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The Grindhouse That Wouldn’t Die!

The Grindhouse That Wouldn’t Die!

By the 1980s, the glory days of the movie grindhouse were over.  Rising real estate values and rents, and urban renewal ate away at the grindhouse circuit, and down the houses came, one seedy, sticky-floored theater after another.

But even though the grindhouses died out, grindhouse cinema didn’t die with it.  Like some sort of adaptive mutation, it found a new way to live in the reconfiguring terrain of 1980s movie exhibition which provided every consumer with the ability to create an individually-programmed grindhouse in his/her very own living room.

The first commercially successful VCR was introduced to the American buying public in 1975, the same year HBO became the first nationally-available pay-TV service.  By the end of the decade, a few major studios had formed “home entertainment” divisions for the purpose of producing videocassettes of their theatrical features for the home market.  Within a few years, the home video business was booming, and by 1991 there was a VCR in almost three-quarters of American homes.

But even before the new ancillaries of home video and cable had matured, the expanding streams of revenue they were throwing off were reshaping the motion picture business.  With their insatiable need for product, advance commitments from video distributors and cable channels (as well as foreign markets) were often key to financing major films.  In fact, as budgets increased to the point where few films could reach breakeven even with a respectable domestic theatrical release, ancillary monies were often the margin between a film’s financial success or failure.

These new ancillaries also provided a growth culture for a new kind of cinema underclass.  These “minors” worked from a simple economic premise.  They saw how the majors could lay off a goodly amount (and sometimes all) of production costs against projected and/or advanced ancillary revenues, effectively amortizing a production even before it went in front of the cameras.  Successful minors correctly gauged the hunger of niche audiences with appetites for lesser product as long as it was heavily laced with the old grindhouse staples of hyper action (or sex or gore etc.), and calculated that, if the majors were able to offset the costs of a big picture with the new ancillary dollars, it could be possible to put a small picture into profit the same way simply by making it cheaply enough.  Two exemplars of the minor producing ranks of the 1980s were Cannon Films and Troma Entertainment.

A small-time production company acquired in 1979 by cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, under their leadership, Cannon in the 1980s became a movie-making machine grinding out an endless succession of often cheap-looking, dramatically indistinguishable actioners and their sequels, and rolling them into theaters on a wave of hype.  It was assembly line filmmaking:  the company churned out nearly 125 movies in the space of 10 years, 43 in their peak year of 1986.  Typical Cannon fodder:  five American Ninja pictures; house star Chuck Norris going through his martial arts paces in three Missing in Action movies, two entries, and Invasion U.S.A. (1985), all turned out between 1984-1988; taking over the Texas Chain Saw Massacre brand for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986); and likewise adopting the Death Wish title for a long-running franchise with no less than four increasingly lurid sequels.  There was such a regular – if limited – audience for this kind of generic action fare it was not unusual for Cannon to aggressively mine enough in advances from cable, video, and overseas markets to put a Cannon movie in the black before it ever opened.

The key, of course, was in producing movies for a price.  Cannon’s four Death Wish sequels, for example, were produced for slightly more than $5 million per, while the three Chuck Norris-starring Missing in Action movies were turned in for a little under $4 million per, and the budgets of the studio’s five American Ninja movies didn’t even average $1 million each — this at a time when the average cost of a movie produced by one of the majors was approaching $18 million.

Troma got by on even slimmer budgets (The Toxic Avenger [1984], one of Troma’s signature titles, was produced for less than $500,000), but took a creatively different tack from Cannon.  While Cannon movies were – despite their often ludicrous plots – straight-faced thrillers, Troma dealt exclusively in a blend of the grotesque and kitschy camp.  Troma films were so knowingly ridiculous that the undernourished quality of their productions only added to their absurdist charm.  Part of Troma’s success was – and remains – its ability to actively cultivate a cult-like devotion to their often outré, tongue-in-cheek horror thrillers, films branded with such proudly off-the-wall titles as The Toxic Avenger (plus three sequels), Fat Guy Goes Nutzoid (1986), Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D. (1991), Class of Nuke ‘Em High (1986, plus two sequels), and Surf Nazis Must Die! (1987).

