The Drive-in Movie

Sometime around the summer of 1988, the program directors at every local T.V. station in the country must’ve gotten together in their war room and decided to stop showing B-movies on Saturday afternoons. “Why should we beg Crazy Eddie and that wheezing old man from Carvel to peddle their insane prices and Fatty the Whale ice cream cakes during THE GLORY STOMPERS or THE POM POM GIRLS,” some young suit surely sneered, “when we can sell off 30-minute blocks of time to spray-on hair and turtle wax infomercials instead?” And just like that – poof! – those glorious days when a person could crash on the couch for 5 hours on a Saturday afternoon and click through a half-dozen programs like 9 in the Afternoon and Morgus and Commander USA’s Groovy Movies were gone.

I know what some of you are thinking – you’re thinking, “All those movies are on DVD now, uncut and letterboxed, so what are you complaining about?” Well, if you must know, it’s the disappearance of yet another movie viewing experience that’s got me all in an uproar. I know I can watch the movies any time I want, but it’s the experience of watching the movies on TV that I miss, an experience that would usually begin the previous Sunday, when I’d open the Daily News television listings and say, “Oh wow, [insert Adam Roarke biker flick or Crown International beach girl jiggle movie here] is gonna be on next Saturday!” but the movie was only a part of a bigger picture. The commercials, the station identification bumpers, the wear and tear on the prints, the sloppily excised sex and violence – the TV equivalent of the missing reels in GRINDHOUSE, I suppose, which means my words are falling on mostly deaf ears. Or as John Sebastian once sang, it’s like trying tell a stranger about rock ‘n’ roll.

One of the most exciting and influential movie experiences to ever hit Saturday afternoon television was Drive-In Movie on WNEW channel 5 in New York. I loved everything about Drive-In Movie, from the retro ‘50s jukebox-style bumpers – which lifted the “Alone at the Drive-In Movie” instrumental from GREASE – to the uniquely New York roster of tri-state area advertisers (discount electronics, designer jeans, Wometco Home Theatre, “This is Phil Rizzuto for the Money Store!”), and the programming was unbeatable: motorcycle movies, teen sex comedies, Japanese giant monster epics, Hammer horror films, AIP classics and, most importantly, kung fu movies. Lots and lots of kung fu movies. If for no other reason, Drive-In Movie deserves a place in the exploitation history books for being one of the first programs to drag Chinese kung fu flicks out of the grindhouses and into the living rooms of mainstream America – kicking and screaming, naturally.

Most of the credit for the success of Drive-In Movie must be given to Mel Maron, an unsung B-movie personality so unsung that he doesn’t even rate his own entry in the Internet Movie Database. A native New Yorker and veteran distributor, Maron first came to prominence as a sales manager for MGM and UPA in the 1960s before forming his own company, Maron Films Ltd., in 1970. Maron was not only a great distributor, but someone conscious of strategic PR choices. If you’re four paragraphs into this article and still following me, there’s a good chance you’ve seen or at least heard of a few of the movies released by Maron Films: B.J. LANG PRESENTS (a.k.a. THE MANIPULATOR), CIAO MANHATTAN!, DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS, GODZILLA’S REVENGE, GROUPIES, ISLAND OF THE BURNING DOOMED, NEXT! (a.k.a. THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH), THE PROJECTIONIST, THREE BULLETS FOR A LONG GUN, TOWER OF SCREAMING VIRGINS, TOYS ARE NOT FOR CHILDREN, TRISTANA, and the unforgettable double bill of WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS and MONSTER ZERO. Maron also had a subsidiary company, Duffy Films, Inc., to handle soft-X features like THE CULT, a quickie cash-in on the Tate-LoBianco killings that would later be re-titled THE MANSON MASSACRE (Filmed in 1970, THE CULT premiered in Philadelphia on February 26th, 1971).

