From Grizzly to Great White: The Death of Film Ventures International

Movies Features Film Ventures International
From Grizzly to Great White: The Death of Film Ventures International

When Jim Bertges arrived at work that morning in 1984, it was immediately clear something was amiss. The executives of Film Ventures International, an independent film distribution and production company, gathered the company’s 30-some employees to make an announcement. That announcement was simple: Ed was gone, and he’d taken more than $1 million in company funds with him.

“They came in with a briefcase that was full of cash, which was our final pay,” says Bertges, who spent more than 40 years of his career working in motion picture advertising and marketing. “They also had enough time to make some dartboards with Ed’s face on them—we were all given one so we could pepper his face with darts. They were laying us off because they knew the company couldn’t function without Ed.”

“Ed” was none other than Edward L. Montoro, founder and sole owner of Film Ventures International. Starting with nothing, he had built his company into a successful, often overachieving distributor of B-movies throughout the 1970s and 1980s, first in Atlanta and then in Los Angeles. Just a few months earlier, FVI had been preparing its slate of films for 1984. Now, Montoro was skipping town with the contents of its coffers, leaving the company to rot. In the 33 years since, Edward L. Montoro has never been seen again. What he left behind is one of the great, forgotten stories of independent cinema.

FilmVentures (Custom).jpgThe original FVI logo, reflecting the company’s Peach State origins in Atlanta, GA.

Bears, Demons and Court Dates

Only eight years before his exodus, in 1976, Montoro produced a low-budget horror movie called Grizzly, one of only a handful of films that the company fully produced rather than acquiring from overseas. An unabashed Jaws rip-off, it featured “18 feet of gut-crunching, man-eating” grizzly bear in place of the shark, and audiences unexpectedly reacted with delight rather than incredulity. Raking in $40 million at the box office, Grizzly quickly became the highest grossing independent film of all time, a title it held until it was surpassed by John Carpenter’s Halloween just two years later. It was FVI’s brightest moment, and also emblematic of the company’s game plan: Find a successful film, then exploit the same market. In doing so, they were a direct precursor to modern schlock studios such as The Asylum, producers of “mockbusters” such as Transmorphers and Paranormal Entity.

“It was a different time in film promotion,” says Bertges, who headed the company’s advertising department from 1979 until the day of Montoro’s disappearance. “Pictures didn’t open wide on thousands of screens, especially the smaller pictures we were making. We’d be going from territory to territory with a few hundred prints of the film at most, focusing on one region at a time.”

grizzly 1976 poster (Custom).jpgMontoro tempts fate by calling Grizzly “the most dangerous Jaws…on land.”

Today, the films produced and distributed by FVI tend to be lumped alongside the B-movies distributed by more famous movie pitchmen such as Roger Corman (New World Pictures) and Samuel Arkoff (American International Pictures). They ran the gamut of genres, from horror to action, thrillers, comedy and westerns. What linked them together was the fact that they were mostly foreign (often Italian) in origin, and were all cheap. Unlike Corman, who produced plenty of dreck but also imported and distributed landmark foreign films from the likes of Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman, Montoro’s output was purely for what he termed “the mug house crowd.”

“That would be teenage boys taking their dates out on makeout night in the Midwest,” says a chuckling Rick Albert, a Los Angeles entertainment lawyer whose company Design Projects Incorporated created every FVI poster/one-sheet from 1978 onward. “Corman would get Kagemusha and these really high-class films to distribute. Ed was not like that. People in L.A. would call him the Beverly Hillbilly who came from the sticks, because he came out here and lived the same way. He used to say, ‘The mug house crowd will always go out to see these horror films. They gotta go see them; the market for them will never disappear.’ And that market is still there today, so he was right.”

Edward L. Montoro was born in Atlanta in 1928, but didn’t get into the movie business until he was in his early 40s. In the decades before, he worked a variety of jobs, from television repairman to industrial printer, but his greatest aspiration was to become a commercial airline pilot, according to Bertges. This dream was cut short in a 1968 plane crash, which resulted in serious injury and reconstructive surgery. In recuperation, Montoro instead turned to an entirely new line of work: motion pictures. His first project was a shoestring budget sex comedy, 1970’s Getting into Heaven, which was also the only film Montoro ever personally directed. When it turned a profit, he sought subsequent investment, and Film Ventures International was born.