Key to the viability of companies like Cannon and Troma was that it was not necessary for their movies to succeed – or even make much money – at the box office; only that their titles appear on the theatrical circuit even if only for a brief time.  Theatrical release acted as little more than a primer for the ancillary markets which were the bread and butter of the minors.  Theatrical release granted a cachet to even the most junior level foray when it eventually appeared on home video, escalated the floor on pay-TV fees (premium services routinely paid more for a theatrical release than for comparable direct-to-video fare), and established a valuable brand name-recognition factor with consumers, prepping them for that time when the picture moved – quickly – to home video.

From major movies partly underwritten by ancillary advances to smaller theatricals completely subsidized by ancillaries, making product directly for ancillaries – specifically, home video – was a natural evolutionary/entrepreneurial jump.  The driving force behind direct-to-video production was the bottomless hunger for product in the home video market.

Over the space of about a decade – from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s — the cost of a home video player went from about $1000 to just a few hundred dollars.  The explosive popularity of home video created a gold rush-like environment.  Stand-alone video stores and chain franchises appeared in every neighborhood.  Any number of non-video establishments tried to cash in on the boom:  convenience stores, magazine shops, motels/hotels, even neighborhood gas stations began offering a selection of videos for rental as a sideline.

This tremendous growth in home video retailing meant there were –  literally – hundreds of miles of shelf space requiring stocking.  In what was becoming a tremendously crowded, fiercely competitive environment where it often seemed some kind of video rental was available in some kind of business on every street corner, it was a valuable marketing hook for a video store to be able to brag about the hundreds –  even thousands – of titles available on its shelves.

Home video in the 1980s was, after all, a rental-driven business.  With tapes of major titles retailing at first issue in the neighborhood of $100, tape purchases were rarely an attractive option for VCR owners (prices on home video titles did drop after their debuts to more affordable sell-through levels, but sell-through always remained secondary to rentals in the home video market).  Even when video entertainment was at its most popular, VCR owners only averaged a half-dozen tape purchases annually.  Most tape sales went to video stores who offered them as rentals, but even video stores only purchased limited copies of new releases.

A store needed a title to do so many “turns” (individual rentals) for it to pay for itself.  The more copies of a title a video store stocked, the more turns needed for the store to get its money back.  Stores aimed to stock enough copies to provide a certain level of convenience for customers, but not so many as to push breakeven to chancier levels.  When consumers had to deal with a store’s limited “depth of copy,” it behooved the store to be able to turn a customer loose among long ranks of stocked titles to look for a second choice.

The major movie companies saw an opportunity here to milk revenue out of their thousands of older library titles as well as newer movies which had, for one reason or another, been denied a theatrical release. Video store shelves began to fill with old and unreleased theatricals as well as vintage TV shows.

While the majors were plundering their libraries for home video material, developing outside the circle of mainstream movie studios was another tier of movie companies with the goal of exploiting the home video market not as an ancillary, but as the basis of their businesses.

Direct-to-video (DTV) producers like Full Moon Entertainment, Seduction Cinema, PM Entertainment, Spectacor, Empire Pictures, and Tempe Entertainment – just to name a few — were very much informed by the exploitation movie experience of the 1960s/1970s.  They knew there were niche audiences attracted to certain genres (horror, action thrillers, martial arts, softcore sex, etc.) on a more-or-less generic basis.  For the fan of splatter horror films, for example, it didn’t matter if there was a familiar star headlining the film, or what the quality of the production values were, or even if there was a modicum of cleverness to the story as long as the movie ran briskly and was regularly interrupted by scenes of gore and bizarre death.  Likewise, a fan of actioners didn’t care if a police thriller was all that realistic or even remotely credible as long as the action was loud and plentiful.

Camilla Carpenter, a one-time film acquisition executive for pay-TV service Cinemax, illustrated the almost primal appeal such generic grindhouse-caliber fare could have while discussing the consistent popularity of a series of DTV actioners the service had picked up in the early 1990s featuring martial artist Cynthia Rothrock:  “They love ‘em.  I don’t know what it is, but you’d be surprised how many guys enjoy watching an attractive girl kick the hell out of people.”

