A friend of mine got hold of me and several others asking for suggestions to flesh out a convention panel on ‘Ballyhoo’ in filmmaking. If you’re not familiar with the ballyhoo in that context, it was a concept that used to make seeing some films way more enjoyable for audiences than some of the films would have been on their own. It was also a way to generate buzz for low budget films that might not have the money to spend on a real ad campaign.
William Castle was the undisputed genius of filmmaking ballyhoo. He would have the seats in theaters rigged with joy buzzers for showings of films like The Tingler, loaded with ghosts and skeletons that fell from the ceiling for films like The House on Haunted Hill, or by offering a “fright break” to refund the money of people too terrified to sit through an entire showing of Homicidal. Others would do things like advertising that theaters showing their films would have medical crews standing by in the lobbies to tend to those overcome by the horrors of the film they were seeing.
After throwing some ideas his way- some usable, some not -I ended up not being able to get the subject matter out of my head. As a result, I wanted to look at an example of ballyhoo that doesn’t get brought up when most people talk about it, and one that proves that in a way the age of social media isn’t actually filled with people who are any more gullible than those who lived in days gone by.
The 1970s ushered in the martial arts movie craze for America in a serious way. There was the beginning of a buzz before then, but the 1970s, and especially Bruce Lee, blew martial arts films up in pop culture in a way I doubt most would have ever thought they’d see it. The popularity of the craze would last for over a decade before settling down and embedding itself into the rest of the mainstream entertainment out there. It even had an impact on things outside of just film. It was the craze that launched 1,000 dojos across the US landscape, and to this day the martial arts are an ever present thing in our culture.
One of the things that happened in the film industry was the ever present concept of everyone wanting to cash in and make their own version of what was hot. Getting the distribution rights to a Hong Kong action film and dubbing the voices with American voice actors was one thing, but building your own stars and franchise was another. The simple truth was- especially in lower budget filmmaking –there weren’t large armies of bankable, credible, martial arts trained actors sitting around in Hollywood at that time. So, in the best traditions of ballyhoo, some filmmakers set about inventing them.
Low budget king Roger Corman and his crew invented quite a few. One of these was in 1974’s Blaxploitation/martial arts mashup TNT Jackson. When TNT Jackson was promoted to audiences, they were introduced to “martial arts sensation” Jeannie Bell. Jeannie was the recipient of the coveted ‘Ebony Fist’ award, beating out several other notable contenders. This actually got mentioned in a surprising number of places.
The thing is, Jeannie Bell could barely hold an accurate martial arts pose, let alone actually fight. The news release bits about the award she won were totally fabricated. The Ebony Fist award was an invention of Joe Dante, then a trailer editor working for Corman. A later film that played that game, directed by TNT Jackson director Cirio Santiago, was 1981’s Firecracker. Again, the lead actress, this time Jillian Kesner, had no real martial arts training. In order to hype her presence in the film, it was circulated that she was the grand prize winner at the Black Belt Olympics. As with the Ebony Fist award, the Black Belt Olympics was a total fabrication.
This was a form of ballyhoo. These and other things like them were (somewhat dishonest) gimmicks to get the films noticed. Martial arts addicted action fans might not have lined up outside theaters to see unknowns like Jeannie Bell or Jillian Kesner who may or may not have been worth paying money to see. Why would they? There was no guarantee of quality action. But, hang on, the films starred award winning martial arts champions? Those films had to at least have some legit action in them.
By 1988 we got Bloodsport, and the game changed a little bit. It wasn’t the lead actor that was hyped as the super legit badass, it was the character he was playing who received that treatment. The buzz around Bloodsport was all about how the film was based on the real life events and exploits of martial artist Frank Dux. While the stories around Dux weren’t created by the studios, they turned out to have much in common with the hype around Bell and Kesner. While he may have been an actual martial artist, Dux was also an expert self-promoter in the P.T. Barnum mold. Most of the tales of his exploits have been shown in later years to have been part exaggeration, part fabrication.
One of the places where the studio hype got a lot of help was the magazine racks. The 1970s and 1980s saw the rise of the martial arts magazine in every corner store and bookstore. They had two very big things in common with the pro wrestling magazines of the time. The first thing was there seemed to be a small army of publishers cranking out tons of them week after week. The second thing was that many of them were often about as reality based as the pro wrestling magazines. These were the magazines that, when the ninja craze hit cinema, started publishing article after article on ninjas and Ninjutsu that, while great for movie ticket sales and the sale of cheap “ninja tools” through magazine ads, had as much in common with reality as the tales of Walter Mitty.
I used to pick up some of those martial arts magazines back in the day. If you were to ever come across some of them now, they’d be hilarious reads. Some of them were filled with more ads, and mostly for junk, than articles, and the articles were sometimes filled with more photos showcasing the worst of late 1970’s, early 1980’s hairstyles than they were filled with actual writing.
But nestled in there, written as legitimate fact and presented as the unvarnished truth, you could occasionally find the self-promoting stories of guys like Dux and even fictional studio propaganda written about (perhaps even because the writer didn’t know any better) as if it were true. Actors who might not have been able to punch their way out of a paper bag were sometimes highlighted by some of the magazines with lesser credibility before a film’s release, their fictional accolades listed as their actual bio. They were then in some cases never spoken of again after a film’s release.
It seemed for a time like these magazines were everywhere, and that damned near everyone who was into martial arts or just action cinema was reading them. The upshot of that was that it seemed for the longest of times that most of the people I knew believed every single story about these people. Hell, I meet people who to this day still believe every word of more than just a few of them. Yes, that even includes the Ebony Fist award.
‘Ballyhoo’ is a word used to describe a thousand gimmicks, often limited in these discussions to things from the 1950s and 1960s. Certainly this kind of thing, while fitting the basic definition of ballyhoo, might be considered lesser forms of it by some. They absolutely don’t have the same level of complexity or genius of execution seen in some of the examples most often discussed when the subject is addressed.
But, in a way, what cooler example of ballyhoo is there than some of this stuff? Some people wholeheartedly believed some of this. It was almost like Santa Claus for teens and adults. People made up essentially harmless stories to promote films and/or actors, some of them got repeated as legit by third rate magazines, for a time people believed them, for a time people repeated these “facts” to their friends and coworkers, and the upshot of that belief was people enjoying a movie going experience or their fandom a little more than they might otherwise have done so. It was almost like the days of kayfabe in wrestling, or even the genius marketing campaign (which, again, I know people who until just recently still believed it to be a real legend) around the original The Blair Witch Project.
I love the classic stuff that gets discussed when people talk about ballyhoo in the context of the film industry. I think guys like William Castle, David F. Friedman, and (yes) Alfred Hitchcock were geniuses when it came to the art of ballyhoo. But, man, some of the stuff that came out of the 1970’s and 1980’s exploitation cinema and the low budget film studios was every bit the wonderful gimmicks even if they don’t get the same love and discussion as some of the stuff that Castle, Friedman, Hitchcock, and others did.
Oh, the friend mentioned up top was Bill Mulligan. He’ll be a guest and hosting panels at ConCarolinas and Dragon Con among other conventions this year. If you see his panels listed on the program, especially anything to do with ballyhoo or other possibly humorous topics, stop in and check them out. They’re always guaranteed to be entertaining.
Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek, dabbling in just about every genre but finding science fiction and horror to be his primary comfort zones. He has also had a lifelong devotion to that form of entertainment known as professional wrestling. When not worrying that his coworkers are going to inflict bodily harm onto him over his sense of humor, he enjoys hitting the convention scene or making indie films with his friends. He also finds talking about himself in third person to be very strange.