Keeping Company: A Survey of Now Defunct Production and Distributon Companies

People have often used the term "retrophile" in describing my tastes and creative proclivities. After all, I was one who was tickled with a nerdishly giddy (or giddily nerdish) delight when seeing that Tarantino used the old Universal Pictures logo of 1967-1974 to open Inglourious Basterds, and when noticing that Fincher used my favorite old Paramount logo of 1968-1975 to open Zodiac. Both of these instances were cause for me to exclaim, "If I made a major studio picture, I'd always use one of their old logos to open it!" For a Warner film, I would have most likely used Saul Bass' logo of 1975-1984 (or, even better, the one from their "A Kinney Company" era in the early 70's), and for a Columbia film, the one used in the late 60's. And then there are the great United Artists logos: the "Transamerica whale's tail" or the one with the spooky Jerry Fielding music.

Another instance of my deep-seated desire to exploit opportunities to be esoterically retro occurred when a friend of mine completed a 3-hour film. I was ecstatic that he would be premiering it with an Intermission and envisioned in my mind a 60's Roadshow-style presentation, with Overture, Intermission, Entr'acte and Exit Music. I even suggested at one point that we hand out programs the way they used to at epic movie roadshows. The idea was not met with even nearly equal enthusiasm. I understood why this was impractical. No one would have gotten the reference or even the fact that it was a reference at all.

Since I am not making films nearly on the scale of a major Hollywood production, I recently settled for opening my upcoming film The Idiotmaker's Gravity Tour, a sort of elegy to "journey films" of the early 1970's, with a 5-second MPAA certificate claiming my film as having been rated GP, a short-lived rating signifying "General Public" which was used only from 1970 through 1972. Alright, so a little self-indulgent, I admit it. It's a quick five seconds at the header of my film (once upon a time, all films in the U.S. opened the first reel with an MPAA-rating header). I figure audiences can hang in with me for that long at the very outset, even if they don't get the reference. At one point, I seriously considered opening the film with the logo of a defunct production company, but stopped short, considering the possible legal ramifications of this idea, and considering that existing companies owned the defunct companies' catalogues. It was fun, however, deliberating which one I would have used. Some of the options I considered are below. That said, whenever I see a film headed up by these logos, I feel automatically privileged to be viewing works specifically of (and often for) their times.

Cinema Center Films (1967-1972) (Assets currently held by Paramount/CBS) As far as I am concerned, Cinema Center has one of the coolest animated logos I can remember. You can view it on YouTube above. Spearheaded by CBS for the release of the Doris Day vehicle With Six You Get Eggroll in 1967-68, Cinema Center would soon become a formidable production house, turning towards the risky and/or controversial (e.g. 1970's The Boys in the Band, Something for Everyone) as well as commercially viable genre pictures (e.g. Little Big Man, The Reivers) not to mention the tame and family friendly fare (e.g. Snoopy Go Home, Scrooge). CCF was eclectic. Something for Everyone, directed by New York stage sensation Harold Prince, actually happens to be one of my favorite films, but Cinema Center's contribution to American filmdom of the late 60's and early 70's does not stop there. Other Cinema Center films of note include: Adam at 6 A.M. (1970), an unfairly dismissed and most curious Steve McQueen-produced entry into the "journey film" cycle featuring a very young Michael Douglas in a Five Easy Pieces-type role; Who is Harry Kellerman and Why is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? (1971), an underrated Herb Gardner-penned character study featuring Dustin Hoffman as a disillusioned rock music composer; The Christian Licorice Store (1971), an unusual, simultaneously emotionally distant and involving exploration of a professional tennis player's decline into shallow living featuring cameos by Jean Renoir, Monte Hellman, James B. Harris and others; This company was the numero uno front-runner when I was still considering using a defunct company's logo to open my new film. Other films of note: The April Fools (1969), Prime Cut (1972), Blue Water White Death (1971), Figures in a Landscape (1970).

National General Pictures (1967-1973)
(Assets currently held by Warner Bros.) It is very appropriate that National General Pictures follows Cinema Center Films because NGP was the official distribution company for CCF's films. National General did helm nine in-house productions, including one of my favorite films, Daniel Mann's A Dream of Kings (1969) starring Anthony Quinn. In 1973, the company attempted to merge with Warner Brothers, in hopes to acquire and take over. When this plan of action failed, National General closed its doors. Ironically, it is Warner that now owns their in-house productions. Films of note: Executive Action (1973), Up the Sandbox (1972), The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972), The Todd Killings (1971), The Grasshopper (1970), Poor Cow (1967), The Baby Maker (1970).

