Sunday, August 14, 2016

The New Poverty Row: A history of low-budget hustling for film dollars

Review by Doug Gibson

I enjoyed Fred Olen Ray's book, "The New Poverty Row: Independent Filmmakers as Distributors," McFarland, 1991. Published 25 years ago, it's still for sale by its distributor. 

FOR is a very talented writer. I always enjoyed his articles and letters in my old Cult Movies magazines. When he wrote this he was still a low-budget filmmaker, with a decade-plus of experience, trying not so much to break through as a director, but as a filmmaker who could take his product and make money. Hence his efforts to distribute with American Independent Productions.

FOR feels a kinship with his subjects, and for the era, a few years before the Net changed research, what we have are seven superbly researched, of various essay lengths, profiles of FOR and six other low-budget filmmakers who tried to increase profits through self-distribution. They are:

-- Jerry Warren, Associated Distributors Productions, Inc.

-- Roger Corman, Filmgroup

-- David L. Hewitt, American General Pictures

-- Sam Sherman, Independent-International Pictures

-- Lawrence H. Woolner, Dimension Pictures

-- and Fred Olen Ray with AIP

Much has been written about Corman, but FOR manages to provide the future legendary low-budget filmmaker's struggles to create his own distribution dollars. Filmgroup lasted a few years but the margins, even for the most minutely budgeted films, were tiny or non-existent. The best parts of the Corman chapter are the accounts of making tiny-budgeted films in Puerto Rico. It's also interesting to learn that many films grabbed for revision by low-budget directors/producers came from behind the Iron Curtain. Queen of Blood was one.

Warren, as FOR explains with affection, was the type who just wanted a film in the can; forget the quality, sell the sizzle. What's most interesting about Warren is that the films he cobbled and mangled for release, usually with the stately Katherine Victor, were likely better in their original versions.

Sherman and Woolner represent the types of filmmakers in the last decade of big-screen-only features. Like Herschell Gordon Lewis and David Friedman, they were interested in pushing the boundaries of what could be shown on the big screen. Whether it was a mix of gore and sex, such as Blood Island films or Al Adamson's horror opuses, or just plain sex, with nurses or stewardess films, they were sold to drive ins with teens and young adults glancing at the screen in between make out sessions. Sherman and others were also great at mixing movies, taking Movie A, adding much of Movie B, and throwing in a dash of Movie C. Not surprisingly, they would often remix the movie, change the title, and presto, have a new release. Dracula Vs. Frankenstein, which played on TV last Halloween season, is a great example of a blended movie. The Shermans and the Woolners, or their successors, finally threw in the towel when the majors begin to mimic them; think Friday the 13th and Porky's.

Hewitt was my favorite chapter, maybe because even today there's so little out there about the guy who helmed The Mighty Gorga, The Wizard of Mars, or my favorite, Gallery of Horrors, and a couple of other films. He also distributed the neglected gem, Spider Baby. (Only in this world could Spider Baby be the second big-screen offering to micro-budget bores Gallery or Gorga!) It's fun to learn that Gallery's ineptitude is partially caused by producers with financial pull nixing Hewitt's idea to film it as a type of comic book -- and this was at least 15 years before Creepshow!

FOR's chapter is very personal and describes how he learned the basics of filmmaking just by doing it and learning from mistakes. From the first, one learns that you almost always won't make money from distributors if you're a low-budget filmmaker. FOR understands that and recounts his experiences without pity, and sometimes with wry humor. His first film cost about $12,000 and featured Buster Crabbe. I really enjoy FOR's passion for the old genre stars, and his efforts to have them in his films. He's been so prolific the past 35 years, directing in just about every genre.

FOR has many, many anecdotes, and they make for great reading. The old "stars," Carradine, Chaney Jr., were used by so many poverty-row directors for a day and later hyped on ads with promises that the films can never live up to. The New Poverty Row is filled with old movie stills and ads of distinct marketing pitches. It's amusing to see one film's ads under different titles. FOR also is very frank in his assessments of many of the films. He's quick to pan the films he feels deserve that label.

An underlying, subtle theme to this book is its featuring the low-budget filmmakers-cum-distribution hustlers who were in the business during the quarter century before VHS became big and basically threw low-budget filmmakers away from the big screens and into living rooms with the direct-to-video labels. (I know that was a very cumbersome sentence. I may edit it some day). That sell-it-for-home-use strategy still exists today with DVDs and online/cloud video, which now threatens the existence of the DVD market. The cycle of film challenges for dollars continues. 

FOR's book, already detailing a now-gone era of low-budget filmmaking, is a treasure for genre film fans. Read it. If you don't want to pay $25, it can be purchased used. I bought mine for a few dollars. It was an old copy that was once in The City University Library in London!

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