Bigfoot. Ancient astronauts! Noah’s Ark? You might think I’m referring to the programming schedule for the History Channel, and you wouldn’t be wrong depending on who you ask, but for anyone wondering why modern television is populated by what are ostensibly “documentaries” about little green men and cryptids, you have to go back a few years—almost 50 to be exact.
During the late 1960s, American National Enterprises, an independent Utah-based distributor, had pioneered a distribution model called four-walling. Instead of renting out a film print to theater owners for an extended run in major cities, a distributor would rent multiple theaters in and around small towns and blanket the area in quick, cheap advertising to coincide with its release, then disappear before anyone could tell their friends about the movie they’d just seen. The technique was risky—you had the potential to lose more money than under the traditional model—but it also offered greater rewards: you could burn through a dozen small markets before negative word-of-mouth caught up to you. By the time local press had seen an ANE film and published their reviews it was already playing in another city somewhere across the country. Of course, once a good idea exists, someone will steal it.
In 1971, a group of ANE employees decided to strike out on their own and use what they had learned during their time with the company—specifically four-walling—to independently produce and distribute original films. They wanted to make movies that stood against a rising tide that was rapidly overtaking popular culture, as by the early seventies the United States was becoming a frightening and alien. The country was rapidly descending into chaos as large-scale riots protesting state-sanctioned brutality were breaking out in Camden, New Jersey, and Attica, New York. Charles Manson had just been sentenced to death for his role in orchestrating the murders of seven people. Even the language politicians were using took on a more aggressive stance when President Nixon declared a “war on drugs.” Probably as a response to this new American carnage, many of the top films at the box office—The French Connection (1971), Dirty Harry (1971), and Deliverance (1972), among others—were bloody revenge fantasies in which men are forced to restore order to an otherwise cruel and arbitrary world through violence. The ANE splinter group wanted to reign in the excesses of Hollywood and create family entertainment that hearkened back to a simpler, friendlier time.
The new company was initially named Hardman Productions after the company’s primary financier and cinematographer, Mel Hardman, but that soon changed when right-wing provocateur and Schick Razor Company owner Patrick Frawley gained a financial stake. Like Athena from the head of Zeus, Sunn Classic Pictures was cleaved directly from Frawley’s paranoid mind. His conservative worldview played an important role in shaping early Sunn Classic films. They were about strong, moral men surviving, and even flourishing, in a hard, cold wilderness through grit and ingenuity. 1971’s Toklat was a family-friendly spin on the Western trope of a man being forced to hunt his best friend for money (except this time the friend was a bear), and 1974’s When the North Wind Blows followed a trapper who fled civilization after a mistake and must embrace the punishing Siberian landscape to survive.
It was 1974’s The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, however, that turned Sunn Classic and its star, an actor named Dan Haggerty who to that point had played mostly heavies in biker films, into overnight successes. Several drafts of the script had left the company unenthusiastic about the film’s financial prospects so they took a chance on an unknown 30-something Mormon convert named Charles Sellier, Jr. Sellier claimed to have devised a revolutionary technique for understanding what audiences wanted. Never one to miss an opportunity to brag, he later revealed his secret in a 1977 interview with The Los Angeles Times: “The day is coming in the film industry when a producer won’t be able to just walk in and say, ‘I’ve got a great script.’ He’s going to be asked, ‘What are your demographics? Where’s the potential audience? Show me your computer data.’”
Sellier was one of the first proponents of market research and audience testing at all stages of a film’s production. He’d put together scripts piecemeal from individual scenes after testing them in front of crowds at private screenings. The ideas for the films also frequently came from the public. The process confounded auteurs and studio enthusiasts alike. When Sunn Classic reached out to Orson Welles to contract him for one of their wilderness films, he was aghast at the machine-like nature of their creative process. Welles associate Gary Graver recalled Welles’s frustration in the 2006 biography What Ever Happened To Orson Welles? A Portrait of an Independent Career, “Orson asked them how they knew what the audience wanted. They said, ‘We go to this place’—which is now the Harmony Gold Theater on Sunset—’and we wire people’s wrists when they’re watching animal footage. We check the seismograph, and if they get excited, we make a picture about that.’ Orson just shook his head in disbelief.” (Welles would go on to narrate the 1981 Nostradamus pseudo-documentary The Man Who Saw Tomorrow for Sunn Classic alum Robert Guenette.)
