Roger Corman is the B-movie king, a man who helped launch dozens of directors and actors ranging from Francis Ford Coppola and James Cameron, to Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson. His legacy is secure, but its ownership is in question: In March, Corman sold rights to the 270 films in his New Horizon Picture catalog in a joint deal with Shout! Factory and China’s Ace Film HK. Two weeks later, Corman’s two sons filed a lawsuit challenging the sale, claiming their father and his wife, Julie Corman, didn’t have the right to sell the catalog because some of its titles belonged to The Pacific Trust, which Corman established to benefit his four children.
In a recent interview with IndieWire, the film legend dismissed the lawsuit as unfounded. “It’s a minor thing and nobody is paying any attention to it,” said Corman. “They [Shout! And Ace Films] aren’t paying any attention because I’ve indemnified them, which you always do with these things, and also there’s a misunderstanding.”
Within seven days of closing the deal, Ace announced it was in pre-production on eight remakes based on Corman’s “Bloodfist” films. Corman, without mentioning his sons or addressing a family dispute, said Pacific Trust representatives did “no research” and indicated that once both sides were working with the same information, the suit would disappear. (IndieWire has reached out to the plaintiffs’ attorneys for comment, and will update if they respond.)
As an example of the disconnect, Corman singled out the first film on The Pacific Trust’s list of titles, “The Arena,” which seemed to indicate that the company didn’t realize there were two versions of the film. “It’s film about women gladiators in ancient Rome,” said Corman, referring to the original 1974 version. “I made ‘The Arena’ for New Horizons, it was successful, so a few years later, I remade ‘The Arena’ for the Pacific Trust [in 2001]. I sold ‘The Arena’ that belonged to New Horizons and I didn’t sell ‘The Arena’ that belongs to the Pacific Trust. The people connected to the Pacific Trust were not aware that there were two [versions] … so they are accusing me of selling their picture. It’s that simple. They didn’t do their homework.”
In their lawsuit, lawyers for Corman’s sons portrayed their aging father as selling the library only after crumbling under intense verbal abuse from his wife. However, over the course of an hour-long conversation at New York’s Bowery Hotel, the six-decade industry veteran proved sharp and incredibly engaging as he shared a range of insights on changes to the business, the craft of filmmaking, the mastery of Jonathan Demme (his recently deceased mentee), and the evolution of his own 60-film directorial career. Corman was in town for an event celebrating his work at the Metrograph. As he sat down for bagels and coffee, he shrugged off claims that he was in any way distressed or pressured into selling. Instead, he characterized the new pact as “an incredible win-win” deal that will allow him to make more films. At 92, he has no plans to ease into the twilight of his career.
In the ’70s, Corman said, all he needed was an idea for a film; with that, he’d hire a writer and director to turn it into a movie. At the height of his influence, he couldn’t make films fast enough to feed hungry theaters — but the market changed drastically over the last three decades. Today he makes fewer films and needs upfront distribution deals upfront to finance his projects. While his new pact with Ace Films doesn’t return Corman to the rapid-fire output of the ’60 and ’70s, it means he no longer searches for distribution.
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“That’s one of the great things about this,” he said. “I’m the only guy I know who has guaranteed distribution in China, and that’s a billion and half people. There’s 270 films that I sold in the library and I would have to go through a distribution company to distribute my films, which means I’m giving away a portion of the income to the distribution company. But this company, that is both a production and distribution company, can afford to pay a little more than what the picture is worth to me because they don’t have to pay anybody — they have their organization in place. It was one of the friendliest deals I ever made because it was a win-win.”
Corman also made a production deal with Beijing’s online video platform iQiyi (often referred to as “Chinese Netflix”), which provided him with an education in the Chinese film market. “They called me completely out of the blue and they had this idea for a science-fiction film,” he said. “They wanted to do it with a half-American, half-Chinese cast and shoot in English, and they asked me if I’d like to produce it.”
iQiyi flew Corman and his wife to Beijing to discuss “Abduction,” which Corman rewrote to better fit the international audience outside China. At first, he wondered why a company with an enormous built-in Chinese audience was so concerned with making an English-language film for an international market.
“It’s an experiment to see if they can break into the international market,” said Corman. “One the things they told me is the American audience has trouble taking a Chinese picture that’s dubbed into English, but so many foreign films come into China, particularly on iQiyi, that the Chinese audience accepts a foreign-language film dubbed into Chinese.”
Corman has learned which genres work in the Chinese market. (No on comedy, yes on action.) Asked which of his old films he would recommend his new partners remake, Corman laughed and said he’s given up on predictions. To resolve who got dibs on the film they would remake first, Ace and Shout! flipped a coin.
“Ace won the toss, and we expected them to pick ‘Battle Beyond the Stars,’ or some of our other bigger films,” said Corman. “Their first choice was ‘Bloodfist.’ Neither I, nor the Shout Factory, ever would have picked that.” A week after the contract was signed, Ace announced it would remake ‘Bloodfist,” with a Chinese martial-arts star. “I thought, ‘They must have had this deal done before they bought the library,'” Corman said. “You don’t buy the library and seven days later announce you are going to remake ‘Bloodfist.'”
He laughed. “Things are moving fast in the Chinese film market,” he said, “which I enjoy.”
The Metrograph and The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will present ”An Evening with Roger Corman“ on May 3. The event will include two features from the producer-director’s decade-spanning career, “The Intruder” (1962) and “The Pit and the Pendulum” (1961), and a Q&A with Corman. The night will also feature trailers from such iconic works as “Death Race 2000” (1975), “The Student Nurses” (1970) and “Jackson County Jail” (1976).