R.I.P. Roger Corman, Filmmaker and Free Marketer

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American cinema lost one of its great entrepreneurs last week when producer and director Roger Corman died at age 98. In a career that spanned from the mid-1950s to the late 2010s, Corman made hundreds of films, most of them independent of the major studios. To generations of filmmakers, he was proof that the industry was an open market for anyone with ambition and drive. Funding, experience, and talent were optional.

Prior to the 1950s, the film industry had been dominated by a few major studios like Warner Brothers, MGM, and Disney. Anyone that aspired to be a filmmaker had to work under one of them and abide by their rules. Corman proved it was possible to operate outside of that system. He got his start by taking advantage of a new, emerging market that the big studios didn’t know what to make of: drive-in theaters.

It was likely that many of the patrons at the drive-ins paid more attention to their dates than whatever monster movie or teen exploitation flick was being projected onto the screen. That was fine with Corman, who just wanted people to come to his movies. A lurid title and premise like “Attack of the Crab Monsters,” “Not of this Earth” or “The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent” would do the trick.

He succeeded by working quickly, efficiently, and, most of all, cheaply. The stories of how Corman cut corners to keep production costs down on his films down are legendary. If you’re filming a scene outdoors, why bother to spend money on traditional film lights when you can just have the cast and crew line up their cars off-screen and switch on their headlights? You just finished making a movie ahead of schedule? Quick, use those remaining four days before the sets are struck down to have the cast and crew improvise a whole other movie! His philosophy was “Embrace limitations and turn them into creative opportunities.”

Corman produced a staggering 493 films according to the Internet Movie Database—and that figure is probably still incomplete. Most of it was schlock. Corman would probably have been the first to admit that. He focused on getting the film done and into theaters regardless of how rough it might have been around the edges.

That is not to say that Corman was untalented or didn’t care about the quality of his films. You cannot make as many as he did without learning a few things and without having an affinity for the filmmaking process itself. He was, at heart, an entertainer. “The key to making a successful film is understanding your audience and giving them what they want,” Corman said. By operating outside of the system and being prolific, he was also able to take risks and experiment. If a film failed, well, there was always the next one. And the one after that.

Corman’s best work as a director was a series of terrific Edgar Allen Poe adaptions in the 1960s featuring horror icon Vincent Price. He also made the original version of the black comedy “Little Shop of Horrors.” He produced the Ramones comedy “Rock n’ Roll High School” and cult sci-fi classic “Battle Beyond the Stars.”

As the industry changed, Corman continually adapted along with it. When drive-ins began to die off in the 1970s, he began producing movies for the inner-city grindhouse theaters. When VCRs came along in 1980s, Corman was instrumental in creating the direct-to-video market. In the 1990s, he produced late-night cable melodramas for Showtime. He was still at it in the 2000s, producing films like “Dinocroc vs. Supergator” for the Syfy channel. His last producer credit was 2021’s “The Jungle Demon,” made when he was in his mid-90s.

“While giving us a tour of his Venice studio and pointing out sets that had been used dozens of times, he told us that he’d made so many movies that he had a recurring nightmare that he’d made one that he’d forgotten to release. [Corman said] ‘Did I release Body Chemistry 3 or was it Sorority House Massacre 3? I wake up in a cold sweat & have to double check!’” recalled producer Lee Goldberg.

He had a sharp eye for talent too, and that might have been his greatest gift to cinema. He gave young actors like Jack Nicholson and William Shatner their breaks in the movie business, and produced the early directorial efforts of Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Joe Dante, Jonathan Demme, Curtis Hanson, Penelope Spheeris, and Ron Howard, among others. James Cameron got his start doing special effects for Corman films. “Roger Corman was my very first boss, my lifetime mentor and my hero,” Gale Ann Hurd, producer of the “Terminator” films, told the Associated Press.

Those are just the ones we know of. There are countless other filmmakers who got their inspiration after they watched a Roger Corman film and thought, “Hey, I could do that too!” It is a legacy that he had every reason to be proud of.