Despite a splashy start, Maron Films was in Chapter 11 bankruptcy by August of 1972, and Maron moved on to a sales manager position at Group 1 Films. Formed in the mid 1960s by Brandon Chase, Group 1 (also known as V.I. Productions, Ltd.) was a distribution company that specialized in sleazy European imports like ROOM OF CHAINS, AMUCK!, THE DEPRAVED (a.k.a. DIARY OF A RAPE), and NAZI LOVE CAMP #27, and was located – ironically – in swanky Scarsdale, NY. When Group 1 relocated to Los Angeles in 1975, Maron stayed in New York and accepted a position as executive vice president of domestic sales at a brand new film distribution house, Cinema Shares International Distribution Corporation.

Owned by Omni Capital Corporation, an investment banking firm that offered its clients tax shelter investment opportunities in motion pictures (as well as real estate, commodities, gas & electric, etc.), Cinema Shares and its subsidiary, Downtown Distribution, quickly accumulated an enviable catalog of titles thanks to Maron, who was soon promoted to president of the company’s domestic division. Film editors were hired to create “TV friendly” versions of the theatrical properties, and by 1976 the syndication division had a package of 23 feature films which had already been sold to stations in New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Los Angeles and other key cities. Some of the films released by Cinema Shares/Downtown that you may have seen on television or at a drive-in during the 1970s and 1980s: ACES HIGH, BLUE SUNSHINE, CRIME BOSS, DIARY OF AN EROTIC MURDERESS, DIE SISTER DIE!, EMANUELLE’S HOLIDAY, ESKIMO NELL, GODZILLA ON MONSTER ISLAND, JACOB TWO-TWO MEETS THE HOODED FANG, MAD DOG MORGAN, NO WAY OUT (a.k.a. TONY ARZENTA), OPERATION THUNDERBOLT, RECOMMENDATION FOR MERCY, RIPPED OFF, SENIORS, TEXAS DETOUR, TRACK OF THE MOON BEAST, and BLOOD, SWEAT & FEAR.

With a born showman like Maron calling most of the shots (there was still a board of directors to answer to), Cinema Shares played hardball with daring and sometimes borderline fraudulent advertising campaigns, though nothing a masters in criminal justice would find worthy of prosecution. The Italian shocker WEB OF THE SPIDER claimed to be “Based on Edgar Allan Poe’s “NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.’” Gun-toting African-Americans dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes and headgear were the selling point of the blaxploitation actioner THE BROTHERHOOD OF DEATH. The sexy European comedy SCHOOL DAYS – about an alluring female high school teacher – featured the then-timely tag line, “Hotter than Kotter, and we’ve got her!” GODZILLA VS. THE BIONIC MONSTER invited a lawsuit from the producers of the hit TV shows “The Six Million Dollar Man” and “The Bionic Woman,” prompting Cinema Shares to quickly change the word “Bionic” to “Cosmic,” while the posters and ads for GODZILLA VS. MEGALON pictured the titular monsters slugging it out atop the World Trade Center – a shameless attempt to cash in on the ’76 remake of KING KONG.

Maron also jumped onto the Bruce Lee bandwagon by acquiring dubbed martial arts movies and releasing them to urban action theaters in the U.S., where they played double and triple bills for years. “Even though he had a short career with only a few films, Bruce Lee opened everyone’s eyes,” Maron told me in a recent phone interview. “When I saw kids going to these karate and kung fu schools that were springing up everywhere, I felt there was a natural tie-in between the martial arts and America.” Some of the movies in this genre that were released by Cinema Shares include BRUCE LEE: THE MAN – THE MYTH, FISTS OF BRUCE LEE, FISTS OF VENGEANCE, DRAGON SISTER, KUNG FU GOLD, SOUL BROTHERS OF KUNG FU, FURIOUS MONK FROM SHAOLIN, HONG KONG STRONGMAN, the 3-D bloodbath DYNASTY, and THE KILLING MACHINE, a Japanese bone-cruncher starring Sonny Chiba.