Despite industry reservations over “films written by computers,” Sellier’s method proved wildly successful. In interviews during the seventies, he estimated that The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams was made for $250,000 but took in anywhere between $24-30 million during its initial run, making it one of the most lucrative independent films of all-time. He immediately set to translating other popular ideas to the big screen.
ALIENS AND BIGFOOTS AND JOHN WILKES BOOTH, OH MY!
When Erich von Daniken’s gonzo speculative opus Chariots of the Gods (1970) was translated from book to film in 1970, it was savaged by critics. Most found its theories crediting aliens for the accomplishments of indigenous cultures silly, and some went as far as labeling it racist, but the film proved so popular with international audiences that it was re-edited into an American TV movie narrated by Rod Serling in 1973 called In Search of Ancient Astronauts. To capitalize on the success of Daniken’s project, Sun International, a subsidiary of Sunn Classic, bought American distribution rights and released it to theaters in 1973 and 1974 to strong returns. Sellier saw an opportunity.
The Mysterious Monsters and The Outer Space Connection, pseudo-documentaries about Bigfoot and aliens colonizing Earth, were quickly produced and released in 1975. The Amazing World of Psychic Phenomena and In Search of Noah’s Ark, movies searching for evidence of telepathic powers and Noah’s seafaring party bus, followed a year later. But Sunn hit peak notoriety for its speculative views on reality in 1977 when it released a book and movie titled The Lincoln Conspiracy.
Both texts alleged that members of the government and historians had been hiding the truth behind Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Instead of being the act of a lone gunmen, it was a failed attempt to stage a coupe by Lincoln’s Secretary of War Edward Stanton, Lafayette Baker, and Senate Republicans, who paid James Wilkes Booth to kidnap Lincoln so they could impeach him for his role in Reconstruction. Booth, however, double-crossed the original conspirators to join with another group who also wanted to kidnap Lincoln. At some point, Booth took it upon himself to change plans and carry out the assassination, whereupon he escaped when a Confederate spy, James William Boyd, was mistaken for him and shot by Union soldiers. According to Sellier and co-author David Balsiger, Booth’s original conspirators were aware of the mix up but went with it anyway to avoid blowing their cover.
As was the case with most of Sunn Classic’s films, it received near universal scorn from critics, but unusual this time around were the attacks from Lincoln scholars and historians who dinged the film for its historical inaccuracies. Vaughan Shelton, author of Mask for Treason, The Lincoln Murder Trial, one of the source texts cited in both the book and film, wrote a scathing rebuttal in the Idaho State Journal in November 1977, which began:
If Sun Classic had promoted The Lincoln Conspiracy as historical melodrama, rather than historical truth, their new movie would be above reproach. But they claim to have broken the case (where all others researchers failed), and even call for a congressional investigation of the 112-year-old crime based on their findings. So the film must be judged by their own criteria. Is it true? It is not! And easily proved untrue.
What’s odd when watching The Lincoln Conspiracy is that is does play like a melodrama. Little about the film itself appears to be authoritative or display a tone of certainty. It’s not that it doesn’t have a thesis—it absolutely believes a government conspiracy existed—but it does something quite different from a traditional documentary, although familiar to those who have read Daniken or watched Ancient Aliens. It poses a question but never ventures to offer an answer, moving along to the next idea before you realize you’ve been left hanging.
Reflecting on the film, James Conway, the director of The Lincoln Conspiracy and a number of other Sunn movies, agreed. In an interview via email, Conway stated that he didn’t believe he was making a documentary. “In my mind we were making a docudrama,” wrote Conway. “I never minded the criticism because we weren’t trying to make a pure documentary story. There were other books out at the time that touted the conspiracy theories, and I think they formed the inspiration for those concepts in the film. There was no authentication process.”
This emphasis on entertainment over information extended well beyond The Lincoln Conspiracy. Sunn Classic continued churning out pseudo-documentaries on bizarre subjects like near-death experiences (1978’s Beyond and Back) and the Bermuda Triangle (1979’s, uh, The Bermuda Triangle). Sellier even decided to try his hand at directing by piecing together the ultimate disaster film by culling individual scenes from audience-tested ideas. The end result, Encounter With Disaster, isn’t so much a movie in the traditional sense as it is a stream-of-consciousness tour through the history of the world’s coolest explosions and natural disasters.
