Hollywood Can Learn About the Failure of Woke Messaging From a Legendary Low-Budget Exploitation Master

Chris Pizzello

Failing at woke messaging in titles means it may be time for the big-time studios to listen to a low-rent legend.

Roger Corman is a name in Hollywood that generates any number of initial reactions, and the length and breadth of his career indicate that any or all of those reactions are valid. He has a swollen catalog of schlocky, exploitive, drive-in fare; low-grade titles that titillate, sci-fi extravaganzas that defy the science, horror that is most scary in the script writing, and monster epics that are laughably endearing.

He does not seem the sort that studios owned by multinational corporations would turn to for advice, but they really should listen to the man. Through his system, he has introduced renowned actors, directors, producers, editors, cinematographers, and countless more into the industry. His track record of success cannot be matched, as he has been making films for generations now, and his claim to have never lost money on a movie (though probably apocryphal) cannot be challenged. He is a known tight-budget producer, who would cut any corner to keep costs down.

(One publisher I wrote with had once worked in Corman’s studio. He told me of a time on a movie set where they were setting up the craft services for the crew, and Corman fired someone when it was learned they had purchased name-brand soda instead of opting for a cheaper generic label.)

But budgeting for a film shoot is not where this particular lesson comes from. Instead, this unlikely lesson is derived accidentally from an unlikely source. On the horror movie streaming service Shudder, they have a series with the foremost authority on exploitation films, Joe-Bob Briggs, with his show “The Last Drive-In,” and he had an episode featuring the famed fixture. While hosting the gem “Humanoids From The Deep,” during a few of the breaks where Briggs normally delivers deep information on the productions, he had a few interview portions with Roger Corman.

It was during one of these interludes that the host peppered the director on the concept of his films commonly featuring plotlines that are somewhat activist in nature. Yes, “Humanoids” centers on a violent aquatic mutant that terrorizes a fishing community as it attacks men, kills dogs, and takes physical liberties with the women. But woven throughout are underlying messages of environmental abuse, corporate rapacity, and some other social issue touchstones.

This is when we get the wisdom coming from the famed film fixture.

JOE BOB: You always have a lot going on in the subtext in your films…is that accurate?

CORMAN: That is completely accurate. I am to the left, politically, but I never want to interfere with the entertainment quality of the film. At the same time, with the subtext of the film, there are thoughts that I would like to get in, personally. And I think it acts as a certain catalyst, to a certain extent with the combination. It makes the film more complex, and more interesting.

Now, look what he is saying in regard to this desire to insert messaging. It is done after the fact, with the primary storyline and the intent of the film taking priority. Then he basically shoehorns in his desired agenda items, but only as they can fit into the film’s narrative and elevate it. It is not something he begins with and makes the centerpiece of the film,

The subtext is something more subtle, maybe even sly, and it is not initially noticed by the viewer sometimes. It is more often delivered like something with a hypodermic needle, rather than brought down on the viewer’s head like a snow shovel. That this is a message from the very unsubtle auteur of “Night School Nurses” and “Deathrace 2000” is all the more impressive. He continued.

CORMAN: But the key thing is to never overdo that – to remember that the number-one element is the entertainment value that you advertised.

This is where so much has gone sideways in Hollywood in recent years. The need to preach and hammer home a message to audiences has been a distancing aspect, turning fans away. The Oscars and the Emmys are usually populated with these titles, those favored by the elites in the industry and the entertainment media, but largely not embraced by viewers. They get their message out, but the audience is not drawn in.

This is something that Roger Corman experienced early on in his career, and he showed something that is seen in short supply in the industry; he learned from an experience. When the director indulged in this form of personal soapbox messaging, something we see too often from contemporary studios, he did receive adulation, but the enterprise was not well-received publicly.

JOE BOB: Well you’re a well-known Hollywood liberal. You always put social justice causes into your movies. You made a passion project in 1962 called “The Intruder”, starring William Shatner, about racism in the rural south. An award-winning movie that you once told me was the only movie you ever made that lost money – and that became a turning point in your career.

CORMAN: Yes. It was the only film, at that time, that I ever made that lost money. And the reason was, I believe – although the film did win a couple of awards and the reviews were wonderful – but it lost money, and I think it lost money for two reasons. One, the public just didn’t want to see a picture about racial integration. And Two – and this is where my lesson came in – I was too earnest. I was delivering a message, I was not delivering entertainment.

Whoah, now. Consider that basic – yet in light of today’s studios, revolutionary – thought: An entertainment company might benefit by being first and foremost delivering an entertaining product. If you make that your core content, then later you can find a way to fit your messaging in with some dialogue or subplots which become secondary or tertiary components; they still get watched and your message is at least heard.

Brandon Morse wrote recently about “The Woman King,” the new Viola Davis release that is a historical retelling of an African warrior class of women that has angered some with its revisionism. While it debuted as the #1 film last weekend, it is not exactly blazing at the box office. It opened below $20 million, and the film needs to probably pull in about $100 million or so before seeing a profit. It needs to become a cult hit to achieve a 5X multiple, something very unlikely. Davis, and the production, have lambasted the audience if they do not properly support the film, implying racism and sexism could play a part in their refusal.

All of this amounts to revealing that Hollywood doesn’t think very highly of its fans and they express that sentiment in various ways. Sometimes it’s by cast and crew, sometimes it’s in the writing of the show itself, but it’s always going to paint the people creating the work as the enemy of the people meant to view it.

When you begin with your polemics at the first creative stage, that becomes your entire premise, and people will be in a position to cast judgment on whether to sit through your visual lecture. Look at the string of anti-Gulf War titles that Hollywood churned out in the Bush administration, a lengthy list of money-losing agitprop. Then you have the female “Ghostbusters,” where they compromised the comedy with social plotlines and then chased off male audiences with pre-release messaging. 

Even the new Disney+ release “She-Hulk” was rooted from the start in a feminist agenda, where the character of Jennifer Walters is positioned as being more in tune with her character’s inner anger because she has to endure things like catcalls on the street and man-splaining. The show is performing dismally in the streaming ratings, a rarity for Marvel to not have a show debut in the top 10. 

Corman, the Hollywood legend, shows the way for studios today — how they should approach the enterprise of delivering an agenda if that is such a strong desire. They need to learn from his own lesson, which he picked up on and adhered to for the balance of his career after enduring this loss from “The Intruder.”

CORMAN: It led me to the themes of my films after that, where I made certain that I always delivered the entertainment value, and the themes I was interested in were always subtextual. They were all secondary.  

That last line is what lands. Make the messaging secondary to a decent product, and you will go so much farther. Roger Corman is a testament to this working for the best. That standout failure of his took place 60 years ago, and his career has only endured from that point. He went on to become a producer and film distributor, and launched careers of so many standout names in the filmmaking realm you’d be bored from reading them off. His career stretches across eight decades – and at 95 years old he is still working!

That can only happen if you are savvy and aware of the marketplace and the realities of drawing an audience. It may not impress studio moguls that a master of discount schlock is delivering a fiscal filmmaking lesson, but his longevity in an industry infamous for spitting out careers means it is a lesson worth learning.