Upwardly Mogul [November 1976]

Move over, Hollywood. Make way for Joe Camp. Joe Camp?

May 2002By Comments

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 a ten-minute industrial promotion for the City of Denton. The agency had a little money left over for a film, but nobody with experience wanted to touch it at the figure. “I conned them into letting me do it on weekends at cost. I’d never even seen an Arriflex [a professional 16 mm camera] and we didn’t even know a tape splicer existed.”

But it worked, mainly because Camp built in some of his gut emotion and imagination. The star was a little red Volkswagen that carried the cast all around Denton looking for industrial sites. One day, sitting in the Volks, they all daydreamed what the ten-minute movie would do for them: Harland Wright would become a rich and famous production designer (he’s Mulberry Square’s design chief now), Joe Camp would be a big producer, and “What about me?” a Denton girl in the cast asked. “Phyllis,” Joe told Phyllis George three years before it happened, “You’ll be Miss America.”

The Denton film’s success did get Camp a second commercial, this time with enough budget to rent facilities at Jamieson Film Studios in Dallas. Though Camp says he was still green, the client loved it, and the Jamieson heads asked him to come on as producer-director. After eighteen months, Jamieson having changed ownership, Camp decided to open his own studio. On January 1, 1971, Mulberry Square Productions came into existence. (The name has no esoteric significance: “We just brainstormed something that sounded good.”) Camp told his investors his goals were to be the best commercial filmhouse in the Southwest and to use that to launch feature picture production. He gave a speech about competing with Los Angeles and New York on a quality basis, not with Dallas on a price basis. Dallas had become big in commercial filmmaking but was a price market—clients wanted their films cheap. Mulberry Square went its first seven months without exposing one frame for pay. Camp’s backers were ready to pull out, so he found Ed Vanston, a Dallas insurance man, who bought out the hold group at a bargain rate. By January Mulberry Square finally blossomed. It did more volume that month than it had done in the preceding twelve.

“Ed told me, when he bought in, ‘You show me one year in the black and I’ll put before you the men who can finance the feature you want to make if you can sell ‘em,'” Camp says. “We came to the end of ’72 and I said to Ed, ‘OK, there’s your year in the black. Let’s get ‘em together.’ He hadn’t believed he would have to, but Ed started bringing in prospects, and we started selling them. By April 1, I was writing a script and by July we were in production on Benji.”

Camp had written Benji in 1968 as a story treatment and passed it around Hollywood. The response was, “Well, you can’t do that live, and if you do it in animation you’re talking Disney costs,” so it was sitting on the shelf. The film was released in June 1974; every major studio turned it down or wanted to run it as a kiddie feature. Camp, in his most memorable and daring career decision, resolved to do his own distribution. Distribution is the dark mystery of the film industry. The legend, which Camp punctured, is that only a major studio has access to the kind of national and international exposure that enables a picture to gross millions. When Camp called Vanston and told him, “We’re going to distribute Benji ourselves,” Vanston asked, stunned, “What do you know about motion-picture distribution?” Joe’s answer was, “What did we know about motion-picture production?”

Vanston filled the moneybags again, and in two months they had their distributing company. The summer of 1974 was a learning process, but by August things were coming together. However, autumn is traditionally a bad playing time, especially for a picture with youth appeal. Industry pessimists warned Camp, but he tried pushing Benji into fall anyway—and discovered the pessimists were right. After playing Los Angeles, so the film could qualify for the Academy Awards (the chutzpah of the thought!), Benji was pulled to be held for a national break in June 1975.

That winter (and that chutzpah) made the difference. The Benji theme song, “I Feel Love” (sung by Charlie Rich), was nominated for an Oscar and was awarded the Golden Globe, the Oscar equivalent given by the foreign movie critics in Hollywood. Millions of television watchers who might never have heard of or given a second thought to a G-rated Texas dog picture came away from the Academy Awards humming “I Feel Love” and hearing about Benji on the talk shows.

Camp was double lucky putting Benji together. First, he got trainer Frank Inn and his dog Higgins (seven years on Petticoat Junction) for the title role—and it is a role almost human in its demands, because the picture is played through the eyes and mind of the dog. Benji (as Higgins was quickly rechristened) does a superb piece of acting—superior, in fact, to the humans—and is just the right size and the right sort of canine ragamuffin to carry off the part. He has been installed in the Animal Actors’ Hall of Fame, which is far more select than its human counterpart.

