Moral movies, personal cost
Joe Camp created the Benji movie franchise 30 years ago. He distributed the independent production himself — and the film about a smart, tenderhearted pooch who saves two kidnapped children grossed $39.5 million. This year, Camp, 65, wrote, produced and directed the third sequel, Benji: Off the Leash! The theatrical release didn’t even gross the $5.6 million it took to shoot the film. The DVD will be released Tuesday. Camp recently spoke to News Editor John W. Kennedy.
PE: Why are you so fond of dogs?
CAMP: We’re just trying to make a positive difference in folks’ lives. I discovered in the original Benji movie that dogs have feelings and communicate just like humans. A dog is one of the few creatures that, like Christ, is full of unconditional love. Benji: Off the Leash! is about everything Christ taught while He was here on earth: love, hope, putting others before yourself, not giving up. These are Christlike qualities largely missing in today’s entertainment.
PE: Why the 17-year hiatus?
CAMP: A multiplicity of reasons. Shortly after the release of Benji the Hunted in 1987, my wife, Caroline, had a major stroke and brain surgery. It changed a lot of priorities. We put the Benji rights into a partnership. The good news is my wife and I had time to focus on each other for nine of the best 38 years that we spent together before she died of cardiac arrest. The bad news is that the movie partnership went south. It took four and a half years of litigation and nearly all my retirement funds to get the rights back.
PE: Part of the delay was so you could keep the content family-friendly.
CAMP: We spent a year negotiating with three major studios. All three said, “We want total control because we want to put in the poop jokes, the four-letter words and the sexual innuendos.” We said no, and decided to raise the money independently as we had done in the past.
PE: Why do so many “family” films today contain crude elements?
CAMP: I was told specifically by one executive, “You’ve got to get poop jokes in there because that’s what kids want.” I said, “If you tell a good story and have good characters you really don’t need that stuff.” I asked him, “Do you give your kids what they want or what you think they should have?” He got very angry and left the room.
PE: What do you see for the future of Hollywood filmmaking?
CAMP: It’s up to us. If we go see a movie and say, “It’s just a few four-letter words, I’ll take the kids,” Hollywood will keep lowering the bar until there is no bar left. Parents must do everything in their power to make their kids understand good from bad. If parents say, “My son’s peers will hate him if he doesn’t see the latest hit movie” or “The neighbors will think I’m weird if I don’t let my son go,” Hollywood will never be more responsible.
PE: The original Benji opened to universal critical and box office acclaim. Have audiences changed?
CAMP: We’ve had fantastic reviews from the big reviewers like Roger Ebert, Michael Medved and Leonard Maltin. But it didn’t resonate at the box office. The marketing was a flop. Garfield, which had a $30 million advertising budget for TV alone, did $75 million. We had a total advertising budget of $5.5 million, but $20 million today is pretty much the minimum you need.
PE: You took a financial gamble in making this. Will it ruin you?
CAMP: When you’re with God, nothing ruins you. It will cause financial stress. We probably will not make a nickel out of it. We’re praying we can get the investors’ money back. If the DVD doesn’t do exceptionally well, we won’t. We must trust God and move on.
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