Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Importance of Billy Jack

There are many ways to look at the value of a motion picture.

Of course the most popular way is simply to regard a film by it’s artistic merits. In other words, was it “good” or “bad”. What is it’s “Fresh rating” ?… Was it an Academy Award winner, a box office hit, or a flop.

From time to time I like to examine the importance of a film. It is interesting to note that a film could very possibly be “bad” and be important. A film can have been seen by very few people and be important. It can lose money and be important.

So what makes a film “important”? A film is important if it…

1) Established a major star, director, writer, editor etc.
2) Changed artistically or technically how films were made going forward.
3) Changed the BUSINESS of film.
4) Established a new genre.
5) Became a “Classic” by establishing a place for itself in popular culture spanning several generations.
6) Was a flash point for political/societal debate or change.

Based on some or all these criteria both Rocky and Rambo were important films. The sequels were not.

While it is relatively easy to identify an “Important” film, classifying a motion picture “unimportant” is more a matter of one’s point of view.
For instance Star Wars was CLEARLY an important film. But was Empire Strikes Back? The latter is certainly a classic but does not meet any of the other criteria for an important film. Is being a Classic enough to establish a film as important? Star Wars met no less than five of the above criteria, Empire only one. It’s a matter of opinion and if a film is important to YOU then it is important to that extent.

Here we are discussing the importance of a film in the larger sense of the word. We are looking at the importance of a film as it applies to the art form as a whole. This is a vantage point that allows us to consider a film and it’s importance more dispassionately.
Which brings us to Billy Jack.

Billy Jack is an action/adventure film that was released in the spring of 1971. Billy Jack, a half breed Navajo Indian defends the Freedom School and students from townspeople who do not understand or like the “hippielike” students. Billy lives somewhere in the hills and always seems to “know” when the students need him.

Billy Jack was NOT an artistic or critical triumph. It was not initially a box office success. It was not even completed under the auspices of a single studio. Billy jack was filmed on a budget of $800,000.00, a modest sum even by the standards of the time.
Artistically it’s appeal is limited to the people it influenced at the time. I personally love Billy Jack and screen it on a fairly regular basis. But it’s appeal falls under the “you had to be there when it was new” category. It does not translate well to most people born AFTER the Vietnam War (yes it was a WAR).

However, Billy Jack is a very important film. This film changed forever the way in which movies are distributed. Billy Jack changed the BUSINESS of film.

Filming began on Billy Jack , in the fall of 1969, but the movie was not completed until 1971 because it was batted around among several Distribution Studios. First, American International withdrew from the project. The movie languished until 20th Century Fox got involved. Then 20th withdrew and was finally replaced by Warner Brothers.

However Warner was indifferent to the project and the film received very limited distribution.
Tom Laughlin, who wrote, directed and starred in Billy Jack took matters into his own hands and booked it in to theaters himself in 1971. The film died at the box office in its initial run, but eventually took in more than $40 million in its 1973 re-release, with distribution supervised by Laughlin.

Up until Laughlin independently booked Billy Jack into a large number theaters nationwide, movies were released GRADUALLY into a small number of large theaters in major cities and then spreading out as time and word of mouth passed by. It’s one of the reasons that movies could exist in first run for over a year. Under the old distribution model movies rarely had TV ads because most people would not be able to see the film at the time the ad was released.

Laughlin changed this when he cut a deal with Warner’s to distribute the film independently. He literally took the industry to school by booking the film in theaters all over the country and promoting it’s distribution through Television ads. Billy Jack became a box office HIT, grossing fifty times it’s initial investment.

The huge returns for this unconventional release strategy convinced Universal to put “Jaws” (1975) in more theaters simultaneously than any picture in Hollywood history. Laughlin’s wide-release strategy soon become standard industry practice.

On this basis alone Billy Jack is important.

However, Billy Jack was also instrumental in establishing a new genre of film that gave rise to such movies as Walking Tall (1973) and Death Wish (1974). Billy Jack established the “Lone Anti-Hero” who stands up to the forces of the “establishment” and pursues justice even when it is in conflict with the law. This archetype has been widely used in film (Rambo) and TV (Jack Bauer) to this day.
Billy Jack also makes political statements about war, established authority, racism that were very controversial at the time and influenced films like Apocalypse Now and Taxi Driver.

Billy Jack may have whiskers on it today. It’s message of peace is incongruous with the amount of violence in the film. It moves slowly by today’s standards. BUT the film remains a compelling one upon viewing and it was certainly an important movie in many ways.

That’s 30!


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