RIGHT-HAND MAN: Mike Elliott

Throughout history, standing to the right of every great king one usually finds a great prime minister turning the king’s vision from abstract ambition into fact. During critical years for Roger Corman’s Concorde studio, the man at Corman’s elbow was Mike Elliott.

Look up Mike Elliott on the Internet Movie Data Base (www.imdb.com) and you’ll see over 100 credits attributed to him as a producer…and, as extensive as it is, that list may not be complete. Elliott admits he was attached to so many movies he can’t remember them all. “Occasionally people come up to me and mention a movie they say I worked on and I go, ‘I did?’”

But that’s a natural product of having been production chief at a company that was a veritable movie-making factory during the height of the Direct-To-Video (DTV) boom: Concorde New Horizons, which had been launched in 1983 by the legendary “King of the Bs,” Roger Corman. Considering the weight of Elliott’s filmography, it’s a curiosity that his desire to get into the motion picture business was based simply on the idea of not wanting to wear a jacket and tie to work.

Elliott was born in Ventura, California, but grew up outside the town of Bend, Oregon, on a cattle ranch. When his thoughts focused on his future, he had something more cosmopolitan in mind than being a cowherd and wound up on the other side of the country at Cornell University majoring in Soviet Studies. “International politics, that’s what I was into then.”

Along about his junior or senior year, Elliott began to think about his post-graduation professional direction. “Everybody I knew (at Cornell) was either going to be a management consultant or an investment banker. My only experience with banking was with the teller at my bank, and I could never understand why anybody would hire people with no experience to be a consultant in anything.”

Still, it seemed as if those were the areas where the jobs were, so Elliott “bought myself a crappy suit”for interviews and headed down to New York City and Manhattan’s financial district. But, once on the scene, “I realized in a half-second I didn’t want to be there.”

Then, fatefully, Elliott remembered somebody telling him no one had to wear a suit in the movie business, crappy or otherwise.

Elliott crossed the country again, to Los Angeles this time. Knowing nothing about the motion picture industry, he pulled out a phone book, looked up addresses of TV and movie companies and began knocking on doors.  Ironically, despite the motive of wanting to work in a business not requiring a jacket and tie, Elliott decided to play things safe on his first interview and wore his crappy suit. “They laughed at me.”

Eventually, he landed an internship at a TV production company, and then another and another until he was juggling five of them at once, doing Mondays at one site, Tuesdays at another, and so on, filling out the week. It would turn out to be an effective education as, after a time, Elliott could walk onto any set and say, “I get it,”being able to instantly understand what was going on, who was doing what, how it was being done, and why.

He also landed a slot in CBS’“management”program. “It sounds lofty,”says Elliott, “but it wasn’t.” He was handed a red jacket and assigned such duties as answering phones, running errands, taking out the trash…he was a network page.

His supervisor was a woman of certain years who was the head of pages. “I think she’d been a page, like, in the ‘20s.” She would, Elliott reflects, represent the only time in his twenty-odd years in entertainment “…where someone had it in for me.”Elliott had an assignment on the daytime soap opera, Capitol. His job was to stand at one end of the sound stage and watch a red light. If the light went on it meant someone was trying to call in on the silent stage phone. When that happened, it was Elliott’s job to pick up the phone and whisper, “We’re rolling.” To this day, Elliott still wonders over the fact that “I don’t remember that light ever going on when we weren’t rolling!”

Elliott had been placed in a position where he could only see the light by awkwardly craning his neck, and also which inhibited his view of the production. He found a position about thirty feet away which allowed him to watch the taping while still being able to see the warning light. His supervisor was furious: “What’re you doing over there?”

Back in the original position, Elliott whiled away the time reading, able to still mind the telephone warning light through a small, strategically-placed mirror. Upon seeing his new set-up, the supervisor did not compliment Elliott on his ingenuity or through finding a more productive use of his time standing in the wings. She kicked the mirror across the floor: “No mirrors!” She had, Elliott surmises, done the job a certain way herself and that, apparently, was the way she determined it was always going to be done.

Elliott had another position on the game show, The Price Is Right. It was his job to help the audience file in and find seats. He had a chance to see how the producers, standing near the auditorium entrance, decided on who among the audience would be chosen to go on stage. As the audience filed by, every so often Elliott would hear one of the producers say, “That’s interesting.” Later, he would notice everyone selected to play the game had been tagged with a “That’s interesting.”