Cinerama Releasing Corporation/ABC Circle Films (1966-1974)
(Assets currently held by Walt Disney with video rights to MGM, with select titles under license to miscellaneous other video distributors) When someone says Cinerama in mixed company, it clearly does not illicit the memory of an actual production company, but rather an ambitious "stretch" 70mm process made popular throughout the 60's with films like How the West Was Won and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (both 1963), Battle of the Bulge (1965), Grand Prix (1966) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Cinerama Releasing is to ABC exactly what Cinema Center Films is to CBS. Cinerama Releasing even released a number of certified 70mm Cinerama productions during its tenure, including Song of Norway (1970), Krakatoa East of Java (1969) and Custer of the West (1967). Cinerama also released such films as the Oscar heavyweight They Shoot Horses Don't They? (1969), Straw Dogs (1971), Kotch (1971) and a great many others, making it by far one of the most prolific of the defunct companies I am surveying, and also one of the most eclectic.

Avco-Embassy Films (1949-1994) (Assets currently held by Studio Canal through Lion's Gate Films, as well as select titles under video license to Anchor Bay and Image) You know Joseph E. Levine, don't you? Come on, you've gotta remember this guy! After all, he's the "great artist-producer" who "presented" films like 8 1/2, Contempt and the Hercules films to American and British audiences. Yes, the first thing you saw in a Fellini film was not "Un film de Federico Fellini," but instead "Joseph E. Levine Presents". A great deal has been said and written about Avco-Embassy CEO Levine and it is far from flattering. For one, a close friend of mine, production designer Paul Sylbert, wrote an entire book called Final Cut: The Making and Breaking of a Motion Picture about his titanic battles with Levine over the production and final cut of his film The Steagle (1971). Other accounts say likewise inflammatory things about Levine as a businessman and as an individual of low moral fiber. However, many of the films that his company Avco-Embassy released throughout its five-decade tenure are nothing to sneeze at. The Graduate, The Producers, The Lion in Winter, Carnal Knowledge and The Ruling Class were just five of the myriad of films produced and distributed by Avco Embassy Pictures, which went belly-up in the mid 90's due to bankruptcy.

American International Pictures (AIP) (1956-1980) Do the names Roger Corman and Samuel Z. Arkoff ring any bells? Arkoff was the man whose well-known business model was ARKOFF: Action, Revolution, Killing, Oratory, Fantasy and Fornication. Later, the "Peter Pan Policy" was adopted at AIP. These were the precepts of that policy: (1) a younger child will watch anything an older child will watch; (2) an older child will not watch anything a younger child will watch; (3) a girl will watch anything a boy will watch; (4) a boy will not watch anything a girl will watch. The conclusion? Zero in on the 19-year old male! Thus, American International was responsible for all those fun little Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello beach party movies, grade-C horror and sci-fi pictures like The She-Creature and The Terror, pale Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, motorcycle gang pictures like Hell's Angels on Wheels, counterculture freak-outs like The Trip and Psych-Out, and youth exploitation pictures like Wild in the Streets, Gas-s-s-s and Riot on Sunset Strip. AIP products, however, were the training ground for many of the filmmakers that would storm the Hollywood Bastille following the success of Easy Rider, including Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, John Sayles and a great many others. Their later years were spent producing slightly more mainstream efforts like The Amityville Horror, Shout at the Devil and The Island of Dr. Moreau, before biting the bullet finally in 1980, selling out to Filmways which later became Orion.

