The 13th Floor

INTERVIEW with Dave Sheldon: The History of Edward Montoro and Film Ventures International, Makers of GREAT WHITE, GRIZZLY, and More!

GRIZZLY, GREAT WHITE, and ANTHROPOPHAGUS. Besides their prestigious placement in the annals of VHS horror culture, none of the films would have been possible without the help of B-movie producer/distributor and founder of Film Ventures International, Edward L. Montoro.  But while creating some legendary titles in the horror industry, Montoro and FVI were also notorious for cashing in on box office trends making what were affectionately called “rip-off films”.

Montoro’s film career began after a 1968 plane crash ended his career as an airline pilot.  With the newfound boldness that comes from walking away from such an event, Montoro founded Film Ventures International out of his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia in 1970.  After the success of his first film, an adult film called GETTING INTO HEAVEN, FVI switched gears and began producing and distributing B-level genre movies.

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BEYOND THE DOOR and GRIZZLY

As a distributor, FVI brought a wide variety of Italian films to the States.  In 1974, Montoro made $9 million when he imported Ovidio Assonitis’s BEYOND THE DOOR to America. This Italian version of THE EXORCIST immediately piqued the interest of Warner Brothers who promptly filed a lawsuit against the fledgling distributor.  Ultimately Warner Brothers’s lawsuit failed, and Montoro was legally cleared to continue with his business plan of distributing foreign films with a striking resemblance to American blockbusters, flicks like THE VISITOR (1979) (a rip of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND) or the Spanish ET entitled EXTRA TERRESTRIAL VISITORS (1983) were now being distributed in the United States under the FVI banner.

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FVI’s grasp on the film industry became cemented in with the release of its most profitable film, 1976’s GRIZZLY, the story of a state park under attack by a seventeen-foot grizzly bear. Though the film did not intend to be a JAWS on land rip-off, Montoro’s marketing campaign unapologetically cashed in on the comparison, shamelessly illustrated in its tag line “The most dangerous jaws on land”.

Grossing an impressive $39 million, GRIZZLY ushered in a menagerie of nature films in the subsequent years including giant alligators, barracudas, birds, crocodiles, ants, mutant beavers, many more sharks, and at least one more bear. Not wanting to share the film’s success with the team that actually worked on it, Montoro allegedly decided he needed to keep GRIZZLY’s profits for himself, claiming the project went over budget.

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GRIZZLY writer/ director David Sheldon recounts his experience working with Montoro during this period.

Dave Sheldon: The idea for the film was created at the dinner table in my home. Harvey Flaxman, a writer-friend from my theater days in New York, drove with his family across the country, camping out along the way. While visiting us in LA, he and his wife told me about a bear scare they experienced. Someone had screamed, “There’s a bear loose!” and everyone panicked. I looked at Harvey, and said “What a great idea for a movie”. I made a deal with Harvey. I told him that I would write a scene-by-scene outline/treatment for a screenplay called GRIZZLY about a bear menacing campers in the woods. I asked him if he could take my work and flesh it out as a script. We would share both producer and writer credit. I did my part, Harvey did his, and I then took it and put my two cents in to shape it up.

William Girdler who had been my partner on SHEBA BABY and PROJECT KILL saw the script sitting on my desk when he came into my office to read my Daily Variety. He said he could get it financed, but if he did, he wanted to direct it. I reluctantly agreed. I also gave the script to Arnold Kopelson, (producer of Platoon) who flipped over the script and gave it to Frank Wells at Warner Brothers. But Bill Girdler’s connection, Ed Montoro at Film Ventures came in first and offered to finance a production with us immediately.

Just three weeks after the script was written, we were in production in snow-covered Georgia mountains where DELIVERANCE was filmed pretending it was a hot summer in Yosemite. After one week of filming, we put together a product reel to show president David Begelman of Columbia Pictures. He gave us a deal with Columbia for worldwide distribution. That, I never anticipated. It was a hit before the film was finished.

Blumhouse.com:  What are some of the factors that you believe led to the film’s success?

DS: I must admit the success of GRIZZLY was really due to the success of JAWS. We were the first animal-horror picture after JAWS, and Montoro had the poster designed like the JAWS poster. I guess that started the JAWS rip-off connotation. Instead of the shark in the water below the swimmer, he had the bear looming above the campers. 18 feet of gut-crunching, man-eating terror was how we had pitched the project to him.

BH: How did you feel about the JAWS comparisons?

DS: I resented it. I had not seen JAWS.  I did read a review of Benchley’s book. Calling it a rip-off was like calling every western a rip-off of STAGECOACH.

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BH:  Did you know anything about Montoro before going to work on GRIZZLY?

DS:  Not too much. He had been a TV repairman in Atlanta who started producing borderline pornos and then built a good distribution company, Film Ventures, in Atlanta.

BH:  Before GRIZZLY wrapped, was there anything about Montoro’s business practices that made you suspect you may have to sue this guy to get paid?

DS:  Absolutely. Our budget going in was $600k, four weeks of shooting. The picture started looking good while we were filming. [Then] Montoro asked me not to shoot on a rainy day. I warned him that if we stopped filming on certain days, we would be going beyond the four weeks, and the budget would have to go up. In our contract, it stated that we would lose so many points in profit participation if [we went] over-budget. Montoro told me not to worry about it. We would not lose any of our profit participation. I asked if he would put that in writing. We had our attorney fly in to do an amendment to our contract. Montoro wouldn’t do it until he had his lawyer involved. But we proceeded on good faith with his constant assurance that we would not be docked for being over budget.

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BH: And how about after the release?

DS:  We kept demanding our shares right up until the film opened and was a blockbuster, breaking records in Japan and Germany as well. So we sued.

Tune in tomorrow for part 2 on the legendary lawsuit surrounding GREAT WHITE and the failed GRIZZLY 2!

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