During one taping, two Canadian women asked Elliott if it would be possible to meet game host Bob Barker; they had some sweatshirts they wanted to give him.  Elliott explained the show policy: if Mr. Barker chose to come out into the audience after the taping, they could raise their hands to try to get his attention, and if Mr. Barker chose to do so, he’d come over and they could give him any gifts or make a request for autographs, etc.

As it happened, this was an occasion when Barker decided not to come out after the taping. Elliott describes what happened then as if it was a movie:

“I look over and SNAP ZOOM in on the two Canadian ladies talking to my boss. SNAP ZOOM on my boss as she looks over at me.” She was, as usual, angry, stormed over to Elliott and demanded to know why he’d promised the women they could be on the show. As Elliott described his exchange with the women, his boss seemed of little mind to hear he’d said no such thing.

Beginning to sense his days in CBS’management program might be numbered, that night he leafed through one of the local papers and found a small notice that Roger Corman’s Concorde New Horizons was looking for interns. Elliott called to set up an appointment to speak with Corman.

“Oh, you don’t speak with Roger Corman,” it was explained to him. There was another individual charged with interviewing the intern candidates. But when Elliott showed up for his interview saying he was there to see Mr. Corman, the other person wasn’t there and he was ushered directly in to see Concorde’s top man.

This was, as Elliott would later find, not an anomaly. “Roger was always very approachable,”he says. Corman was not an isolated or aloof company chieftain. The Concorde head –at least in those early years of Elliott’s tenure with the company – “read every draft of every script, saw every cut of every movie, watched every trailer, looked at all the marketing materials, went onto the sets…”

Corman looked over Elliott’s resume. “I see you went to Cornell.” Elliott would come to learn Corman was a fan of Ivy Leaguers. Elliott made his pitch offering to work six months for Concorde without pay. If Corman was satisfied with his performance at the end of that period, he’d hire Elliott. With an eye always fixed on the bottom line, “That was an offer Roger couldn’t refuse.”

As might be expected, Elliott’s first jobs were fairly menial. One of his duties was as projectionist. The company had one projector which Elliott guesses was from the 1930s or so. Only one other person in the company knew how to run it. Not only did no one else know how to work the machine, but no one else wanted to know because every time the projector broke down – which happened on a regular basis – a director and producer would soon be in the projection booth berating the projectionist for ruining their screening for Corman.

There was a fairly high and regular turnover at Concorde and this provided an opportunity for Elliott to expand his responsibilities. There was a runner making $190 a week who quit and Elliott took on his job. It turned out to be grueling in unexpected ways. “I had to pick up Roger’s kids at 6:30, take them to school, then make runs for the company…”; all this and still handle screenings with the cantankerous vintage projector.

At that time –c. 1987 –Concorde was putting out about seven-eight theatrical releases per year. Elliott found his hodge-podge of menial chores back-breaking, the pace non-stop. “It was a crazy place,”he says but with a sense of warm nostalgia. “But I have to say it was fun –probably the most fun I’ve ever had.” Undoubtedly part of the fun –and the craziness –came from Corman’s willingness to take flyers on untried people.

Corman regularly acquired foreign theatricals for U.S. release under the Concorde banner, but the films needed to be tailored for the American market. Corman asked Elliott to trim the movies for length as well as insert stock footage of nudity and action. Some of the movies, in fact, were from some of Europe’s more prestigious filmmakers.

“I’m just an intern!” Elliott protested, but that seemed to matter little to Corman. “It’s funny,” Elliott says, “but after a while I’d be cutting these movies from some pretty big names and be thinking, ‘Ya know, it could use a little action here!’”

Elliott’s first major opportunity to move up at Concorde came when the company’s marketing and advertising chief quit. Elliott went to see Corman: “You know, marketing is what I’m really interested in.”

“What do you know about marketing?” Corman asked. “Was that your major?”

“No. Soviet Studies.”

Nevertheless, Corman gave Elliott the job of coming up with a marketing campaign overnight for an upcoming Concorde film then titled Charlie Guitar.

Elliott stayed up all night composing an “awful collage”that was supposed to represent the marketing campaign. He changed the title, and came up with the key image of a pretty young woman holding up a pair of beach balls over her breasts. The next day, Elliott trooped into Corman’s office with his awful collage. Corman looked at the woman and her beach balls. “What’s the line?”he asked, meaning the promotional tag line.

