Things I Learned from Roger Corman originally appeared in a slightly different form in HUBRIS: A Commonplace Zine volume 2 issue 1.
Roger Corman has been one of the biggest influences on my career. Not on the creative side, though. He’s a filmmaker and I’m a writer, and while there are things I could take away from his process as an artist it’s his business acumen that’s helped me to be successful. So here are 3 things I learned from Roger Corman.
Accept Limitations and Do It Anyway
I get tired of hearing Corman described as the guy who made bad movies. He made low-budget movies that couldn’t always hit the same expectations as big-budget studio features. For a good portion of his career, though, he wasn’t making films for the same market. That wasn’t the problem he was solving for. He had his niche, he dominated it, and all of his films were profitable. They’re also entertaining, on different levels, if you’re willing to give them a chance.
Here’s where I could cite all of the actors, directors, and writers Corman discovered by giving them their first big break. He won a special Oscar for “for his rich engendering of films and filmmakers” because of that. If he didn’t make films because of the limitations, we might not have those people working in film today. That’s not the tack I’m going to take here.
Corman got to make movies because he was determined to make movies. He was educated as an engineer, but wasn’t happy doing that. He tried the studio system, and worked in the mail room at 20th Century Fox, and as story reader and stage hand. That might have eventually allowed him to make his own movies, but he didn’t wait for permission. He figured out how to do it his way, in his time, with the limited resources he had. This brings me to the next thing I learned.
Innovate and Do Your Best
Corman never set out to make a bad movie. He did wring every ounce of value out of what he had to work with. Every dollar in the budget, every minute in the shooting schedule, wasn’t allowed to go to waste. He pulled entertaining performances out of mediocre actors, and figured out ways to let the great actors shine and carry the film.
If you can’t do that, you can still do this. When you’re not able to do things the way other people do them, you can still figure out a way to get them done. You end up discovering methods to do things faster and cheaper, and therefore more profitably. Sometimes those bigger players with more resources end up adopting your methods because they’re more efficient.
Possibly my favorite Corman story involves the filming of The Raven. The film finished shooting a few days early, and under budget. The sets would remain up until then, and he still had Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson under contract. Rather than send everyone home and pocket the extra money, he threw a script together and shot The Terror in two days. Is it a great film? No. It looks great, and the actors do their best with the material, but you can tell the script was just thrown together. But Corman made two movies for the price of one.
Ignore the Haters
There will be people who tell you that you can’t. They’ll tell you that you shouldn’t. You’ll be criticized for all sorts of things. People will foist their expectations on you, telling you what you should do and how you should do it. Stick to your vision, do it anyway, and do it your way. In the end, Corman made a nice living doing what he loved. He’s had a happy life, for the most part. I’m doing what I enjoy, and the bills are getting paid, even though I’m regularly told that I’m doing it wrong. People are starting to come around for me, though, just like they did for Corman. When you ignore the haters and keep going, at some point it becomes impossible for them to be dismissive of your success.