DTV titles were made for budgets ranging from just a few million to under a hundred thousand, sometimes boasting a minor or fading star, usually adhering religiously to genre conventions, had a running time of less than 90 minutes, received comparatively little promotion, and often served little more purpose than to offer the undiscriminating video store browser a second (or third) rental choice on the tacit promise of the prerequisite amount of mayhem and/or titillation in a favored genre.

As disposable as most DTV movies were, some companies – in Troma fashion – were able to cultivate followings if not for their brands than at least for some of their franchises.  Full Moon Entertainment, for one, which specializes in a blend of horror/sci fi/fantasy, managed to turn its 1985 Trancers – a sci fier about a futuristic bounty hunter –into a franchise with no less than three sequels, while the company’s 1989 Puppet Master – about a collection of sentient dolls carrying out the evil bidding of the title character – was also followed by three more installments.

By the mid-1990s, however, the boom in home video had crested.  VCR ownership was plateauing, and there was a glut in the kind of B- and C-caliber titles which made up most DTV product.  Said one DTV director at the time, “There’s just too much stuff out there.  The buyers can pick and choose and it’s hard to get a good price for a picture now.”

Consequently, the end of the decade saw an enormous shakeout among the ranks of low-budget DTV producers.  Companies like Troma and Full Moon, which had managed to build a brand name-loyal fan base, were able to survive, but most either folded or found themselves struggling in an overstuffed and contracting market.

As the century turned, DTV producers also found themselves challenged by shifting in the financial base of the business due to the introduction of yet another new home entertainment technology:  DVD.

As lucrative as the home video business had been for Hollywood, there had always been a level of dissatisfaction with the way home video had played out.  Movie studios had made their money primarily on the sale of product to video rental outlets, but hadn’t shared in the enormous revenues generated by rentals.  The movie industry looked to avoid repeating that strategic error with the DVD business.

From the outset, Hollywood thought of DVD distribution as a “sell-through” business, setting prices on DVDs low enough at first issue to be attractive to the average consumer.  As a consequence, DVD played out in a reverse of home video, with revenue from consumer DVD purchases far outstripping rental revenue.  By the mid-2000s, the average DVD owner was buying 17 titles per year; a nearly three-fold improvement over the home video years.

As the home market shifted from rental- to purchase-driven, the majors’  view of direct-to-video/DVD production also changed.

During the early, tentative years of the home video business, a number of movie companies had ceded the task of distribution to independent video distributors (i.e. Vestron, Thorn/EMI and so on) and co-ventures (CBS/Fox, for example).  But, as the potential of home video became more manifestly clear, the majors moved to fully control their product from production all the way through ancillary distribution.  Eventually, every major studio came to establish its own video arm, leaving indie distribs to either fold, or fill their catalogs with DTV product and titles from production companies too small to have their own home video arms.

The attitude of the majors similarly evolved with respect to direct-to production.  Much as they had bulled aside the independents and taken control of distribution during the home video era, they now looked to muscle aside the smaller companies which comprised most of the DTV ranks.  In the purchase-driven DVD era, the majors’ preferred strategy was to build their DTDVD product on established brand names, turning out DVD sequels to theatrical hits and launching them into the marketplace with promotional campaigns comparable to those supporting the DVD debuts of their theatricals.  As of this writing, most – if not all – of the major motion picture companies have established divisions for the express purpose of exploiting popular theatrical titles with spinoffs for the DTDVD market.

Warner Bros., for example, created Warner Premiere in 2006 with the goal of turning out DTDVD features in the $5 million budget range, preferably theatrical spin-offs, its inaugural effort being The Dukes of Hazzard:  The Beginning (2007), a DTDVD sequel to its $80.3 million grossing 2005 theatrical, The Dukes of Hazzard; Universal has turned out three DTDVD sequels to its 2000 teen comedy Bring It On, two direct-to sequels to its American Pie series of theatricals, and continues to extend its The Land Before Time “kid vid” franchise through a dozen direct-to follow-ups to the 1988 animated feature, the most recent of which was produced in 2007.

Surviving DTV companies (now DTDVD companies) not only have to contend with being in head-to-head competition against more upscale, heavily promoted direct-to product from the majors, but they also have to deal with a reconfiguration of the retail terrain.  The video store had been the cornerstone of the home video rental business, but with the stress on sell-through, any number of retail outlets – from chain stores like Wal-Mart to supermarkets – have come into play presenting a problem for the low-budget DTDVD producer.

