger's difficult to categorize. When you learn that he won the physics prize his freshman year at Stanford and studied English literature at Oxford, you have to slightly reevaluate him. Most people don't know that when they're looking at (1957's) 'Attack of the Crab Monsters.' "

Corman took his first stab at writing and producing with "Highway Dragnet" in 1954 and directing with "Five Guns West" in 1955. Working mainly at American International Pictures throughout the late '50s and '60s, he pioneered the horror franchise model with his classy Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft adaptations, including 1961's "The Pit and the Pendulum" and 1963's "The Haunted Palace," many of which starred Vincent Price. He launched the biker movie craze with 1966's "The Wild Angels" and created one of the first psychedelic movies with 1967's "The Trip." Corman also directed the anti-segregation film "The Intruder" (1962), featuring a young William Shatner. "I remember a critic said, 'This motion picture is a credit to the entire American film industry,' " Corman recalls. "And it was the first film I made that lost money!"

After co-founding the New World production and distribution companies with his wife in 1970, Corman phased out his directing to focus on producing the work of talented young filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard and James Cameron. "The '70s were the heyday of New World Pictures, where the pictures Corman were making all went theatrical and got reviewed in the papers and could launch careers," says Jon Davison, who produced films in the '70s with Corman.

New World also became a distribution home to European art house releases by filmmakers like Francois Truffaut and Federico Fellini after it purchased the North American distribution rights to the Ingmar Bergman film "Cries and Whispers" for $75,000, then made it a hit on the drive-in circuit in late 1972. It went on to win an Oscar for best cinematography and nominations in four other categories.

At Concorde-New Horizons, founded in 1983, Corman has focused on the straight-to-video market while building up many franchises -- including "Deathstalker," "Body Chemistry" and "Carnosaur" -- with his own personal financing. "He was so influential because he was the only game in town that gave filmmakers money," says Corman's former lawyer and film buyer Barbara Boyle, who is currently the chair of the department of film, television and digital media at UCLA. "This was all Roger's money. It wasn't from a hedge fund or from the studios. So when he told Peter Bogdanovich or Joe Dante he was going to give them $600,000, he gave them his money. Who else would do that? Nobody does it today."

As ever, Corman continues to look forward, and Concorde-New Horizons is taking two new films to Cannes this year: "Cheerleader Massacre 2" and the sci-fi flick "Cyclops." Other projects in the works include "Storm," "Crazy Horse," "The Judas Gospel" and the post-apocalyptic tale "Road Raiders." "The primary thing I learned from Corman was that tremendous will, determination and energy -- and we're not even speaking of talent -- is what it really takes to be effective, to be able to survive as a producer or a director," says Francis Doel, screenwriter of "Cyclops" and several other Corman films.

While times have gotten tougher for independent production companies, the ever-determined Corman sees VOD, the Internet and digital as his greatest allies in the new millennium. "The world of independent film has diminished from the '80s until now because of the lack of theatrical exposure," he says. "But with digital filmmaking and the Internet, the opportunities are growing. Almost all of my films are shot on digital. We're at the beginning of the transformation."  

Big names reminisce about getting their big breaks at the unofficial 'Corman Film School'

--Gale Anne Hurd joined Corman's first company, New World Pictures, as an executive assistant in 1978.

"I hadn't gone to film school, so it was my film school. Roger had women working in every capacity in his company and on his films, so I actually had an idealized vision of gender equality in the movie business at the time, because it was never an issue with Roger. He instilled in everyone who worked for him confidence and the belief that even with limited experience you could succeed if you were talented and committed. That's why he who found so many seminal filmmakers and gave them their starts -- that belief, that eye for talent."

--William Shatner starred in Corman's "The Intruder" (1962) and "Big Bad Mama" (1974).

"The shoot (of 'The Intruder') was horrific. A lot of them are, but this was really beyond the pale. We were at the height of segregation, and we were shooting a nonsegregation movie in a very tough section of the Deep South. Our lives were threatened all the time, but we all bonded together under duress and had a grand time flailing against the odds.
"Roger mortgaged his home to make the film, and he apparently said that's the only film he ever made that lost money. He just tried to make that movie well, and we lucked out in many instances, both in quality and in not getting hurt."

--Joe Dante directed "Hollywood Boulevard" (1976) and "Piranha" (1978) for New World Pictures.

"Allan Arkush and I both wanted to be directors, and here we were editing trailers for pictures we thought we could do better. We started bugging Roger, and on a bet, we made 'Hollywood Boulevard' in 10 days for $60,000. They only way to do it on budget was to write it around footage from old trailers. We took all the action scenes we could find and dressed our actors like the people in those action scenes. We made a comedy about making a movie. The girls would take their clothes off and get involved in left-wing politics.

"There was no true auteurism at New World because people would ask to take over pictures from other directors, especially if the movie hadn't made money. Roger would do a new campaign, shoot new footage, change the title and rerelease it. He never let a movie die."

--Jonathan Demme directed "Caged Heat" (1974) and "Crazy Mama" (1975) for New World Pictures.

"Roger, in those days, would give a little tutorial. He said the hero will only be as interesting as your villain. And if you haven't got the time or the budget to shoot a character being hit by a car, you can just pan down their body as they step into the gutter to cross the street, let them exit frame, hear the crash and you have your accident.

"To me, what's very interesting is that Roger is a great director, but we've been robbed of a more consistent directorial vision because the entrepreneurial part of Roger won out. He decided his time (directing) films could be better spent (producing) lots of films, working with lots of people, making lots of money."