After the tax shelter laws were tightened in the latter part of the 1970s, Cinema Shares ceased operating as a theatrical distribution outfit and turned all of its attention toward TV and international sales. Maron left the company in 1979 to accept a position as executive vice president of distribution and marketing at the World Northal Corporation. Founded in 1976 as Northal Films by exhibitor Albert Schwartz, to showcase his popular French acquisition COUSIN, COUSINE – at that time one of the five biggest grossing foreign films released in the U.S. – the company was renamed World Northal in ’77 when Schwartz took on two partners, Frank Stanton and Victor Elmaleh. The trio’s original plan was to compete with Cinema 5, Libra, New Yorker and other foreign and specialty film boutiques, and while World Northal’s next few releases – BREAD AND CHOCOLATE, Peter Weir’s THE LAST WAVE, QUADROPHENIA, ALL THINGS BRIGHT AND BEAUTIFUL – received mostly positive reviews and helped boost the company’s reputation as an arthouse distributor, they failed to recapture the financial success of COUSIN, COUSINE (which had grossed over $8 million). Not long after Maron’s arrival, however, an acquisition deal was inked with Raymond Chow’s Golden Harvest for six martial arts movies, and twelve more were licensed from Wolf Cohen, the sales agent for Globe Films, which owned the North American rights to the Shaw Brothers’ library. World Northal, a distributor classy enough to play “Promenade” from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition over its company logo, was suddenly in the kung fu movie business!

In addition to theatrical distribution, which began late in 1979 with THE MASTER KILLER, THE CHINATOWN KID and MISSION KISS AND KILL, the martial arts films were sold to Warner Amex, Showtime, Wometco Home Theater (WHT) and Times-Mirror for cable playoff. Most importantly, Maron brought in film editor Larry Bensky from Cinema Shares to prepare TV-friendly versions for World Northal’s television division, W.W. Entertainment. “Kung fu movies were really enjoying their biggest success with downtown urban audiences, primarily the African-American audiences,” Maron explains. “I was the first one to go on television with dubbed kung fu movies, after everyone told me it couldn’t be done. My rationale was that a lot of the kids were hungry to see those pictures, but they couldn’t because their parents felt uncomfortable letting them go to the downtown theaters.” By the time the first two syndication packages were made available in March of 1981, the number of kung fu movies represented by World Northal had swelled to 39 (13 titles in the “Black Belt Theatre” package, 26 in “Black Belt Two”).

Branching out further, Maron acquired the indie horror movies THE CHILDREN (which grossed over $5 million), THE ORPHAN, THE UNSEEN, and STRANGE BEHAVIOR, and picked up the Lee Majors action flick STEEL from Columbia Pictures. Jules Dassin’s CIRCLE OF TWO, a romance with Richard Burton and Tatum O’Neal, and the thriller THE DISAPPEARANCE starring Donald Sutherland were two poorly received attempts by World Northal to compete with the major studios. The company also continued its art film agenda by releasing HUSSY (starring Helen Mirren), SCUM, SWEET WILLIAM, and Nicholas Roeg’s BAD TIMING/A SENSUAL OBSESSION. At the same time, college film societies and repertory houses were booking QUADROPHENIA, THE LAST WAVE, and late acquisitions like THE FIRST NUDIE MUSICAL and FUNNYBONE (a.k.a. Larry Cohen’s BONE) as midnight shows.

