Samuel Z. Arkoff holds an important place in the history of cinema as leading creator and originator of exploitation, low-budget films. The son of a Russian-Jewish immigrant, Samuel Zachary Arkoff was born on June 18, 1918, in Fort Dodge, Iowa. After deserting the czar's army, Arkoff's father had moved to Iowa in 1905, and opened a clothing store in Fort Dodge. Arkoff spent his youth in Fort Dodge and began his appreciation of motion pictures after coming across a copy of Variety magazine at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair.
Arkoff graduated from Fort Dodge High School in 1935 and was a year short of graduating from the University of Iowa when World War II began. During World War II he served in the United States Army Air Force as a cryptographer. In 1945, while still serving in the US armed forces, he married Hilda Rusoff in Winnipeg, Canada. Their two children, Louis and Donna, would later work in the motion picture industry themselves, Louis with his father.
After the war Arkoff moved to Los Angeles and attended Loyola Law School, from which he graduated in 1948.
Arkoff started his career in the entertainment industry as a legal expert in producer-distributor-exhibitor cases. By 1950, he had become vice president of Video Associates, for which he produced the Hank McCune Show, one of television's first series.
Arkoff co-founded American Releasing Corp. in 1954 with his partner, a film exhibitor named James H. Nicholson, and a $3,000 loan from Joseph Moritz, Nicholson's former employer. The company started with the intention of distributing films only, but Arkoff and Nicholson found that, because of the film recession of the 1950s, there was little product to distribute. Thus, they decided create their own content as well. They changed American Releasing Corp.'s name to American International Pictures (AIP) in 1955 and started to produce low budget B-movies. Nicholson was president of the organization, Arkoff its chairman of the board.
Arkoff and Nicholson astutely discerned that a youth market existed for action and sensationalistic films, a direction in marketing that made AIP successful. The pair consequently directed their product to teenagers, a successful marketing strategy that earned them hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The company's first release,"The Fast and the Furious," was produced by Roger Corman for $66,000 and made a profit of $150,000, drawing audiences with its themes of fast cars and women, and fugitives on the run. The success of AIP was also tied to double bills at the drive-in theaters, with such packages as "The Day the World Ended" and "The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues" typical of this drive-in fare. This then was the formula for AIP’s success: double-feature films produced on a low budget and built on lurid themes skillfully illustrated by their titles and craftily marketed. As Arkoff once quipped, “In the morning Jim (Nicholson) would come in and say, 'What do you think of this title ... "The Beast With a Million Eyes"?' Ahhh, I could hear the money rolling in." He also noted that "exhibitors would come up to me and say 'Sam, if we could just punch sprocket holes in the campaign and throw the film away'." Between 1954 and 1960, the company did not make one film that lost money. In the decades of the 1950s and 1960s, AIP never had a year in the red, regardless of the type of movie Arkoff and Nicholson were offering: horror, biker, science fiction, or beach.
Iconic of AIP's marketing and its audience was "I Was a Teenage Werewolf," released in 1957. Youthful Michael Landon was the teenage werewolf, and the sub-text of teenage alienation, coupled with the movie's horror theme, made the film a hit with teenagers, who flocked to see the movie at drive-ins. (It grossed $2000000.)
Arkoff helped launch the careers of a number of well known actors and movie makers, such as Roger Corman (the director of his first movie), Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Woody Allen, Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert DeNiro and Martin Scorsese.Besides launching new faces, Arkoff also helped the careers of aging stars such as Vincent Price, who starred in AIP's Edgar Allen Poe film series, in the 1960s.
James H. Nicholson left AIP in 1971, and Arkoff took over as the company's president. By this time, AIP had become an established production company. Arkoff received a number of honors, including recognition as Producer of the Year in 1963 by the Allied States Association of Motion Picture Theater Owners, and the Master Showman of the Decade award from the Theater Owners of America in 1964. In 1970, he was named Commendatore of the Order of Merit by the president of the Republic of Italy in 1970. In 1973 Arkoff was appointed international ambassador of Variety Clubs, the showmen's organization devoted to helping needy children.
In 1973 Samuel's son, Louis S. Arkoff, joined AIP as a legal administrator. He would go on to be appointed to the company's executive staff and, in 1976, become American International Pictures' vice-president.
1978 saw AIP's first financial loss, which forced the company to merge with Filmways, Inc. in 1979 as a subsidiary. Even with this status, Arkoff still ran the subsidary. The same year as the merger, AIP made and distributed "The Amityville Horror," which was the largest grossing independent film of its time. "Love at First Bite" and "Dressed to Kill" were also made during this time.
1979 also saw AIP's 25th anniversary. Arkoff was invited to take part in a number of celebrations, the most notable being at New York's Museum of Modern Art, where an American International Pictures retrospective screened over 30 of AIP's most popular films. Arkoff received this honor with the comment that "time can dignify anything."
Arkoff left American International Pictures in 1980, citing an inability to work within the confines of a corporate structure. By that time, he had produced and/or distributed more than 500 films. Upon his departure, Arkoff formed the Samuel Z. Arkoff Company in 1980; and, in 1981, his own independent production company, Arkoff International Pictures (also abbreviated AIP), where he worked as a film producer and executive. The company never matched the success of his early career.
In 1992, Arkoff published his memoirs, Flying through Hollywood by the Seat of My Pants, an account of his career as an independent film producer and distributor.
Samuel Z. Arkoff died in 2001, only months after his wife Hilda's death.
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