Wednesday, June 1, 2016

It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s a Superboss! Roger Corman and Some Others

 Roger Corman doesn’t often show up in how-to books aimed at the business world. And these aren’t the sorts of books I normally gravitate toward reading. But Superbosses, a 2016 publication by Professor Sydney Finkelstein of Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, is the exception. Five years ago I was approached by Dr. Finkelstein’s research assistant, who probed me about my Corman years. The published book contains a number of quotes from my biography, Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers. And it makes a good case for Roger as what Finkelstein calls a Superboss, a mogul whose gift for nurturing and inspiring talented underlings has helped to transform an industry. That, of course, has always been a key part of Roger’s legacy: the fact that such major filmmaking talents as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, James Cameron, Gale Anne Hurd, and Ron Howard (as well as countless less famous folk) all got career boosts from him.

Finkelstein’s book is not primarily about show business. Yes, it surveys the talents spawned by George Lucas (via such enterprises as Lucasfilm, Skywalker Sound, and Industrial Light and Magic). There’s even an extended look at the career of Ben Burrt, who through his involvement with Lucas on the original Star Wars became a pioneer of modern sound design. And Finkelstein also traces the impact of Lorne Michaels, creator and long-time producer of  Saturday Night Live, on the scores of comic talents whose lives he’s transformed. (Think of Bill Murray, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Mike Myers, Chris Rock, Tina Fey . . .  and the list goes on.) 

But Finkelstein also delves into other kinds of superbosses. There’s Alice Waters, whose emphasis on simple cooking with fresh local ingredients at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse has revolutionized the restaurant industry by way of chefs inspired by her methods. There’s Ralph Lauren in the world of fashion. There’s Jay Chiat, advertising guru, and journalist Gene Roberts, a beloved editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Not to mention a good many figures from the business world. Each, in his or her way, has brought forth whole generations of protégés who continue in the master’s footsteps, though not without contributing their own unique twists.

Finkelstein makes clear that superbosses are not all alike. In terms of personality, he divides them into three categories: the Innovators, the Nurturers, and the Glorious Bastards. His prime example in the latter category is Larry Ellison, of Silicon Valley’s Oracle. Ellison, according to those who worked for him, was not always easy to take. And he could never be accused of selflessness. Roger Corman, too, seems to fit into this group. Former employees will agree that they didn’t always like him, but they always respected him . . .  and his example prodded them to do their very best, often while working at tasks that seemed impossible.

Reading Finkelstein’s book made me think back to my own hiring by Roger at New World Pictures. He personally chose me as his assistant even though I had no filmmaking experience, merely some opinions I’d vented as a campus movie reviewer. He hired me, I believe, not because I fit some formal profile but rather because in conversation we clicked. And once I came on board, he encouraged me to spread my wings. I naturally gravitated toward developing scripts, but he also tried me out as a location scout. I worked on a production, got involved with casting, helped on publicity campaigns, and even oversaw a looping session. I may not have always liked him, but he changed my life. Thanks, Roger! 

Will you be anywhere near Richmond, Virginia on Saturday night, June 4 at 8 p.m.? If so, head on over to Hardywood Craft Brewery, 2408 Owenby Lane, where I'll be talking about my Roger Corman life prior to a screening of Death Race 2000, one of the many Corman classics I helped to make. Y'all come!  


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