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A Low-Budget Film Legend

Film legend Roger Corman helped launch a new era in filmmaking in the 1950s and early 1960s, cranking out hundreds of low-budget drive-in movie classics like Wild Angels, Attack of the Crab Monsters and Little Shop of Horrors. In the 1990s he helped reinvent the low-budget horror genre again with Dinocroc, ushering in the era of the hybrid animal mash-up, and this week the 88-year-old Corman will release his 407th film (according to IMDB), Sharktopus vs. Pteracuda on Syfy. Along the way Corman, who was awarded an honorary Oscar in 2009, has influenced countless major movie stars and directors, including Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme and Steven Spielberg. Recently, Corman took the time to speak with Multichannel News senior finance editor Mike Farrell about his career and the low-budget horror genre. An edited transcript follows.

MCN: You practically invented this genre back in the ’50s. What are your thoughts on where it’s going now? Are you flattered that so many producers are following this format?

Roger Corman: I wouldn’t say I invented it [the Bmovie concept] but I was one of the people who did develop it. The concept of the B-movie, of course, has been with us since the 1930s, when B-movies were invented really to be the second half of a double feature. The low-budget pictures came in and to a large extent they were exploitation pictures — a word that some people don’t like, but that I embrace. They were exploitation pictures. The very first picture I ever produced was Monster From the Ocean Floor, and that was in the 1950s. Here we are again with that same concept.

What happened was, about nine or 10 years ago I made a picture called Dinocroc, which I made for home video. Tom Vitale [executive vice president of original movies] at the Sci-Fi Channel heard about it and called me and asked if he could see it, so I said, “Sure.” I sent him a DVD and he bought it. It got the highest rating for Sci-Fi Channel of the year.

I remember I was having lunch with Tom and the executives [at Sci-Fi] in New York and they said they’d like to have another one and I said, “Sure, Dinocroc 2.” And they said, “No” — this is where, even at my age, you can learn something — they said, “You can have Rambo 2 or Rocky 2 or whatever theatrically, but we find when we put 2 on something it doesn’t work; it’s better if it’s a similar title.”

And I said, “Did I say Dinocroc 2? I meant, of course, Supergator.” They said, “Right, we’ll make Supergator.”

Well, we went from Supergator to Dinoshark, which got us into the shark business, and then there was Piranhaconda and a number of these films. Then The Asylum came in and they had some shark pictures, too.

MCN: So now you’re in the shark business withSharktopus. How did you get into that franchise?

RC: They called me and said “Roger, you come up with every title; we’ve come up with a title.” I said, what is it? They said, “Sharktopus. Do you want to make it?” And I said no.

I believe you can go up to a certain level of insanity with these titles and the audience is with you, but if you go over what I might call the acceptable level of insanity, the audience says, “What is that?” and they turn on you. And I think Sharktopus is above the acceptable level of insanity.

One thing led to another, we were all friendly and made so many pictures together over the years that I made Sharktopus — the biggest rating of the year. Clearly the acceptable level of insanity is higher than I thought it would be.

In late July, there is going to be Sharknado 2 — they decided to put the 2 on that one. And on Saturday night (Aug. 2) there is going to be Sharktopus vs. Pteracuda, half-pterodactyl, half-barracuda.

MCN: You have a thirdSharktopus, correct? Is that in post-production?

RC: Actually, I was shooting Sharktopus vs. Pteracuda in the Dominican Republic, partially because it is a beautiful place and the locations fit and partially because they have a subsidy there. I found out my budget wasn’t big enough to qualify for the subsidy, so I wrote Sharktopus vs. Mermantula (half merman/half tarantula), and I shot part of that. The picture is partially shot, we will finish shooting it this summer. We put it aside in order to finish Sharktopus vs. Pteracuda.

MCN: And you qualified for the subsidy?

RC: Yes.

MCN: With the big studios focusing on big-budget superhero movies and sequels, are cable-television networks like Syfy the last outlet for independent filmmakers like you?

RC: I think they are. If you look at the ads in the newspapers on Friday night, you will see 95% bigbudget major studios. There will be an occasional lowbudget picture that breaks in, but it’s very unusual and generally it will be a horror film. But pretty much we are frozen out.

