(See previous post: “Tom Laughlin: 'Billy Jack' Actor and Director, Robert Altman Difficult Star Dead at 82.”) Featuring the titular hero as a semi-mystical figure who, with a mixture of steely determination and purposeful violence, helps to rescue wild horses from becoming dog meat and allows an independent school to continue operating at an Indian reservation in Arizona – against the wishes of white reactionary bigots and ruthless capitalists – Billy Jack was a box office disappointment when released by Warner Bros. at, in Tom Laughlin's words, “porno houses” (and drive-ins) in 1971. (Image: Tom Laughlin in Billy Jack.)
Unhappy with the studio's handling of his film, Laughlin sued Warners. In May 1973, following a settlement with the studio, he began self-distributing Billy Jack at small-town movie theaters throughout the United States. He hired marketing expert, former United Artists honcho, and former film producer Max E. Youngstein (Fail-Safe, The Money Trap), who made use a film distribution system known as “four walling”: the distributor would rent a certain number of movie theaters in any given area for a week or two, keeping all or nearly all of the box office earnings; the exhibitors, for their part, kept the money collected from concession stand sales.
A key element of this particular distribution strategy was the use of saturated television – instead of print – ads specifically targeting various segments of the population. After all, the movie had to sell as many tickets as possible in only one or two weeks.
In the case of Billy Jack, results proved to be more than encouraging – they were phenomenal. As per the AFI's notes on the film, Tom Laughlin's $800,000-budgeted drama brought in more than $10 million (about $45 million today) over the course of twenty months. At the end of its run, the film's box office rentals* reached $32.5 million (approximately $145 million today).
Hollywood adopts (and adapts) 'Billy Jack' film distribution system
As explained in David H. Cook's Lost Illusions, later in 1973 Universal and Warner Bros. used similar tactics – targeted saturated TV ads, “four-walling” in specific markets – to distribute, respectively, Michael Crichton's Westworld, starring Yul Brynner, and William Friedkin's The Exorcist, starring Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair. The latter film went on to become one of the biggest box office hits in history.
Tom Laughlin himself used similar methods for the release of the widely panned – but financially successful – The Trial of Billy Jack in 1974. One key difference was the film's opening nationwide at more than 1,000 venues, a distribution strategy all but unheard of back then. The third Billy Jack movie eventually pulled in a reported $55 million (approx. $237 million today).
In the mid-'70s, the National Association of Theater Owners sued against the practice of four-walling, which was temporarily stalled. Even so, saturated – and increasingly wider – releases, an emphasis on opening weekend box office grosses, and the use of targeted TV ads became the usual film distribution system for the Hollywood studio's major offerings, from Steven Spielberg's Jaws (coincidentally co-produced by Richard Zanuck) all the way to Shane Black's Iron Man 3, Francis Lawrence's The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
'Billy Jack': Progressive or reactionary?
Though on the surface a progressive, liberal-minded effort to counterbalance the likes of Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry and Charles Bronson in Death Wish, Tom Laughlin's Billy Jack irked some who felt the film supported vigilantism and violence in the name of peace.
“Fans likened Tom and his alter ego, Billy, to the prophet Jeremiah, to Don Juan (not the Casanova but the Castañeda shaman) and to Ralph Nader,” Barbara Wilkins would write for People magazine in 1975. “And any exploitative violence behind that blockbuster box office, Laughlin declared, was the figment of eastern critical effetism.” (Curiously, Wilkins adds that “similarly discounted were the stories of Laughlin, with his torrential temper, hurling a clock-radio at his secretary or stirring so much terror on the set that even extras got sick to their stomachs.”)
Whether or not a “figment of eastern critical effetism,” upon its release the Washing Post called Billy Jack, “a horrendously self-righteous and devious action movie,” while Roger Ebert complained: “Billy Jack seems to be saying the same thing as Born Losers, that a gun is better than a constitution in the enforcement of justice. Is democracy totally obsolete, then? Is our only hope that the good fascists defeat the bad fascists? Laughlin and Taylor are still asking themselves these questions, and Billy Jack arrives at a conclusion that is only slightly more encouraging.”
Itself derivative of countless Hollywood Westerns and crime dramas – e.g., William S. Hart Westerns of the 1910s, Alan Ladd in Shane – Billy Jack, along with The Born Losers, also turned out to be quite influential. Whether directly or indirectly, these two Tom Laughlin efforts can be seen as precursors to movies such as Ted Kotcheff's First Blood (1982), starring Sylvester Stallone; and, to some extent, Phil Karlson's immensely successful Walking Tall (1974), starring Joe Don Baker, and even Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976), with Robert De Niro as the titular vigilante. And on television, there was Kung Fu (Oct. 1972- Apr. 1975), with David Carradine as another righteous, semi-mystical, ethnically mixed martial-arts expert who is invariably forced to commit violence In the Name of the Common Good.
[“Revolutionary Film Distribution System: Tom Laughlin Billy Jack” continues on the next page. See link below.]
* Rentals refer to the percentage of the box office gross that goes to the distributors. Due to its different release patterns in 1971 and 1973, Billy Jack's final box office gross is impossible to calculate without more detailed information on how the film's rentals were generated. Nowadays, box office grosses (not rentals) are used to measure a film's success.
Tom Laughlin Billy Jack photo: National Student Film Corporation / Warner Bros.