Winter and spring of 1975 was revolution time for Mulberry Square. Commercial production was dropped, and Camp flung himself into distribution and promotion the same way he had done production: don’t-look-back decisions, frenzied hours for all, thousands in ad dollars (becoming $2 million with Hawmps!)—and simple intransigence. Handworking the nation’s theater chains, he got exclusive bookings almost everywhere but New York. “New York had been a problem market for G-rated films because Disney hadn’t played well the last seven or eight years,” Camp says. “They wanted us to go on the multiple-run track everywhere at once, but we didn’t want Benji locked into that catergory.” His solution was typical Camp. He took a full page ($12,000) in the Sunday New York Times proclaiming Benji was coming and exhorted, “Call your favorite theater for opening date.” The next day the Guild 50th Theater, an exclusive house just off Fifth Avenue, called and said, “We want to play that picture exclusive.” Whoosh! It set house records and went on to a tremendous showcase (multiple) run in 53 New York neighborhood houses. The picture also went over big in France and Italy, where “Beniamino” became a hit song and a national fad. At the end of the season, Camp announced Benji would be withdrawn from the U.S. market, not to be rereleased for seven years in this country. He also bought out Ed Vanston. Today Mulberry Square is all his.

In the summer of 1976, Hawmps! was in trouble. The Los Angeles and New York runs were disasters, and the North and Northeast refused to be amused—although the Southeast, Southwest (including Texas), and Northwest exceeded expectations. The ad and promotional costs had been monumental—Camp’s airline bill alone will run $31,000, says comptroller A. Z. Smith. There wasn’t a big city Camp or the Hawmps! stars hadn’t visited, but it didn’t work back East.

Camp admits he was never satisfied with Hawmps! Too long, for one thing. Too hurried, for another. “I think one of the things that makes greatness is having the time to do it till it’s right,” he mused. “Something needs reshooting, recutting, rewriting—you call the people back and do it, like with Benji. It’s bad enough when somebody criticizes you and you think you’ve done a decent job. It’s ten times worse when somebody criticizes you and you know they’re right.” Not that he won’t defend himself. He took two pages in the Times when local reviewers got nasty, quoting six national critics who raved over Hawmps!, and had a character ballooning to another, “Good grief. Did you see what those New York reviewers said about our movie?” “Don’t worry,” the second character ballooned back, “They said the same thing about Benji.”

Then, box-office returns started coming from Japan where Benji opened in July and became a sensation. The first week the figures ran $192,000 at four houses, and $125,000 at a single Tokyo theater in four days. By mid-August the slowness of Hawmps! was diluted by signs of a good TV bid, and Camp was back merchandising spin-offs from the new Benji project: everything from paperback book rights to dolls, games, toys, furniture, and clothing with the Benji logo. In the August issue of Good Housekeeping, a full-color page announced “A Benji Puppy for Your Very Own” contest to run until April 1977. Frank Inn will present the pup to the winner in the June issue—just as the new Benji film is released. Camp would have preferred not making a sequel, he says, but pressure from fans (and investors) was too great. The dog will not be Higgins-Benji, but an offspring. Higgins-Benji, at 17 years, is as weary as a 100-year-old man.

By now lots of industry people have pro and con theories about Camp as filmmaker. Some say his pictures are good for what they are: entertainment. Some insist he’s no artist. But all say he’s a conceptualizer and merchandiser who can pull things together, package, and push them as good as—maybe better than—anybody else in the business. But, they add, someday he’s going to have to give up something.

“If I ever turn loose something in the production process,” Camp says, “it might be directing the picture.” He won’t relinquish final control of the script or of editing. And for as long as Joe Camp can see down the road, he and Mulberry Square will stay in Texas. A Hollywood producer once told him, “Everything you’ve done up to now has been impossible, but you didn’t know it so you went ahead and did it. You move out here and in two years, I’ll guarantee, you’ll know it’s impossible and you won’t try. That’s what happens in Hollywood.” But not in Dallas.

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