“‘At Big Top Beach, everybody finds a treasure chest!’”

Corman turned to him and announced, “You’re hired.”

Elliott was now the head of marketing and advertising for Concorde New Horizons. He’d only been out of school nine months. And, he was still one of Concorde’s house projectionists.

Elliott doesn’t remember the title of the first movie whose campaign he handled as head of marketing –“Something-Dead,” is all he can recall. Corman introduced him to the director and producer as his marketing “expert.” Despite his success with the Big Top Beach line, Elliott felt like anything but an expert, and as he presented his ideas, the director and producer worriedly asked, “Are you sure this will work?”

Working on the marketing materials, Elliott spilled White-Out on the key art, then tried to draw through it with a marker. “This poor guy (in the picture) looked like he was wearing goggles.” When Elliott turned in the materials, he got questioning looks about the goggle-eyed artwork. “It doesn’t matter!” Elliott told his people. “We’ve got to send it in! There’s no more time!” Looking back on it today, Elliott laughs. “I didn’t know what I was doing!”

But he learned as he went and, ultimately, did some 50-60 marketing campaigns.

And then, in typical Concorde fashion, the company’s regular turnover presented Elliott with yet another opportunity to advance in the ranks when the head of production quit. Again, Elliott went into Corman’s office: “You know, production is what I’m really interested in.”

“We need you in marketing,” Corman told him.

“I’ll still do marketing,” Elliott said, again making Corman an unrefusable offer.

Corman said he would think about it. The next day, he walked up to Elliott, a grave look on his face. “We hired somebody from Oxford.” A beat, then a smile: “Just kidding.” And then Corman gave Elliott his mandate: “I want you to double production, and halve the cost.”

As it happened, Elliott had come into Concorde at a time when the company was transitioning from a struggling theatrical company to one wholly dedicated to home video and television. By the time Elliott left Concorde eight years later, the company’s seven-eight theatrical releases per year had expanded to an annual slate of 38 video features.

The pace at Concorde –which had always been hectic –only became more so. Elliott had three line producers working for him, and the company might be shooting five films at any given time. There was always a Concorde film shooting somewhere in Los Angeles 24 hours each day as well as projects being prepped and others in post-production. One crew might be working on a set from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., and no sooner had they left when a second crew would take their place. Elliott describes the process as “Churn and burn. Was that the best way to make movies? No. Was that the best way to make a lot of movies? Maybe.”

Elliott would bounce from set to set to keep an eye on how things were going but with so many projects in progress at any given time, “I couldn’t focus on any one flick.” At the same time, he was running up an enormous amount of frequent flyer mileage as he visited Concorde shoots overseas. “We had stuff shooting in Peru, Chile, The Philippines, not so much in Canada…”

There were so many movies being pounded out in those years that when asked if he remembers any of them as being particularly good –or even particularly bad –Elliott seems aware of how difficult a concept he’s trying to communicate when he says, “You don’t think of them that way. You don’t think of ‘good’or ‘bad.’

“If you see one, you remember, ‘Oh, yeah, I remember how we did that,’ or ‘I can’t believe that one cost so little!,’ or you don’t remember some of them at all! Some were awful!”

After a bit more reflection:

“There’s three things I’d say about it, that you come away with:

“One: working that fast, it’s easier to live with something that sucks because you have to move on. You can’t mope; there’s no time.

“Two: the special generosity of Roger Corman. He opened his checkbook to people like me. Granted, he didn’t pay much (at the time Elliott left Concorde, he was head of production for the company overseeing 38 titles a year; his annual salary was $38,000), but he let you learn, you earned your stripes on his dime, he let you make mistakes.

“Three: it teaches you to make quick decisions.”

And, as for a movie that, in some fleeting breathing space during production, might strike him as worse or better than usual:

“There were two kinds of pain:

“There was the pain of, ‘Wow, we should never have done this one.’

“And there was the other pain of, ‘This is special,’ but it’s going into the same grinder with everything else.” There was simply no time for special attention and handling.

A two-tiered production system was created which accomplished Corman’s goals of ramping up output, keeping costs low, and which also played to one of the company chief’s pet pleasures: “Roger liked to discover new filmmakers.”

