Erin Wiegand, Northumbria University
3 April 2019
This February, I had the pleasure of visiting the William H. Hannon Library at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles. I was there to conduct research within a single collection the library holds: the Samuel Z. Arkoff papers. Donated to the library in 2008 by Arkoff’s children, Donna Roth and Lou Arkoff, the collection contains over a hundred boxes of archival materials primarily relating to Arkoff’s work as a film producer.
Arkoff is best known as the cofounder of American International Pictures, an independent studio which he acted as producer for, and later president of, from 1954–1980. American International Pictures became successful producing and distributing low-budget, quickly made films packaged as double bills, particularly for drive-in circuits, and specialized in science fiction, horror, biker, and other genre films. Above all else, AIP became synonymous with the newly identified ‘teen market’, which they aggressively targeted in both marketing campaigns and the teen-oriented content of the films themselves. In the 1960s, AIP pioneered the ‘beach party’ genre, anchored by stars Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, while also finding success with horror fans in the ‘Poe cycle’, a series of films directed by Roger Corman that adapted (often very loosely) the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Arkoff and AIP also launched the careers of many now-famous actors and directors, including Francis Ford Coppola, Robert DeNiro, Jack Nicholson, and Martin Scorsese.
The archive contains a wealth of information on AIP and Arkoff’s career, including a huge collection of pressbooks, film stills and photographs, lobby cards and posters, and continuity scripts, as well as financial materials, release schedules, contracts, correspondence, and publicity materials for a wide range of films, from How to Stuff a Wild Bikini to The Amityville Horror. Multiple boxes also contain Arkoff’s personal correspondence, speeches and interviews, press clippings, and materials relating to his charitable work. A full eight boxes of the archive document the production details of Arkoff’s unreleased film Nightcrawler (which he had worked on for years after leaving AIP in 1980 and establishing his own production company), including contracts, scripts, and financial documents; another box contains details of Arkoff’s plans to remake AIP’s hit film I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) in the early 1990s. In short, the collection is pure gold for anyone interested in Arkoff himself or in the workings of AIP, as it provides an incredible variety of materials.
But it’s also a great resource for anyone researching American exploitation and B-films of the 1950s–1970s—like I am. What led me to the archive was not an interest in Arkoff or AIP specifically, but rather the fact that it was a rare source for publicly accessible archival materials of any kind relating to exploitation films. Film historians investigating exploitation films have particular challenges when it comes to archives, for several reasons: first, the producers and distributors responsible for these films generally regarded them as disposable, uninteresting beyond their ability to make money quickly, and relatively interchangeable with one another. Unlike major studios and prestige production outfits, it would have been unusual for anyone to have kept any records such as production notes, correspondence, budgets, and the like, and such documents are extremely hard to find for exploitation films. Additionally, what materials do exist have typically not been considered a priority by most archives, given the low cultural status and poor quality of exploitation films (and the relative lack of interest in researching them). Thus, to find an archive housing something as large and detailed as the Arkoff collection is a real treat!
My own research project is concerned with the relationship between exploitation films and conceptions of documentary sobriety, veracity, and education, examining a wide range of exploitation films that employed a documentary mode and highlighted this aspect in their marketing. Since I’m particularly interested in this latter aspect, the Arkoff collection’s abundant assortment of pressbooks was a big draw for me. After reviewing the collection catalog, I was able to identify about twenty films on my list that I had not yet found pressbooks or marketing materials for, including Mondo Teeno, Ecco, Africa Uncensored, Witchcraft 70, Kama Sutra, and Helga. In addition to pressbooks and posters, I also found a few interesting bits of correspondence, including a telegram from an Oklahoma City drive-in exhibitor to exploitation producer Bob Cresse congratulating him on the ‘sensational’ success of his film Ecco (a re-edit of two Italian ‘mondo movies’), which Cresse had worked with AIP to distribute. Additionally, a letter and press campaign sent by AIP to exhibitors for its film Helga (a German sex-education film repackaged as exploitation fare) provided some fascinating insights into promotional strategies around the film, which (contrary to what I’d expected) AIP suggested would benefit from heavy targeting of ‘women’s audiences’, such as buying ad spots during daytime soap operas and game shows. Taken together, the material I collected from the archive in just one day was enormously invigorating to my research and absolutely worth the trip.
The special collections reading room is small but comfortable, and I was the only researcher there for the entire day. Lockers are available just outside the room for storing personal belongings—the only things allowed inside the reading room are laptops, phones, notepaper, and pencils. The archive does allow photographs for personal use, so the bulk of my time was spent taking photos with my phone (using the CamScanner app) to review in more detail later.
The library itself is located on the Loyola Marymount University campus in Los Angeles, close to the Los Angeles International Airport. While I did see a few campus shuttles running, I would advise those considering a visit that public transportation may be tricky for visiting this archive; I had rented a car, and easily found parking in a campus lot near the library ($12.50 for a full day). Other tips for visiting researchers: while I packed my own lunch to eat on the patio outside, there is a Starbucks adjacent to the library and a number of food options in the Lair Marketplace in the Malone Building, about a five-minute walk away.
While I spent my day working entirely within the Arkoff collection, Cynthia Becht, head of archives and special collections at the library, suggested that film scholars might also be interested in their largest film history collection, the Arthur P Jacobs collection. Jacobs, initially a PR agent for stars such as Marilyn Monroe, Warren Beatty, and Gregory Peck, was also the producer of the original Planet of the Apes series, and the archive contains a treasure trove of materials on these films: multiple screenplay drafts, storyboards, production notes and correspondence, publicity materials, and more.
A final note to fellow exploitation-film researchers: if visiting LA, it is also worth a trip to the Margaret Herrick Library, where I also found a handful of interesting bits of correspondence, draft scripts, and notes brainstorming ideas for advertising slogans for a few films on my list. Of interest as well is the Dan Sonney collection at the UCLA Film and Television Archive (write to the archive for a PDF catalog), although unfortunately most of the films it contains are not in viewable condition. (However, researchers can make special requests in the case of a film essential to their study, though assume at least six months between the request and an appointment, given the complex and delicate work involved.)
To browse the inventory of the Arkoff Papers, see http://pdf.oac.cdlib.org/pdf/clloy/arkoff.pdf
To search the complete holdings of the library, including the Samuel Z Arkoff and Arthur P Jacobs collections, visit https://oac.cdlib.org/institutions/Loyola+Marymount+University,+Department+of+Archives+and+Special+Collections,+William+H.+Hannon+Library
Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Cynthia Becht, Lauren Longwell, and the student staff at the William H Hannon Library for all their assistance!
Erin Wiegand is a postgraduate researcher at Northumbria University, where she is completing her doctoral dissertation on exploitation documentary films. She is also the web editor of the JCMS Teaching Dossier and a programming volunteer at the Star and Shadow Cinema in Newcastle upon Tyne. For more about her work and publications, visit http://erinewiegand.com or follow her @erinewiegand on Twitter.
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