Fans of Mel Brooks know “The Producers,” in which two producers’ plans to make money by making money-losing movies is foiled by their accidentally making a popular movie.
Proving that real life is stranger than fiction, Buzz Dixon tells this story:
The Mob had a problem:
Deep Throat was making too much money.
I won’t recount the history of porn in America at this time — it’s fascinating stuff (and not for the reasons you think!) — but it’s too much of a sideshow to what I want to post about.
Suffice it to say this:
The same black market-to-barely legitimate distribution system that made bootlegging not only possible but highly profitable during Prohibition, the same system that got pressed into service to spread comics and pulp magazines far and wide, that same system had a modestly earning sideline in shoveling porn around the country up to the 1960s.
At that point, as more and more adult films began being imported from Europe, as American indie producers found more legal tolerance for their grindhouse features, the Peraino members of the NYC-based Colombo crime family decided to splurge ($22,500 to $50,000 depending on who tells the story) on a feature length 35mm full color porn film that had an actual bona fide (albeit goofy) story and something that could be loosely interpreted as acting by less discriminating members of its audience.
We’re talking Deep Throat, folks, and I’ll head everyone off at the pass and say Linda Lovelace (nee Linda Susan Boreman) was at the very least coerced and intimidated into making the film, so sympathy to her, and a big hearty horselaugh to all those others involved as you read further.
We come not to praise Deep Throat (which in addition to being the first American porn feature with an actual story was also a musical [!] and a borderline sci-fi film [!!]), but in the words of another / later / even more infamous Deep Throat: “Follow the money.”
. . .
Deep Throat may very well be the biggest return on investment of any movie ever made, basically walking around pocket change for Mob wiseguys turned into a $250 million grossing picture! (And that’s just the generally agreed upon lowest gross estimate for the film; nobody really knows for sure. Gawd only knows what they could have done with Lucasfilm’s marketing team.)
Of course the Mob harbored absolutely no desire to let the Feds have any of that, and so for ideas on how to hide it, they turned to a bigger / badder / even more financially corrupt institution: Hollywood
I’ve posted elsewhere about the financial shenanigans the Hollywood studio system employs to hide its loot. One of their mainstays is cross collateralization.
It works like this:
Say a studio release six movies in a three month period. One smash hit, one modestly successful, two break even, one mild disappointment, one bomb.
The studio takes money from the smash hit and modestly successful films’ revenues and apply them to the losses of the bottom two films. With any luck all six films barely break even, and as such the studio keeps all the revenues and the profit participants (har!) get bupkis.
They call it “standard industry practices”.
And that’s what the Mob wanted to do with Deep Throat.
. . .
Deep Throat wasn’t conceived of as a franchise tentpole; it was just a standalone stroke film.
So they cobbled together a distribution company called Bryanston Films (presumably because it was the least Mafioso-sounding name they could think of) and, like Mel Brooks’ ill-fated The Producers, went out in search of the worst movies they could lay their hands on so they could “lose” money with them and siphon off that sweet, sweet Deep Throat cash (and more on why they wanted to do that in a bit).
Among the very first films they distributed was Dark Star, a low budget sci-fi movie shot mostly on 16mm as a student film by two USC classmates: John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon.
Budgeted at a final grand total of $60,000, it looked a helluva lot more polished and professional that Deep Throat. Still, Bryanston expected to lose money on this and were surprised when word of mouth among sci-fi fans earned the film a cult reputation that edged it into break even territory.
Oh, well, you can’t lose ‘em all, can you?
. . .
So they tried again, picking up a couple of Hong Kong imports to cash in on the kung fu craze they knew next to nothing about.
They figured by overpaying for a film, it would be easy to claim they lost money on it, and normally that would be true…
…unless one of the Hong Kong films you pick up is The Way Of The Dragon with Bruce Lee, and you release it just as a larger studio announces their (relatively) big budget Bruce Lee epic, Enter The Dragon.
Well, lightning can’t strike three times, can it?
They opted for something safe and crappy, absolutely guaranteed not to make any money. A film made by some punks from some podunk place down south, shot on 16mm with even lower production values than Deep Throat and arguably far worse acting. A stupid, ugly, vulgar film about a family of cannibals.
After running it for Bryanston, the screening room projectionist looked them square in the eye and famously said: “There are a lot of sick bastards in this world and every single one of them will pay five dollars to see this movie.”
Boy howdy, was he ever right!
Ladies and gentlemen, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre…
. . .
Meanwhile, outside the confines of Bryanston’s front offices, virtuous forces were gathering against them.
It’s hard for people to fathom today, but once upon a time hard core porn was illegal in many if not most communities in the United States.
Typically the reason had to do with blue nose morality, but law enforcement also knew the Mob liked to move money around using liquid assets.
That’s why local authorities waged war against pinball machines: They made it possible for the Mob to hide cash from heroin sales by claiming it was just millions of kids putting their quarters down.