The company immediately developed its trademark style of acquiring foreign features for promotion and distribution in the U.S., taking films like the 1969 spaghetti western Boot Hill and retitling it Trinity Rides Again to capitalize on the success of 1970’s They Call Me Trinity in America. In 1974 they scored big by doing the same with Beyond the Door, a blatant Italian The Exorcist rip-off acquired for a mere $100,000. Released in the U.S. a year after William Friedken’s masterpiece made headlines, the similar demon possession story made $15 million.

The possessed Linda Blair equivalent in Beyond the Door.

Of course, FVI provoked the ire of Warner Bros., which filed suit for copyright infringement of The Exorcist. Montoro and co. prevailed in the end, but it was simply the first in a string of lawsuits involving the company, and sometimes Montoro himself. Even the huge success of Grizzly was marred by legal action, after the filmmakers sued to reclaim their share of the profits, which Montoro withheld on the grounds that they had taken the production over budget. This time, FVI lost, and was forced to pay all proceeds that were due by the Los Angeles County Superior Court. That was the Montoro way, to push the boundaries of what he could get away with, and let the cards fall where they may.

From his role as the man running most of FVI’s local advertising and promotions, Jim Bertges witnessed many of these little dramas unfolding. He remembers Ed Montoro as a sharp, clever promoter with an innate sense for what could be manipulated for the American market, for those insatiable “mug house” crowds hungry for spectacle and titillation. After moving the company from Atlanta to L.A. at the end of the 1970s, Montoro assembled a team of experienced B-movie employees, many from the defunct American International Pictures. They set their sights on expanding the company and distributing more films than ever.

“Ed was pretty laid back, but he was always lost in thought,” Bertges says. “I remember you would always see him walking the halls; you’d pass him and he’d have a cup of coffee in his hands, just staring down into the cup, thinking hard.”

What was Montoro thinking about? When I pose that question to Bertges, he doesn’t hesitate.

“Oh, he was thinking about money, always money. What am I gonna do to make some more money? He really had that knack for knowing what he could exploit.”

A Shark Too Far

In 1982, Film Ventures International bit off more than it could chew with the U.S. release of Great White, another Jaws clone with an honest-to-god shark rather than a rampaging bear as proxy. Montoro, seeing dollar signs and a chance to reproduce the “nature attacks” success of Grizzly, acquired the 1981 Italian film The Last Shark, a blatant imitation of both Jaws and elements of Jaws 2. After giving it a new title, FVI embarked on the biggest promotional campaign in the history of the company in preparation for its release.

“That was by far the most promotion we ever did for a film,” Bertges recalls. “We did pop-up calendars with Great White graphics. We did these dollar bills, where we replaced George Washington with a shark sticker and sent them to exhibitors saying, ‘This is the first dollar you’re going to make on Great White!’ Ed really believed in that movie. He believed in it so much that at the NATO [National Association of Theater Owners] convention in Vegas, he sent these guys out to the ocean to bring back sharks. They put up a pool in the lobby at Caesar’s Palace and had live sharks swimming in the lobby. That’s some promotion!”

jim bertges great white (Custom).jpgJim Bertges poses in the mouth of the titular Great White, part of the 1982 film’s promotion that he oversaw.

All in all, FVI spent almost $4 million promoting Great White with the likes of inflatable toy sharks and regional publicity stunts. All the marketing looked to be paying off too, with strong box office receipts during Great White’s initial screenings. And that’s when things fell apart.

“Ed swore that the Italians he was dealing with told him they’d had no trouble with Universal as far as copyright and Jaws were concerned, so he felt safe in bringing it to the U.S.,” Bertges says. “But once it was out, Universal pounced on it right when it started making money and shut the film down with threats more than anything. It was basically ‘Pull this, or we will own you.’ Ed had been through this before with Beyond the Door, but he knew there was no way to beat this one. They took all the prints of Great White, and Universal has been holding onto them ever since.”

FVI ultimately took a large monetary loss on Great White, but it wasn’t enough to spell death for the company, which went on to distribute other successful films in the early 1980s such as The Incubus, They Call Me Bruce? and Kill or Be Killed. Bertges lambasts histories of the company on the internet that solely blame Great White for Montoro’s disappearance and the company’s bankruptcy in 1985. Rather, he suggests the end was considerably more personal.