On May 2nd, 1981, Drive-In Movie premiered on WNEW channel 5. The first movie shown was the Shaw Brothers production BRUCE LEE: HIS LAST DAYS, HIS LAST NIGHTS, one of the 13 films in World Northal’s original “Black Belt Theatre” package, which had already been sold to 21 television stations in the U.S. Drive-In Movie was enormously popular from the get-go, and WNEW stretched the 13 films in the “Black Belt Theatre” package by alternating them with movies from other syndication companies, most notably the 15 features in Gold Key Entertainment’s “Good Vibrations” package. First available in September of 1980, “Good Vibrations” contained CUTTING LOOSE, FUNNY CAR SUMMER, GETTING WASTED, GOODBYE FRANKLIN HIGH, GRAD NIGHT, MALIBU BEACH, MALIBU HIGH, MIDNIGHT AUTO SUPPLY, THE POM POM GIRLS, REVENGE OF THE CHEERLEADERS, STARHOPS, SUNSET COVE, SWIM TEAM, THE VAN, and VAN NUYS BLVD. Gold Key also handled SATAN’S CHEERLEADERS, which was still playing dusk-to-dawn shows in rural drive-in theaters as late as 1987; a late-night favorite on WNEW, its sole Drive-In Movie showing was in February of 1982. A company called Teleworld provided WNEW with biker movies from the defunct Fanfare Corporation and several Hammer horror films (including the TV-friendly version of LUST FOR A VAMPIRE, re-titled TO LOVE A VAMPIRE). In later years, WNEW picked up a package from Cinema Shares and a package of AIP classics from Orion Entertainment, but for the most part Drive-In Movie was dominated by World Northal’s black belt packages.

In June of 1981, the board of directors at World Northal elected Maron the president and chief operating officer of the company. He resigned six months later. In early 1982, Albert Schwartz – the founder and former co-owner of World Northal – purchased Cinema 5 and renamed it Almi Cinema 5. Maron was brought in as president. By the end of 1982, the company had changed names again (Almi Pictures) and for the next several years the arthouse fare that had put Cinema 5 on the map took a backseat to such Maronesque titles as CANNIBALS IN THE STREETS, COIL OF THE SNAKE, EAGLE VS. SILVER FOX, FIST OF GOLDEN MONKEY, HANDS OF LIGHTNING, HORROR PLANET, HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY, JUSTICE OF THE DRAGON, THE SECRET NINJA, SEX AND VIOLENCE, SILENT MADNESS (in 3-D), SPACESHIP, and TIGER CLAWS.

Meanwhile, the “Black Belt Theatre” packages continued to be big money-makers for World Northal. In 1983, the company purchased four Billy Chong movies (A HARD WAY TO DIE, JADE CLAW, KUNG FU EXECUTIONER, SUPER POWER) from Transmedia Distribution Corporation – a New Jersey-based company owned by one Alice Hsia – and added them to the “Black Belt Two” package. World Northal also acquired a trio of Italian genre pictures, all starring British leading man David Warbeck, for quick theatrical playoffs and home video sales: horror master Lucio Fulci’s THE BLACK CAT and the Antonio Margheriti actioners THE LAST HUNTER and HUNTERS OF THE GOLDEN COBRA. These turned up later in World Northal’s “Action Flicks” syndication package, alongside the 1960s heist film SEVEN GOLDEN MEN and three Alain Delon vehicles (ICE, WHIRLPOOL, THE TWISTED DETECTIVE), which was sold to the USA Network.

After a five-year hiatus, Cinema Shares had a fleeting return to the theatrical market in the mid 1980s with a handful of low-grade Italian programmers, including Lamberto Bava’s MONSTER SHARK, the dreadful Mad Max rip-off RUSH and its equally terrible sequel, RAGE. After one-week runs on 42nd Street, where they were trashed by intrepid Variety critic Lawrence Cohn, these noxious throwaways were sold to video as “direct from theatrical release” and licensed to TV stations as part of Cinema Shares’ syndication packages. THE HEADLESS EYES, BLOOD WATERS OF DR. Z, the Italian horror film PANIC (starring Warbeck and Janet Agren), and Andy Milligan’s THE MAN WITH TWO HEADS were other low-budgeters that turned up on TV in the late 1980s sporting the Cinema Shares logo.

