Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Endangered List (Case File #16)


'Convention Girls'... How a B-Movie is Born
by Alex Ben Block
[The Detroit News, Tuesday, June 27th, 1978]

“I remember saving my lunch money in high school so I could go buy film and lights for my 8 mm camera,” recalls Joseph Adler, 36, the bearded producer-director of “Convention Girls.”

Born in New York and raised in Miami Beach, Adler says he always knew film would be his life: “At first I wanted to be an actor until I found out there was someone behind the camera. Then I wanted to direct.”

After two years at Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh studying drama, he moved to New York University film school where he graduated in 1962. His first job was with a large New York commercial producer. For nearly three years he worked as an assistant production manager and film editor, quitting in 1967 to make his first feature film, “Fun Lovers.”

A parody of teen-age beach blanket bingo films, “Fun Lovers,” Adler recalls, “wasn’t campy enough for teen-agers, or sophisticated enough for adults.” In other words, it bombed.

Back in New York, Adler became a producer at a large ad agency, where he oversaw the making of dozens of commercials. “The late 60’s were an exciting time in advertising,” he recalls. “People were taking chances, experimenting.”

After three years, he had raised enough money to make his second low budget feature, a horror film called “Scream Baby Scream.” Shot in two weeks on location in Miami Beach, it eventually made a small profit. By then, though, Joe Adler had returned to making commercials.

“Directing commercials has really been the bread and butter,” says Adler. “Because when you work independently there has to be a way to survive between pictures.”

After running his own commercial company for several years, Adler gave it up three years ago to make his third low budget feature. This time it was to be his epic, a special film about two dozen characters who come together during a toy makers’ convention at a Miami Beach hotel. “Conventions are so indigenous to Miami it intrigued me,” he says in retrospect. “I wanted to do something more serious than previously, a multi character study. It was a story that brought together many different people from many places and many different businesses for one short, intense period of time.”

Through C. Vernon Kane, who gets credit as executive producer, Adler raised nearly $500,000 from a small group of wealthy Miami investors. For a screenplay he turned to Trudy Gertler, 29, who had never written a script before, although she had published a number of short stories.

“One of my ideas was to bring a woman’s viewpoint to the film because I think it is interesting what women in business have to deal with,” Adler says.

The film’s original title was “Conventions,” a play on words meant to mean both the meeting of toy makers and the set of rules that dictate our lives. It had 20 major roles and 60 speaking parts, which Adler now views as a mistake because it became too much to handle.

By the end of shooting Adler was nearly broke. Instead of spending his time on editing and post-production, he had to go back to work directing commercials for Associated Filmmakers International, a Miami production company. He spent nights and weekends over a movieola picking shots and scenes, splicing and cutting to try and tell a story.

Eventually he had several offers to distribute the film. He chose EMC Productions, a 3-year-old company whose last distribution effort in this market was “Naked Rider.”

Adler’s agreement included a title change to “Convention Girls,” which EMC president Harry Gurwitch considered more salable, and an ad campaign designed to sell the sex aspects of the film. Two ad campaigns were actually devised for testing, one using cartoon characters and the other girls in various compromising poses with ad copy about how the film, which is relatively mild in its presentation of sex, might offend community standards.

The film opened in Oklahoma City in February with the cartoon ads and flopped. It opened a couple weeks later in San Antonio, Tex., with the ad campaign now being used in Detroit and immediately began doing surprisingly good business. Playing 17 theaters in Dallas the following week it grossed $78,000.

Why isn’t Adler’s name mentioned in the ads? “It’s a marketing philosophy we’ve adopted,” explains John Chambliss, a former Detroiter who is now senior vice-president of EMC living in Los Angeles. “Unless you have a big, big star, the value of the name has diminished. We’d rather use the ad space to place art work and copy lines that help sell the film. Names just don’t mean anything anymore.”

Chambliss says by feeding data from the early extensive market tests into a computer, his company can estimate within five to seven percent how much business a film will do in a particular market. Then they gauge their ad budget to the predicted grosses, putting the heaviest emphasis on television commercials, then radio ads and newspapers.

“Television is totally important to us,” says Chambliss. “Whatever the quality of the film, whatever the subject matter, television is proving to be the most powerful selling tool.”

Chambliss claims it is important to use TV not only to grab an audience fast not only to beat word of mouth on a mediocre film like “Convention Girls,” but also because of pressure to keep a run short. He says the major studios may not be making more movies, but they are running their hits longer and on more screens than ever, creating intense competition for playing time.

Adler, who is now in pre-production on a story about cocaine runners in Florida in 1928, says he doesn’t mind seeing his serious work sold as a raunchy comedy: “Sure, there were a lot of considerations, but the main thing was getting it out so people can see it. Anyway, some of the great filmmakers made B-pictures. People like Roger Corman, who is just beginning to be recognized as a cult figure, know how to bring in a picture on a tight budget.”


Headquarters 10 said...

Just so you know Chris, this has screened at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin as part of their "Weird Wednesdays" screening series, so there's at least one print in existence.

Temple of Schlock said...

Thanks for sharing this with us, Matt! Hopefully CONVENTION GIRLS will come out on DVD or pop up on TV eventually, but in the meantime we'll keep our eyes peeled for future screenings at the Drafthouse.