The DTV business had been predicated on the idea that for the two-three dollar cost of a rental, video store browsers wouldn’t mind settling, as a second choice, on the kind of generic product most DTV producers turned out.  However, selling that same product for $15-25 turned out to be a significantly different proposition.

Trying to get consumers to make the greater investment in a permanent acquisition of DTV generics is hard enough.  Making it harder is that stores like Wal-Mart, Target, etc. tend to favor mainstream, easily recognizable titles they feel they can sell in bulk.  And, in maintaining a family-friendly retail environment, many such chains have policies against stocking certain kinds of extreme material – the kind of graphic/bizarre sex and/or violence offering which had been the mainstay of many a low-budget grindhouse-type film producer.

As if exploitation producers didn’t have enough to contend with on the business front, their business was also being eroded on the creative side as well.  Bluntly:  the audience didn’t need them anymore.

Exploitation cinema had always been about offering moviegoers the taboo, the forbidden, the mainstream no-nos.  But sensibilities have changed since the grindhouse Golden Years of the 1960s-1970s, and what once had been confined to the grindhouse and midnight show has long since found its way into the mainstream.

The old splatter films have nothing on movies like Saw (2004) and its sequels, Hostel (2005) and its sequel, Cabin Fever (2002), House of 1000 Corpses (2003) The Devil’s Rejects (2005) et al, all screening at the nearest multiplex just down the hall from Yogi Bear (2010) and The King’s Speech (2010).  If you were into the grindhouse S & M kink of Ilsa:  She Wolf of the SS (1975), you can find much higher quality stuff on Cinemax or Showtime after midnight without the indignity of having to sneak into a theater, and/or find an infinitely more of infinitely varied hardcore kink at free online porn sites.

Still, for all the alternatives and challenges, the exploitation movie lives…if barely.  There is still a DVD rental business, though it is vastly diminished from the home video peak years.  Veteran low-budgeters like Roger Corman and companies like Troma and Full Moon have their fan bases, and other DVD distributors have found a business in repackaging vintage exploitation films from the grindhouse heyday for exploitation aficionados…and there are more than a few.  So, the low-budget exploitation movie may not be extinct…but as a distinct species, it certainly appears endangered.

The question, then, is there anything to mourn in its threatened demise?

After all, for most casual moviegoers, the exploitation movie – from its grindhouse Golden Age through its home video profligacy – was something invisible, or, at best, little noted; the exploitation movie’s appeal was always a narrow one.  Other than possibly expanding the boundaries of what was tolerable in mainstream movies in terms of gore and perverse violence – a debatable accomplishment – exploitation movies have had little impact on the direction of the business or creative evolution of Hollywood movie-making.  Does the exploitation movie signify anything other than opportunism built on appealing to the basest, most voyeuristic instincts in its audience?

There may be little to mourn, but possibly something to miss.  Here and there among the splatter and flying kicks and jiggling bosoms of the exploitation era, there was – at least on occasion, to some eyes anyway – something truly creative and inspired happening out there beyond the fringe of mainstream commercial moviemaking.  Although thrillers like Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), The Last House on the Left (1972), and the other well-remembered Grand Guignols from the period were typically dismissed at the time as just another strain of splatter movie, the years have seen both their cult fan bases and critical cachet rise.  There was, so goes a revised view, a sense of style and craft at work in some of these horrific rule-breaking shockers, and in their extreme carnage some saw a funhouse mirror reflection of the violence, moral chaos, and social upheaval of one of the most tumultuous periods in American history.

In comparison, the graphic horrors of today – including remakes of those 1960s/1970s touchstones – are often about little more than delivering jolts to young ticket buyers.  One of the patron saints of graphic horror – Night of the Living Dead’s writer/director George Romero – has rued the so-called torture porn horror movies (movies like Saw, Hotel, et al) as “…cruelty for the sake of cruelty…Everybody wants this sort of, bim-bam-boom shock effect.

In the passing of the grindhouse and its distinctive fare, there is also a nostalgia factor.  There are those who look back at the threadbare productions, the audacious stories, transparent shock effects, and bad acting and see a kind of campy charm.

Who doesn’t miss charm?

– Bill Mesce