Roger Corman’s oeuvre contains the following movies: Teenage Caveman, Women in Cages, The Slumber Party Massacre, and Carnosaur 2. That’s only a small sampling of the hundreds of films that the classic B-movie purveyor has produced in his 60 years in the entertainment business. Those incredibly goofy yet appealing titles don’t do justice to Corman’s true genius. But here are a couple of names that might: Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Nicholson, and James Cameron. According to Entertainment Weekly, writer Chris Nashawaty, the author of Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, and Candy Stripe Nurses: Roger Corman, King of the B Movie (Out September 10), Corman’s most enduring Hollywood achievement is the staggering number of A-listers he plucked from obscurity.
“No one in Hollywood has ever had that same sense for young talent,” Nashawaty says. “Corman’s greatest legacy was the hugely talented people he discovered and put to work.” Though Corman has a reputation for producing mountains of schlock on a tight budget in just a few days (in 1957 alone he directed and produced nine movies), some of the films he made, like Little Shop of Horrors, are still worth watching.
More important, Corman is the unofficial godfather of the golden age of '70s films, since he was the one who gave its auteurs (the aforementioned Scorsese and Coppola) their start. He was also instrumental in getting the classic 1969 film Easy Rider off the ground.
But it’s not just artistically that Corman has been influential, according to Nashawaty. We can also learn from his business acumen, and his ability to exploit markets that were previously untapped. Here, Chris Nashawaty tells us how Corman revolutionized the movie industry.
Back in the 50s when Corman started making movies, he started making them on total shoestrings. He couldn’t really compete with the big studios, but he found out how to do it faster and cheaper. He was making movies for $10,000 in two days. And over the years, he’s been really smart about finding cheaper and cheaper ways to make movies. If you go to Sundance now, you see movies that are made on iPhones, and you can use digital cameras, you can make movies for really, really cheap amounts. It comes out of Corman’s whole mentality: If you can’t join 'em, beat 'em. You can always find a way to make movies faster and cheaper and quicker.
Corman is the unofficial godfather of the great movies of the '70s. Around that time, he stopped directing movies himself, and all the people he brought up—Scorsese, Coppola, [Chinatown screenwriter] Robert Towne—defined that golden age of American cinema. Without Corman, they wouldn’t exist. And he was also tapping into, before that golden age happened, tapping into counter-culture topics that the big studios weren’t. When teens were interested in sex, drugs, and rock and roll, the studios were still making Mary Poppins. But Corman was making movies about LSD and bikers.
I think it’s important to point out just how brilliant a businessman Corman has been. When he was starting off in the 1950s, there was a teen audience that wasn’t being served, and he recognized that, and he put monster movies at the drive-in. In the '60s, he was the first to serve the counter culture, as I alluded to before. In the '70s, he started his own indie, New World, which was the first hit indie studio—three decades before Miramax. In the '80s, when Hollywood started making the movies he had always made but on a bigger scale, he knew he couldn’t compete, so he recognized before the big studios did that there’s an ancillary market in cable and VHS. He made movies that went directly to video. All those new video shops needed product. He cranked out cheapies and made a mint, which is also what he’s doing with his Syfy movies today [Corman is behind movies like Piranhaconda and Sharktopus, which air on the Syfy network]. In every case, the movie studios eventually caught on, but he’s always been really sharp.
There were some years when Corman directed nine movies. He was always ambitious and hungry and hardworking; you can’t fault him for that. Because Roger was trained as an engineer, he saw these movies as formula—a little bit of violence, a car chase, some topless women—that’s a formula for a hit movie. It had to have those things, and you were guaranteed to double your money. There was one time he was really precious about a movie, The Intruder, which was about race, which was an issue he really cared about. He tried to make an “important film,” and it was the one time he lost money. That’s when he realized: Follow the formula and give the viewers what they want.
[Photos courtesy of Abrams Books 2013]