In the 1960s/1970s, Corman productions regularly served as a proving ground for new talents who would go on to rank among the most popular and/or acclaimed directors (as well as actors and writers) in the mainstream movie business such as Francis Coppola (whose Corman credits include Dementia 13, 1963), Ron Howard (Grand Theft Auto, 1977), Jonathan Demme (Caged Heat, 1974), and Martin Scorsese (Boxcar Bertha, 1972). By the 1980s, however, the B-movie circuit was no longer the point of entry into the movie mainstream it had been. As cable TV entrenched and expanded in the 1980s, it brought with it a field of low-budget production from which, more often, the next generation of mainstream moviemakers arose. “They came out of music videos, commercials — cheap TV.”

So, Concorde began to look to its own. The company would set up an “A”picture –“Maybe for around $800,000”– than piggyback a B onto the same production, sometimes for budgets as low as $150,000. The B would shoot on the same sets with the same crew as the A. The director might be one of Concorde’s young Director of Photography’s whom the company felt showed directorial promise. “We’d pay the (A) crew $100 or something to work (the B).” Since all involved knew each other, “The whole crew wanted to help the guy.” As a grooming and discovery process, the A/B process worked quite well. “That low cost allowed us to move up some great DPs,”says Elliot. “Some of the best DPs working in movies today worked for us.”

Still, even $800,000 isn’t a lot of money to make a movie, not even back in the 1980s, but Concorde was able to get more than twice as much for its buck as much bigger movie companies.

“What another company could do for $2 million we could do for $800,000,” says Elliott. “They were paying out for finance fees, for their insurance bond, equipment rentals, sound stages. We didn’t have any of that. When we made a movie, it was our cash.  We didn’t have to pay fees to a bank. We owned the cameras, we owned the editing suites.” As Elliott describes it, Concorde was, in a small-scale way, a throwback to the self-contained, cost-efficient movie studios of Hollywood’s mogul age.

In those first years of Concorde’s morphing into more of a DTV and TV outfit, nobody at the company –or any place else for that matter – quite understood the new dynamics of the developing DTV market. For one title, Concorde tried the stunt of releasing the picture in a single theater in Orlando while Blockbuster was having its annual convention there, hoping the movie would catch the eye of the video chain.

In the late 1980s, there was still a widely-held belief that a theatrical release was a must to prime a title for the home video business.  At the time, Concorde’s movies received limited releases (compared to films from the major studios), with 50 prints bicycled around 500 screens for a period of 10 weeks “…or until we couldn’t book it anymore.” The company began reducing the scope of its releases, trimming them to 10 prints bicycling around 50 screens for five weeks. As the margins on theatrical releases shrank, they were making less financial sense to do, but, more importantly, Concorde was seeing there was no evidence a theatrical release was helping its product in ancillary markets.

“It got to a point where we shrugged our shoulders and slowly realized theatrical was about prestige more than it was a sales factor,” says Elliott. “The box and the cast became more important.”

While eliminating theatrical release didn’t impact Concorde’s video business, something was lost. “You know, if you go through the company’s files you find a lot of interesting stuff,” says Elliott with what almost sounds like a sense of wonder. “You can find a check to Francis Coppola for $23. When you look around in there you find out that Roger’s movies opened at Number One! X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963), the (Edgar Allan) Poe movies, Death Race 2000 (1975). In the video world, that doesn’t happen.”

One of the new business wrinkles Elliott brought to Concorde were multi-picture output deals for overseas markets. Elliott –taking on a new job yet again – became the company’s international sales person, negotiating sales of Concorde titles in five, ten, fifteen, even twenty-title batches to overseas buyers who would strip off Corman’s brand and distribute them under their own names in their domestic markets.

During his last years at Concorde, Elliott was actually Corman’s financial partner in projects. Corman himself –“Maybe it was because he was getting older, or because we were doing so many pictures, maybe both”–had become less hands-on, relying on the system in place at Concorde to keep doing what it’d been doing. According to Elliott, “He became more of an elder statesman”in the company, presiding rather than directly managing day-to-day operations. He no longer read every script. Elliott would present Corman with a piece of paper with ten sentences or so describing the movie he wanted to put in the pipeline. Corman might cross out a sentence or two, and when he was done reading he’d either make a “+”or “ – ”at the top of the paper, or simply X out the whole page. The “+”meant “yes,”the “- ”meant he didn’t like it but, if Elliott wanted to make it, he could go ahead, and the cross-out was –obviously –a “no.”

