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Roger Corman should be remembered as the model that filmmakers should try to emulate from now on

Unexpectedly, Corman may have been the most important man in movies across the past half century

Roger Corman on the set of Death Race 2000
Image credit: Roger Corman/

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It’s safe to say that, prior to his death last weekend, Roger Corman had become a name that was almost unknown to a generation of movie fans… or, worse yet, know primarily as the butt of a joke, as the producer of the unreleased Fantastic Four movie from the 1990s or any number of low budget B-movies (or movies that could justifiably lay claim to letters further along the alphabet) that few people have seen. In some respects, that’s somewhat understandable: Corman was almost 100 years old, and hadn’t really been particularly active in the industry for some time — but if anything, his passing provides the opportunity to correct the record and put it as bluntly as necessary: Corman was the greatest gift to the movie industry imaginable in the last century, if not longer.

Arguably, there’s a case to be made for that being true on his passion for the medium alone. Corman wasn’t “just” a producer or director, although it’s in those fields that he had the most impact on the business. He was also a screenwriter and actor, with appearances in The Godfather Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, and Apollo 13 to show for it. He also shows up in Scream 3 as a studio executive, which is a fine in-joke of a cameo from director Wes Craven — a director who, perhaps surprisingly, isn’t one of the army of filmmakers who owe their careers to Corman.

The directors who could justifiably say that Corman offered them their big break include — and this is a long list, so get ready — Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard, John Sayles, Joe Dante, Robert Towne, Jonathan Demme, Gale Anne Hurd, Nicolas Roeg, Peter Bogdanovich, Irvin Kershner, and so, so many more; James Cameron — who worked as an art director on the Corman-produced Star Wars rip-off Battle Beyond the Stars — has joked that he trained at “the Roger Corman Film School,” for example. (Corman likely loved the opulence of Avatar, let’s be honest.) When we start to include actors in there, the list gets even crazier: Robert De Niro, Dennis Hopper, Sandra Bullock, Peter Fonda, Charles Bronson, Tommy Lee Jones, and Jack Nicholson all arguably got their big moment in projects that Corman made happen. The subject even famously moved Nicholson to tears in an interview once:

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But wait, we’re not done yet. Corman also worked as a distributor at one point in his career, bringing works from European directors like Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini. and François Truffaut to the US, as well as Peter Weir and Akira Kurosawa. More than that, his focus on the mainstream meant that these filmmakers were brought to locations traditionally ignored by “arthouse” movies, when Corman took them to drive-ins and grindhouse theaters, which were cheap and available. Think of the lives changed by seeing these kinds of movies for the first time!

But then, Corman’s was a career filled with things that would have enormous influence further down the line that none could have foreseen. For example, he was the producer behind the 1955 movie The Fast and the Furious, which would lend its title to the Vin Diesel-starring franchise decades later (a name lift that Corman himself had to approve); Corman was behind the 1960 Little Shop of Horrors, which was transformed into a musical featuring music by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, who’d be discovered by Hollywood because of that show, and then go on to save the fortunes of Walt Disney Animation in the 1990s. Hell, Corman founded New World Pictures, the studio that would decades later buy Marvel Comics and indirectly lead to the creation of Marvel Studios as executives started looking at the idea of Marvel characters coming to the big screen in projects the company itself could own.

The influence of Corman, in case this isn’t immediately clear, is spread all throughout popular entertainment for the past half century, if not longer. It’s almost impossible to consider the movie industry without him, even ignoring the actual movies that he wrote or directed. Many of which are genuinely great; I mentioned the original Little Shop of Horrors, but things like Machine-Gun Kelly and 1960s biker movie The Wild Angels are a lot of fun as well — and that’s saying nothing about his all-time great work on Edgar Allan Poe adaptations like The Masque of the Red Death, The Pit and the Pendulum, or The Raven, each of which is a genuine must-see.

What made Corman such a figure was his endless enthusiasm for movies, beyond simply his own work — an enthusiasm that drove him to share the wealth with as many fellow fans and filmmakers as possible for decades, in the process, making the industry a stronger, better place. His loss is tragedy on multiple levels, but what would be an even greater tragedy would be if others didn’t feel inspired to try to follow his example in each and every creative field possible.

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