Drive-In Movie went off the air in July of 1988. The signs of its impending demise were in evidence months ahead of time, maybe even years if you consider the summer of 1986 when the program was pre-empted for a month so WNEW could broadcast the Empire State Games, or the occasional ill-fitting feature arbitrarily dropped into the timeslot (Wonderful World of Disney two-parters? RUSTLER’S RHAPSODY?). The “Black Belt Theatre” movies had been absent from the program since the previous October; WNEW was airing them, along with the AIP biker and horror movies, in late-night Saturday slots instead. This came to an end at the close of the 1980s.

World Northal’s days of distributing martial arts movies to theaters and television ended not long after. Dubbed versions of THE BASTARD SWORDSMAN and MY YOUNG AUNTIE played for weeks at the Rialto on 42nd Street in 1986, but received little (if any) big screen exposure anyplace else. MAD MONKEY KUNG FU, one of the Shaw Brothers productions in the “Black Belt Theatre 5” package, became the last old-school kung fu movie to be projected on 35mm in a 42nd Street grindhouse when it supported Jean-Claude Van Damme’s KICKBOXER at the Cine 42 in 1989.

During the eight years of its existence, Drive-In Movie pulled from at least six different World Northal/W.W. Entertainment packages. According to posts on the Kung Fu Fandom message board, a “lost” package put together in the company’s final days never saw the light of day in most cities and supposedly contained THE BASTARD SWORDSMAN, BATTLE FOR SHAOLIN (a.k.a. SHAOLIN INTRUDERS), BOXER FROM THE TEMPLE, BREAKING SWORD OF DEATH (a.k.a. DEADLY BREAKING SWORD), CLAW OF THE EAGLE, DISCIPLES OF THE MASTER KILLER (a.k.a. DISCIPLES OF THE 36TH CHAMBER), HOUSE OF TRAPS, INVINCIBLE POLE FIGHTER (a.k.a. THE 8 DIAGRAM POLE FIGHTER), LIGHTNING FISTS OF SHAOLIN (a.k.a. OPIUM AND THE KUNG FU MASTER), MY YOUNG AUNTIE, and NAKED FISTS OF TERROR (a.k.a. THE SPIRITUAL BOXER). Another rumor is that a thieving World Northal intern made off with dozens of the masters and started his own bootleg video company, which would account for all the dubbed prints that proliferated on VHS in the early 1990s (I used to pick them up at a spot on the Deuce near 8th that later relocated around the corner and became the 43rd Chamber).

A few of the World Northal releases that never appeared in TV packages are BLAST OF THE IRON PALM, ENTER THE FAT DRAGON, THE JADE WARRIORS, KUNG FU WARLORDS PART 2, MASTER OF DISASTER, MISSION KISS AND KILL, NAVAL COMMANDOS, and QUEEN HUSTLER. Several films that were in the “Black Belt Two” package were never actually shown on Drive-In Movie: 18 FATAL STRIKES, THE INCREDIBLE KUNG FU MASTER, INTERNATIONAL ASSASSINS, MANHUNT, MASTER AVENGERS, REVENGE OF THE PATRIOTS, and THE SHAOLIN PLOT. Non-martial arts releases from World Northal, such as THE ORPHAN, STRANGE BEHAVIOR and the Shaw Brothers horror flicks BLACK MAGIC and REVENGE OF THE ZOMBIES, were part of the company’s general syndication package and were aired on WNEW in late-night timeslots rather than on Drive-In Movie.

Maron, who has been the president of marketing & distribution at Castle Hill Productions for the past 23 years, lets out a chuckle when I suggest that his career in the motion picture business would make for a fascinating article. “I’m on the board of directors of the Palm Beach County Film & Television Commission, and when I was a guest speaker and one of the judges of their student showcase, they had me on a panel discussion and my area of expertise was the least interesting to the kids in the audience!” he laughs. “The other people on the panel were filmmakers, and the kids all wanted to know, ‘How do you get the films made, how do you do this or that’ – they couldn’t care less about distribution!”