In fact, you can stem it all back to Jaws. When Jaws came out, Vincent Canby, the late critic for The New York Times, wrote, “What is Jaws but a big-budget Roger Corman film?” He was right, but he missed something. It was a big-budget Roger Corman film, but it was also better. That was the key word. It was a bigger and better film, and I realized the major studios understood what I and my compatriots had been doing.

When Star Wars came out, I had done a picture before called Battle Beyond the Sun and various pictures like that and I thought, “We are in a lot of trouble.” I talked to Steven Spielberg and to George Lucas about it, and they said, “We saw these pictures when we were kids and now we have a chance to make them bigger and better for the major studios.” That is part of what drove us out of theatrical and into home-video DVD, which was very lucrative up until just a couple of years ago. It’s almost as if some new technology saves us from extinction. First it was DVD and now it’s Syfy and other channels who are picking up the slack for this type of film.

MCN: I saw a quote from you a while back: “You make the poster first, then you make the film. And sometimes you don’t make the film.”

RC: That is a slight overstatement. Very often, we start with a concept and the concept will very often lead to the title. For instance, Sharktopus started with the title and then Sharktopus vs. Pteracuda started with the idea that we were going to have Sharktopus, but we were going to have a new monster and a combination of monsters. Now, you can do a fair amount of audience research over the Internet. We tested over the Internet a number of titles and Pteracuda won the contest, which then gave us two problems: What is a Pteracuda and why in hell would anybody make a Pteracuda?

MCN: There was one notable scene in the firstSharktopusthat almost broke the Internet — the scene with the bungee jumper …

RC: My daughter played the bungee jumper. It went out as a clip and it had something like 11 million viewers. Jay Leno put the clip on his talk show and the whole thing went viral. That clip also helped to drive the reruns of Sharktopus. Some of those things are unexpected. To us, it was one of a number of what we considered to be the key special-effects shots. You can never predict which one [will resonate with the audience]; that was the one that went viral.

MCN: I rewatched one of your earlier movies from the 1950s about crab monsters …

RC: Oh, yes, Attack of the Crab Monsters.

MCN: One thing that struck me from that picture was you saw the monster early on. I always thought the idea was to keep the creature hidden until much later in the film.

RC: What you just said is actually a key point. It was so long ago I barely remember, but we did show the crab monster earlier. But generally for a film, we used to show bits and pieces and sometimes behind foliage or underwater or something. You didn’t see the creature fully right at the beginning, but you gave hints of it and built it up, built it up, built it up to the point where you finally saw the full creature. I felt and I think a lot of other people who were making that type of film thought that was the way to do it, give hints build suspense, build the tension until finally you hit with the creature.

But with television, you go the other way. This came from Tom Vitale. Tom said their experience has been that if you don’t have a shock scene within the first five or 10 minutes of the picture, the audience flips the channel. So the theory that worked for theatrical, you turn it 180 degrees for television.

MCN: Syfy seems to be the biggest buyer of these movies now, but are other cable channels stepping up?

RC: They are. For instance, Tom [Vitale] is now with Chiller. I’ve been meaning to call him to see if we could do something with Chiller, but I’ve been so involved in other films as well as these films. We have a fairly heavy production schedule. We just finished Sharktopus vs. Pteracuda a week ago. We sent a semifinal cut so they knew what they were getting, but the actual finished version just went out 10 days ago and for an August airdate, that’s fairly tight.

We’ve had contact with a number of other channels. We have not made any specific deals but I’m expecting that within the next 90 days or so I will be announcing something. I still hope to stay with Syfy as much as I can, but of course I’ll be branching out as I’ve always done.

MCN: I think a lot of people have a picture in their mind when they think about the type of movie making that you do. I keep thinking of a scene inEd Wood, when they are shooting on a street and as the police start to approach them — they don’t have a proper permit — Johnny Depp just grabs the camera and says to the actors and crew, “Run.” Is that how it was in the early days for you?

RC: [Laughs] To a certain extent. We did not bother with permits. If the police came by, we used to say we were a student film. Then we used to say it was a student film and I was the professor, because I was getting a little old to be a student. The funny thing is, we never had trouble with the police. They were always friendly. Today it’s different. I do think we do now pay more attention and we will go out and get permits.

MCN: Is it still fun to make movies?

RC: It is still fun. It’s getting a little harder, I’m getting a little older and a little slower, but it’s still fun.