Having a string of failed movies, and using Hollywood-style cross collateralization made it possible for the Perainos to hide a lot of the Colombos’ illicit cash —
— but the movies had to fail massively for the scheme to work.
And try as they might, Bryanston just couldn’t get their movies to fail.
(Well…most of them…)
To help hide money from the Colombos’ other rackets, the Perainos began siphoning for of their Deep Throat cash off to Mob-dominated Las Vegas casinos.
Casinos, like pinball machines, could hide a lot of illicit cash.
Cash the FBI and the IRS would love to be able to trace.
How do you penetrate many levels of Mob security to get a look at their books?
. . .
By now the Bryanston boys were growing desperate.
Despite their best / worst efforts, their movies kept making money!
It finally dawned on them that their least profitable films (“least” as in “but still”) were more conventional films with recognizable although far from big box office draw names.
Finally an independent production showed up that was ideal for their purposes: A dumb medium budget horror film with a bunch of has been stars in it, too well made to appeal to the freaks buying tickets for Blood For Dracula and Flesh For Frankenstein (two Andy Warhol produced horror films that surprised the hell out of everybody by being modestly successful), too inept for mainstream audiences who came to see The Human Factor or Caravan To Vaccares.
With a cast featuring Ernest Borgnine, Eddie Albert, Ida Lupino, and William Shatner — all woefully miscast — it was sure to turn off younger audiences.
In fact, the only young character in it was just a minor supporting role played by a kid who was one of a half dozen sidekicks on a modestly successful sit-com, a kid whose next role would be in a dumb disco dance fad movie.
So Bryanston acquired The Devil’s Rain and put it into general release.
And it fared poorly, and it lost money, and the boys at Bryanston smiled because at long last their scheme was working…
…until 18 months later when Saturday Night Fever was released and suddenly theaters were demanding every movie with John Travolta in it get re-released to cash in.
. . .
The Feds finally found a crack in the financial wall surrounding the Mob’s money.
Remember, even in the late 1970s, porn was not legal everywhere in the United States.
On July 7, 1974, the FBI arrested Harry Reems, Ms. Lovelace’s Deep Throat co-star, in New York for a federal obscenity charge filed in Memphis.
Dick Nixon, desperate to distract Americans from his own political scandals, kept pressing for crime bills and prosecution against porn, even though his own commission on pornography saw no societal harm in it.
The FBI, on the other hand, saw the Deep Throat obscenity case from a different perspective: A chance to finally get their hands on the Mob’s books.
And that’s exactly what happened.
Using their right of discovery from the Reems’ case and similar indictments in other federal courts around the country, the FBI swooped in on Bryanston and grabbed their financial records.
If you’ve seen Martin Scorsese’s Casino, you know roughly half-way through the film the FBI launches raids across the country to crack the Mob’s money laundering schemes.
Casino clocks in just shy of three hours — and Scorsese spends about a fourth of that time just explaining how the casino business works so the rest of the movie will make sense.
Adding a whole big sub-plot about how Deep Throat and Bryanston led the FBI right to the Mob’s piggy banks would have been fascinating — and incredible long.
So Scorsese just dismisses how the FBI found their way in and follows what happens after they did.
Wiseguys went to jail, that’s what happened.
. . .
Bryanston’s books provided the loose thread the FBI pulled that unraveled the whole deal.
No, it didn’t eliminate organized crime or shut down Mob influence in Las Vegas, but it sure put a dent in ‘em.
And it put a lot of guys — many named Peraino — behind bars.
Bryanston went inert for 30 some years. It makes noises now like it wants to come back as a legitimate distribution company, but so far…nothing.
All the original players are pretty much dead and gone, the lucky ones via natural causes, the not-so-lucky ones by other mobsters.
I was sparked to write this because several online friends had shared The Devil’s Rain poster recently without knowing how it fit into the weird history of the Mob and porn and Las Vegas, so I thought I’d write up this summary for them.
Up above I mentioned almost every film Bryanston release proved modestly successful at the very least.
The one exception is The Last Porno Flick (a.k.a. Those Mad, Mad Moviemakers).
I knew and worked with the late Larry DiTillio, who wrote the screenplay for the movie.
Without knowing it, he and the other film makers pitched a movie to Bryanston that was exactly like what Bryanston was trying to do!
i.e., a movie about some con men trying to make a bad porn movie so they could hide money.
Larry described the horror he and the other members of the production team felt when they realized they were in the Mob’s den, pitching a movie that made fun of what the mobsters were actually trying to do. He felt sure they were all going to leave with broken kneecaps at the very least —
— but to their surprise the Bryanston boys went for it and not only agreed to distribute the film but financed it as well.
And it flopped.
Larry felt sorry for them.
They had tried so very, very hard to be a failure, but they just kept on succeeding.
And when somebody brought them a film idea that reflected what they had been going through, they probably thought to themselves, “Yeah, let’s do this, let’s show the world what it was like for us.”
And the world didn’t give a crap.