Cannon Releasing Corporation (1968-1993) (Assets from 1969-1979 currently held by MGM, and assets from 1980-1993 currently held by Warner Bros.) The names Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus ring in infamy within the halls of moviedom. The term "schlockmeisters" was often synonymous with the Israeli entrepreneurs who turned a once-profitable independent filmmaking company founded in 1969 by Christopher C. Dewey and Dennis Friedland to foster films like Joe (1970) and Sam's Song (1969) into the "den of high class" responsible for Death Wish 3, 4 and 5, Missing in Action 1 and 2, the unbelievably schlocky camp musical The Apple (1980), the Indiana Jones knock-off Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold (1986) and other "super prestige" titles. Under Golan and Globus' reign, the aforementioned ethereal art film Sam's Song was re-edited into a trashy action-suspense yarn called The Swap (over which the film's star Robert De Niro rightly sued). As an aside, it is ironic that the recut version of that film so designed to make the film more commercial features less of De Niro (he's only in the new version for about 14 minutes versus the old version's entire 83 minutes) and more of the acting chops of "dynamic thespian" Anthony Charnota (never heard of him? there's a good reason for that). Golan and Globus did try their hand in the world of the arthouse film and mainstream drama with releases like John Cassavetes' Love Streams (1984), Andrei Konchalovsky's three-film cycle Runaway Train (1985), Duet for One (1986) and Shy People (1987), Norman Mailer's Tough Guys Don't Dance (1987) and Godard's embarrassing King Lear (1987). Cannon's legacy in schlock is known before any of the titles representative of that schlock. By the late 80's, Cannon was showing considerable signs of great financial strain, exemplified by a key event: the budget for their A-list production for 1987, Superman IV, had been cut literally in half from $36 million to $17 million just days before the film was to begin shooting. In the midst of a slew of lawsuits, a Golanless Globus closed Cannon's doors in 1993.

Orion Pictures (1978-1992) (Assets currently held by MGM) In the wake of Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate in 1980 and the fracas thereafter, disgruntled ex-United Artists employees, some leaving willfully and others defrocked and sacked in the wake of changes of the corporate guard and a no-frills merger (read: takeover) with MGM, headed over to the auspices of the newly founded Orion Pictures, originally partnered with Warner (until 1982) essentially to continue the work they started at UA. It was a profitable and often artistically fruitful venture, spawning a great many formidable Oscar contenders, including a few that actually brought home the bacon, including Amadeus, Platoon, Dances With Wolves and Silence of the Lambs. Orion was also the home of Woody Allen's 1980's output, including Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors. The company, due in large part to creative accounting which caught up to the ailing studio, as well as a string of ambitious flops that went over-budget, Orion folded and closed, even in the wake of two consecutive big Best Picture Oscar scores and hits.

RKO Radio Pictures (1928-1957, 1981-1987) (Assets currently held by Warner Bros. in the U.S. and Universal in the U.K.) RKO's logo is indelible in the minds of American history, let alone American film history. This was most heartily demonstrated by its prominent display as a backdrop during the last act of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. In all honesty, what can you say about the production company that released Citizen Kane, Top Hat, King Kong, Bringing Up Baby and Murder My Sweet? It's already been said. I am going to focus on the company's later incarnations, however, because not much is known widely about the later rebirths of the company. I remember watching D.C. Cab (1983) with Mr. T when I was a youngster and, already a cinephile (albeit a different breed of one), I was puzzled by text in the opening credits of that film which stated that it was an RKO Production. Research well over a decade later (thanks to the then-developing powers of the Internet), I discovered that the later RKO worked in cooperation with Universal Pictures and released five pictures, including the Burt Reynolds-Dolly Parton picture The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982). An attempted hostile takeover led to it ultimately being acquired by a capital firm, thus it went defunct once again. It was reborn yet again, notably to release the landmark 1992 independent film Sundance festival hit Laws of Gravity directed by Nick Gomez. More nasty treading of corporate pirate waters led once again to its demise.


A possible spin-off of this article could be companies that started small and grew Popeye-style with a little corporate spinach. Examples of this? Lion's Gate is a production house started up by Robert Altman in 1970. The company would release Alan Rudolph's Welcome to L.A. (1976) and Remember My Name (1978) as well as Robert Young's Rich Kids (1979), all of which Altman produced. Look at the company as it exists now. It's a titan which has grown in size exponentially! Part of me wonders what Altman thought of this. Being Altman, he probably did not care one way or the other. New Line Cinema is another example. It started as a small production house on Manhattan's 14th Street and Second Avenue, importing foreign and art films for American release. It also branched out into releasing American indie productions like Susan Seidelman's Smithereens (1982). Enter Ted Turner...the rest is, as they say, history.

But I have always avoided news featuring stories about full-body-contact games of corporate roller hockey. I need an interest in that like I need a hole in my head. What does interest me is the risky material these often short-lived companies chose to champion and, in some way, shove into the popular consciousness. I am one curiously afflicted by a deep-seated premature nostalgia, and seeing these logos at the head of films is like full-cerebral massage. I nestle into another time completely. I would have gladly placed the Cinema Center Films logo at the start of my film The Idiotmaker's Gravity Tour...but I fear a game of full-body-contact corporate roller hockey. And so it goes...

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