THREE YEARS AGO ANYBODY in the business could describe a Texas movie producer for you: loud talking, fast moving (white Eldorado), Frye boots, and a rodeo shirt to match his California girl friend’s; born in Brooklyn (where else?), with two quickies to his credit—one that four-walled Waco, Temple, and died, the other still playing some outdoor circuit in Alabama.
Joseph Shelton Camp, Jr., scriptwriter, director, producer, president, and man-in-the-saddle for Mulberry Square Productions of Dallas, changed that image with a G-rated dog picture named Benji. This Texas product did the thing a movie must do first to be taken seriously. It made lots … and lots … of money. In fact, earlier this year when Variety, the show-biz Bible, listed the box office winners for 1975, Benji was in slot #3 behind that mechanical shark and that blazing skyscraper, with a gross of $30,000,000. Camp and his advertising chief Ken Roznoy protested that Variety must have its figures skewed; Benji ought to be somewhere like twelfth or thirteenth, but the protests did no good. The film world wanted the Texas movie mutt to be a hero. Benji, the film, became an industry legend, and Benji, the mutt, achieved some kind of screen immortality, not to mention international identification.
Whether #3 or #13, Benji was unquestionably a box-office bonanza. Mulberry Square became overnight the major movie producer outside Hollywood and New York and a rival for the world of Disney. The Benji story is no more amazing from its box-office figures than from other angles: not only was it shot in Texas (at McKinney, 40 miles north of Dallas), it was filmed by a Texas cinematographer (Don Reddy), scored by Texas musicians (Euel and Betty Box), written, directed, and produced by a Texan—his first feature film, on top of that—and when the chips got down, released and distributed from Dallas. All on a budget of $550,000, Texas money. The dog, alas, came from California.
Camp switched from dogs to dromedaries with his second picture, Hawmps!, released in June. The $1,500,000 comedy is about a time in the nineteenth century when Uncle Sam tried to add a camel corps to his cavalry. Camp conceived the story while reading Texas history. Hawmps! hasn’t caught Benji—won’t catch Benji—but Camp says it ought to show a fair profit by year’s end. It took off with overblown expectations and an ad budget to match, but it did one thing: Hawmps! got Mulberry Square over the (forgive me) second-picture hump.
Mulberry Square Productions was the brainchild of a slender, dimple-chinned, 37-year-old former advertising copywriter. Camp wears cowboy boots and rodeo shirts and drives a Cadillac (red Seville), but after that the stereotype fades. He is soft-spoken with a Southern edge to his voice; he is articulate about moviemaking but there’s not much film mystique to his conversation. His artistic models are Charade, Lady and the Tramp, and What’s Up, Doc? But he also liked Shampoo, Midnight Cowboy (despite its despair) , and All the President’s Men. His filmmaking philosophy is simple: entertain the audience, whatever audience, whatever age. He is fond of saying, “There are two wrong reasons to make a movie: self and money.”
Right now, Camp and his production crew are on location in Athens, Greece, shooting another Benji film titled (at this writing) For the Love of Benji. Unless war or some other disaster breaks loose, filming will be finished in January. The story is about foreign intrigue and spies, double agents, and other sinister types who kidnap Benji from his touring American owners.
There’s only room for one genius at Mulberry Square, and Joe Camp is it. He puts everything together: script, production, location, investment package, advertising program, releasing and distribution patterns. Camp’s megalomania doesn’t necessarily imply an inflated ego—he just has to have things done the way he likes them and is in a position to see that’s how they’re done. There are two schools of thought on Camp as leader: inspiring (a view held by most of the 40 or so working for him) and impossible (held by most of the considerable number who have departed). At the bargaining table with New York and Hollywood industry people he is stubborn and steel and shrewd. Things go his way or they don’t go. He’s prepared to lose, but not to give up. For example, he’s turned down astonishing TV offers for Benji because he felt they gave the networks too much advantage. Camp is not easily awed.
“As far back as the third grade in Little Rock we made shows in the garage and sold tickets,” Camp says. By high school, “we’d do little dramas in eight millimeter.” He went to Ole Miss and majored in advertising, eloping with Andrea Carolyn Hopkins in his senior year, 1960. Joe and Carolyn came to Texas in 1961 by way of Houston and a McCann-Erickson advertising trainee job. Joe then got into Gulf Coast real estate promotion and even opened a sing-along banjo club (The Colonel’s Quarters), but discovered that wasn’t his kind of entertainment business. He returned to advertising with Norsworthy-Mercer in Dallas. By now it was late 1963 and Camp decided to try creative writing. He met two commercial artists, Harland Wright and Erwin Hearne, who ate lunch in the basement cafeteria. They formed a writing team, with Camp rising at 4 a.m. to spend a couple of hours batting out stories which Harland and Erwin added to or took from on their lunch break.
Danny Arnold, then produer of That Girl, liked a proposal they submitted and asked them to come out to the Coast on a project. He finally told them, “You’re great with dialogue and character handling—you’re awful with a story line.” But that period helped their writing mature. “I knew something was wrong. I came back to Dallas and found a book that changed my whole approach to writing, Basic Formulas of Fiction, by Foster-Harris.” Camp keeps copies to give to writers he feels have potential.
Camp’s first film was