Unfortunately, Sellier’s concept of testing audiences for new ideas became less effective as the seventies wore on and competitors took note of Sunn Classic’s success. By the end of the end of the decade, major studios were plowing millions of dollars into potential blockbusters based on audience reactions to films like Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977). Occasionally, that led to catastrophic misfires, as in Irwin Allen’s 1978 Killer Bees vs. America camp masterpiece The Swarm, but more frequently it meant pumping money into movies like Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) in pursuit of bigger stunts and better effects. Sunn Classic’s low-key wilderness films and conspiracy documentaries looked quaint in comparison. In response, Sunn Classic tried to branch out by creating more adult-focused narrative features using their tried-and-true method but found diminishing returns.
“Testing the docudrama ideas was a very effective way to gauge audience interest,” Conway noted. “But it didn’t always work. As a test subject The President Must Die [a documentary about John F. Kennedy’s assassination] was strong, but the movie failed. Testing became less effective as we moved into dramatic movies like Hangar 18 and The Boogens.”
FROM MARTIANS TO MONSTERS
Sunn Classic Pictures ended the seventies with a massive marketing push behind yet another pseudo-documentary, this time focusing on the life of Jesus Christ. Released at the tail-end of 1979, In Search of Historic Jesus (emphasis on historic as opposed to historical) followed Sunn’s typical format, opting to dramatize large sections of Jesus’s life and insert a few talking heads to help bring some sense of coherence to what would otherwise be an aimless series of vignettes. Naturally, critics went out of their way to ravage the film. The Los Angeles Times likened it to religious pornography, and Gene Siskel accused Sunn Classic of running a misleading marketing campaign due to its use of “one week only” gimmicks to trick audiences into seeing the movie (when, in fact, the film would often run for two weeks). But critical consensus did little to derail the film’s popularity — it pulled in almost $2 million in just two weeks in New York City alone. The film would allegedly go on to make $22 million by the end of 1980.
It was clear that even though Sunn Classic was putting out the occasional misfire it was still making money. The ambition of Charles Sellier, James Conway, and other employees kept the company punching above its weight class. By 1980, Sunn was releasing nearly a half dozen movies to theaters regionally and producing primetime television shows like the revamped Life and Times of Grizzly Adams and literary adaptations of H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher as movies-of-the-week for the NBC network each year. It was inevitable that someone else would want a piece of the pie.
“With success comes ambition,” said Tom Feeney, a writer and Sunn Classic enthusiast who runs a tribute page on Facebook. Feeney first discovered Sunn Pictures as a child when he saw Beyond and Back, the pseudo-documentary on near-death experiences. He grew to love their speculative formula, but as with Beyond and Back’s own director James Conway, recognized that its limitations were ultimately one of the causes of the company’s downfall, “They got too big, wanted to branch out and got bought as a result. They changed the formula.”
In July 1980, Taft Broadcasting, owner of Hanna-Barbera, bought Schick Sunn Productions and its associated properties, Sunn Classic Pictures, Sunn TV, and Sunn Books. Taft formed new subsidiary companies called Taft International Broadcasting and Taft Entertainment Television to subsume the Schick’s properties—Sunn Classic would be a division within Taft International, while Sunn TV would become fully enmeshed in Taft Entertainment Television—and set to expanding on Sunn Classic’s portfolio of family-friendly films to include science-fiction and horror titles. Sunn Classic had already been in the process of expanding, but the sale to Taft placed a new emphasis on broadening the company’s appeal to ride the wave of Hollywood’s new blockbuster era.
Sunn’s first picture post-sale was a PG conspiracy thriller titled Hangar 18. Unlike its popular documentaries which merely speculated on the possibility of conspiracies, Hangar 18 was a narrative feature more in line with Peter Hyams’s Capricorn One in that it dealt directly with a government conspiracy. The film follows two astronauts who are blamed for an accident which was actually the result of a collision with a UFO, and they have to fight to uncover the machinations of corrupt politicians who are using the UFO’s arrival to sway an upcoming Presidential election. Made for $3.5 million, Hangar 18 was a modest a modest success pulling in $11 million worldwide. It wasn’t on-par with In Search of Historic Jesus, but it also wasn’t a financial disappointment either. And, if anything, the film’s influence has grown over time, with many modern writers drawing a direct connection between its themes of alien conspiracies and government cover ups and the later success of The X-Files.
Their next film, produced under the Taft International banner, was The Boogens (1981), a horror movie about slimy reptilian monsters stalking miners in small-town Colorado. It represented the end of the transition from G-rated films into adult entertainment as it was the first R-rated feature Sunn Classic had collaborated on. As its director James Conway remembered, “The docudramas were becoming less successful. TV had picked up on that kind of subject matter. There was a TV series, In Search of…, by Alan Landsburg that covered most the same subjects … The Boogens was R rated because, at the time, the best horror movies [were] R-rated.”