In 1995, Elliott decided to buy the company from Corman. He put up what money he had, put some partners together, and went looking on Wall Street to finance the purchase. Curiously, none of the banks typically involved in media and entertainment were interested. Instead, Elliott found financing among mercantile banks specializing in manufacturing which somehow seemed fitting considering Concorde’s production line type of moviemaking.

On the eve of concluding the deal, Corman raised the purchase price. Elliott managed to raise the additional money but then Corman hiked the price again, and, at that point, the deal collapsed.  Elliott and his associates left the company and formed Capital Arts.

Although it had been a frustrating and aggravating process, Elliott still tips his hat to Corman.  The Concorde boss wrote a “really nice release”  announcing the departure of Elliott and Co., and the launching of Capital Arts, and even offered them their first film project.

Still, this was not a good time. Elliott was, for the moment, bitter, frustrated, and maybe most importantly, broke and in debt, having spent all his money (and more) trying to set up the buy. Yet, when another company which had done work with Concorde approached Elliott about helping them with a suit against Corman over what they felt were financial “irregularities,” Elliott refused. “Roger is being straight with you,” he told them flatly. Then the company changed course and asked if Elliott and Capital Arts would make movies for them.

Initially, Capital Arts was making the sort of low-budget films Elliott had made at Concorde, but with one exception.  A certain amount of gratuitous nudity had long been a Corman staple as far back as his 1970s theatrical releases.  “Back when nobody was showing boobs, that was Roger’s bread and butter,” explains Elliott, and it remained a prerequisite element as the company moved into home video. Elliott and his associates were of like mind; it had been an aspect of Concorde product they hadn’t been particularly proud of, and decided Capitol Arts would take a different tack.

In time, the company found solid footing, the work became steadier, the projects coming the company’s way more upscale, made for bigger budgets, done for bigger companies. Capital Arts moved into TV movies, family films, and direct-to-video sequels which were becoming the mainstay of low-budget studios.

“I claim I made the first DTV sequel (with Casper: A Spirited Beginning [1997]),” laughs Elliott, meaning a home video sequel to a theatrical hit. “Stephen Einhorn’ll tell you he did with Poison Ivy 2 (1996), but I’m pretty sure they thought they were making a theatrical while they were doing it. I suspect Stephen thought it was a theatrical, too.”

Reflecting on how the business has changed in his twenty-odd years in it, one senses a certain unease…and wistfulness in Elliott. At the same time, his own experience gives him a level of empathy – and even sympathy – with today’s movie industry executives.

“In the end, a studio executive is somebody who’s guessing,” says Elliott. “Enough bad guesses and you lose your job.” Elliott believes any good movie, in time, can be recognized. He points to The Princess Bride (1987) and Office Space (1999) as movies that did poorly in theatrical release, but whose acclaim and fan base grew over the years.  But that kind of long-term appreciation doesn’t solve the immediate tactical problems of putting out small, singular movies in today’s blockbuster-dominated environment.

There is never enough time to give the care and attention to those projects requiring a certain amount of special care and attention. “Go to a studio marketing guy,” says Elliott resignedly, “Glance at his desk. How can he concentrate on one movie? He’s got ten titles sitting there. There’s a movie coming out every Friday. Look at Lionsgate, they’ve got a horror movie coming out every week either in theaters or on video. You go into these meetings to talk about what’s coming, everybody nods, says yes, and that’s the last you hear about some of these titles.” He sighs. “They don’t say, ‘Mike’s little $7 million movie needs to be worked on.’ It’s, ‘Bruckheimer’s $200 million movie needs it.’”

He considers a moment, then, “Certainly, it’s a sad and weird change that a movie has to play in one week (meaning score a good opening week). Is that an audience-driven thing? Executive-driven?”

As a producer and filmmaker there are always two impulses at war, he says:

“One: give them what they want, or Two: give them what they need.”

It had always been Corman’s mantra at Concorde that, “The only person we work for is the audience.” But along with the business, the audience has changed as well. Another sigh: “I can’t tell if it’s my age and I fight my urge to disdain…or has there been a change. The audience has certainly become less interested in drama and more in spectacle. They’re younger, less sensitive to obscene violence. Maybe that’s just a natural progression of humankind…and marketing.”

– Bill Mesce

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