Look, those of you who know me likely already know why I have an affinity for New World Pictures (hint: they’re responsible for a movie I think is really “swellraiser”). But I’ve always wondered what kind of film studio had the gumption to produce a movie at the height of the AIDS crisis that was directed by an openly gay man and revels in kink, incorporates copious amounts of blood, and dares us to indulge in our darker nature? It turns out that for a studio like New World Pictures, this tact was pretty much par for the course. New World’s history is all about taking chances, an approach that would ultimately lead to its downfall.
New World was founded by Roger Corman and his brother Gene in 1970. They distributed their first film, the biker flick Angels Die Hard, in June of that year, but their first big splash came two months later with the help of a reliable formula: nudity! The Student Nurses was an R-rated romp aimed at putting enough butts on screen to also put them in the seats, but Corman was insistent on incorporating more than flesh. Director Stephanie Rothman had creative control to mold the story as she saw fit, so among the copious amounts of nudity were stories about immigration, abortion, and other social issues.
The film was a hit, making over $1 million off a $120,000 budget. While it’s hard to say if the film’s success was based on the narrative elements or the extensive nudity, Corman seems to have bet on both. New World produced four more Nurses films in as many years, but Rothman also notes that Corman encouraged directors to continue including social commentary in their films. These extended beyond nudie flicks into other flavors of grindhouse, Blaxploitation, and horror films. And as was Corman’s style, he leveraged a bevy of up-and-coming talent in his films, including John Sayles, Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, Jonathan Demme, and James Cameron.
Additionally, New World worked to distribute more prestigious international fare in the U.S. from Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, and Akira Kurosawa. Somewhere in the middle ground between the homegrown exploitation and foreign prestige were 1977’s Rabid and 1979’s The Brood, a pair of films that introduced the world to the gooey body horror breakout director David Cronenberg.
Corman’s tenure at the helm of New World gave us all sorts of horror and genre cult classics, including pure exploitation fare like Death Race 2000, teen films like Rock 'n' Roll High School, and playful homages like Saturday the 14th and Slumber Party Massacre.
Then, in January of 1983, he decided to move on, selling the studio for $16.5 million to lawyers Larry Kupin, Harry E. Sloan, and Larry A. Thompson. This is where things start to get really wild and, alas, kicked off a sequence of events that would eventually lead to New World’s downfall. Kupin, Sloan, and Thompson had some pretty bold aspirations for the studio, starting in 1984 when they created three new divisions to reflect the more diverse approach they wanted to take: New World International, New World Television, and New World Video.
They then went on something of an acquisition spree, first purchasing Lions Gate Studios in 1986. Now, this wasn’t exactly the Lionsgate studio we know about today, but it’s sort of tangentially related in a way that I can’t make sense of beyond the fact that showbusiness can be pretty convoluted at times. They also bought Marvel Entertainment Group that year, a reminder of what a different entity Marvel was just a couple of decades before they started consuming the box office and merging with our Disney overlords.
But even with New World’s aggressive expansion, the movie side of the house was still working hard to produce some unique films across the genre spectrum. As alluded to previously, New World released Hellraiser in 1987, introducing us to the Cotton family and their adventures with the Cenobites. In 1988 we got a worthy sequel in Hellbound, perhaps the only installment that really embodies the spirit of the original before the franchise spirals into varying levels of silly fun followed by increasing levels of tedium.
Beyond Leviathan’s domain, New World’s genre selection displayed a willingness to take some other big swings, such as the 1986 horror comedy Vamp that combines Grace Jones, Robert Rusler, and an almost exclusively pink and green lighting palette for a fun, surreal bloodsucker romp. They also dipped their toe into more lurid entries like the adaptation of V.C. Andrews’ incest-laden Flowers in the Attic, gave us a pitch-black cult comedy for the ages with Heathers, and finally put everyone’s favorite horror host in the spotlight in Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the film that made horror fans forever question whether to eat fluff again, Larry Cohen’s The Stuff.
Alas, the late ’80s saw New World really beginning to expand beyond their means. A failed attempt to buy Kenner Parker Toys and Mattel was reported on as a blessing in disguise for a company that was already overextending its cashflow. And while we look back on so many of their movies fondly, at the time they weren’t pulling in the kind of revenue they needed to stay afloat. Ironically, their only movie of the era to make over $20 million at the box office was the ill-advised attempt to make blackface fun in Soul Man, which somehow pulled in $35 million.
New World had some success in television, leveraging their Marvel stake to put out the animated Marvel Action Universe and, in one of the most random discoveries of my dive down this particular rabbit hole, producing the Fred Savage nostalgia fest The Wonder Years. But as their finances continued to dwindle, attempts to restructure and stave off bankruptcy got pretty wild.
There are so many different variations to titles that start with “New World” that it’s hard to keep up. At their peak they were New World Entertainment, then there was New World Communications. There were subsidiaries like New World Animation and New World Family Filmworks. I don’t have a conspiracy board big enough to keep up, suffice to say at some point they were acquired by News Corp (boo), and their film banner seems to have finally puttered out in 1993 with their final movie, Die Watching. Nah, I’ve never heard of it, either.
Ultimately, New World Pictures had a pretty wild ride over its 23-year lifespan. They may have taken one (or a hundred) too many risks for their own good, but I for one am glad they didn’t play it safe. They were champions of cult cinema, churning out movies so eccentric as to virtually guarantee a lack of mainstream success, but also cultivating a fan base as rabid as they were niche. Not a bad legacy at all, if you ask me.
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