Unfortunately, the transition didn’t sit well with some Sunn Classic employees who, while not disagreeing with the content of the adult films, felt the new company didn’t have a strong distribution plan in place to secure their success. One employee in particular, Charles Sellier, was unhappy with Taft’s decision to work through third-party distributors instead of four-walling, so, in 1982, he left to start another Utah-based production company with actor Burt Reynolds called Comworld. In an April 1982 interview with Utah publication The Newspaper, Sellier elaborated on his decision to leave Taft, “I didn’t like the direction they were going in. Without [distribution], you have too many things unresolved. Now, we’ve got the same distribution team that worked with us for 8 years before Taft.”
Sunn Classic released just two more films following Sellier’s departure, 1983’s Stephen King adaptation Cujo and 1987’s post-Breakfast Club Molly Ringwald teen drama P.K. and the Kid. Neither reflected the true vision of Sunn Classic as both were big-league narrative features which included few, if any, Sunn employees. This is because those who had worked on Sunn Classic films had begun migrating out from Utah and integrating themselves into Hollywood proper; Conway continued directing, notably for television on MacGyver, various iterations of Star Trek, and Charmed; Henning Schellerup, director of In Search of Historic Jesus, carved a niche for himself working second unit on horror films like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Maniac Cop; and Richard Friendenberg, a writer who got his break directing The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams went onto being nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for his work on A River Runs Through It. Without the people who made Sunn Classic what it was, it faded from memory, save for a failed attempt to reboot it in the 2000s when it was purchased by an independent producer and investors.
SUNN CLASSIC SETS OVER UTAH
Sunn Classic Pictures is by no means some unforgotten gem. Even those who came up working on its films harbor no illusions of grandeur. Conway was blunt in his assessment of Sunn Classic’s legacy. “I don’t think Sunn Classic has been overlooked,” he said. “It’s an interesting story, to be sure, and the rise and fall of 4-walling I think is a fascinating chapter in film distribution.”
That said, there are those who still hold some affection for the weird films Sunn Classic released during its brief life. Many have developed reputations as cult films—VHS copies of The Lincoln Conspiracy sell for upwards of $100 on eBay—and fans are still watching them years later. Feeney, the founder of the Sunn Classic Pictures Facebook page, plans to write a book about speculative documentaries in part because of his love of Sunn Classic’s films. It’s tentatively titled From Bigfoot to the Bermuda Triangle.
And then there’s Charles Sellier. Ironically, once free from the shackles of Taft’s constraints, Sellier found a very different kind of problem at Comworld. It quickly became apparent that his partner Burt Reynolds and Comworld investors had no interest in producing original films. The company gained a reputation for snatching up low-budget genre films like Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker (1982), One Dark Night (1982), and Ator, the Fighting Eagle (1982) and distributing them to theaters nationally in limited runs for quick returns before dumping them onto video. Sellier, as much a showman as a propagandist, grew frustrated after being able to make only one original picture—the 1984 teen comedy Snowballing—and left the company in March 1984.
After leaving Comworld, Sellier finally gained the mainstream recognition he had long been chasing when he directed one of the 1980s most notorious slasher films, Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984). Whether because he was a Mormon or because he understood the value of strategic ambiguity, Sellier refused to acknowledge the picket lines of conservative Christians forming outside of theaters to protest the film; he also wouldn’t respond to media requests for interviews, and rarely talked about the film until 2006 when he discussed it on an episode of Deadpit Radio, stating that he maintained only fond memories. He continued working after Silent Night, Deadly Night, but only directed one more feature, the 1985 Vietnam vets take-back-the-streets actioner The Annihilators. He redirected his focus into producing, working his way through TV movies and speculative television docudramas, until his conversion to evangelical Protestantism. He passed away in 2011.
So, how would Sellier remember Sunn Classic Pictures? In a 1978 interview, Sellier laid out his philosophy on the company and its place in the world, “For the life of me I can’t figure out who decided we were artists with pieces of canvas. I liken what we do to a situation where you give people a piece of putty. One makes something that’s interesting and pretty but has no value. The other makes a vase—you can put flowers in that.”
[Editors Note: This article was originally published by Diabolique Magazine in 2018.]