Exit, Montoro

In the year before his disappearance, Ed Montoro separated from his wife of many years, Joanne, who had previously served as his secretary at FVI. Bertges suggests that after years of Hollywood living, he “kind of started believing his own publicity,” which manifested in both poor business decisions in terms of which films to distribute, and some personal dalliances with other women. Around the same time, he became seriously ill and spent time at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in L.A., where he was visited by Rick Albert.

“I truly considered him a friend, so I did go to see him at the hospital,” says Albert. “Because of Great White I brought him a shark puppet, hoping that would cheer him up.”

When he emerged from the hospital, though, Montoro was different. Known for his laid-back attitude, non-professional fashion and rather disheveled demeanor, he then became what Bertges refers to as “Dapper Ed Montoro.”

“This was shortly before the demise of the company,” Bertges says. “Suddenly he was wearing suits, and was very well put-together. He bought a 42-foot boat that he named “Kick in the Aft” to wine and dine distributors and filmmakers. But his wife had filed for divorce, and in California it’s a community property state—when you divorce, your spouse is entitled to half of everything you own. And Ed wasn’t about to let Joanne own half of FVI. So he decided he was going to take his money, go away and never be heard from again.”

ed montoro face (Custom).PNGImages of Montoro from a 1984 industry profile—some of only a handful that exist of the man online. Less than a year later, he disappeared.

Thus was born Montoro’s legend as the B-movie producer who disappeared with a car full of cash. The immediate rumors were that he headed to Mexico, which Albert felt was a certainty.

“He let us know, in effect,” Albert says. “He was studying Spanish at the time, and he said he wanted to leave it all behind. It was pretty clear that he was going down South. And he left behind the Rolls Royce, the house, the boat, etc. So in a way he did split his assets with Joanne. But he did take all that cash.”

The Fate of FVI

Upon Montoro’s immediate departure, FVI was put in the hands of four executives who fought to keep it operating, but it was clearly a doomed proposition. The company declared bankruptcy in 1985, beset with bills from film labs, creditors and companies like Rick Albert’s, which was owed $40,000 at the time of Montoro’s disappearance—money he would never receive.

FVI was purchased by producer Irv Holender’s INI Entertainment Group, which cannibalized its film library and used the name, recognizable in B-movie circles, on numerous low-quality genre movies it distributed in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Ironically, it’s these post-Montoro films that introduced the Film Ventures International name to many movie geeks in the years that followed, as no fewer than nine of these films were eventually riffed on episodes of cult TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000. Series classic episodes such as Pod People, Cave Dwellers and both Master Ninja movies all bear the FVI name in the credits, although by this point the company was simply a shell.

The real legacy of FVI was in the films they produced, such as Grizzly, and the ones they distributed, like the cult 1982 slasher Pieces. Montoro himself wrote the tagline for that one: “Pieces: It’s exactly what you think it is.” Check out the poster, which is incredible.

pod people fvi logo (Custom).PNGJoel and the Bots sit down to watch the classic Pod People episode of MST3k, bearing the FVI logo.

In the years that followed, Jim Bertges worked for other B-movie luminaries such as Samuel Arkoff, and then eventually at Cannon Films and New Line, doing advertising and promotion on everything from Austin Powers to The Lord of the Rings. Rick Albert produced films of his own before becoming a prominent entertainment lawyer in L.A., where he still runs his practice today. The latter, who considered himself friends with Ed Montoro, was not particularly surprised when he disappeared. What surprised him was that the consummate film promoter never returned.

“What I find hard to believe, to tell you the truth, is that Ed would ever leave the film business for good,” Albert says. “It’s the thing that makes me think he might have passed away. Because this is where he fit, in the world of film. He wasn’t some director who was super passionate about the subject matter or the genres, although he understood them. What he loved was promotion of films. He didn’t want to write or direct, but he loved every single minute of promoting a film like Great White. That’s what it was all about for Ed.”

In the affluent uptown district of Atlanta known as Buckhead stands the office park that once housed Film Ventures International. Some 38 years since FVI operated on the premises, it’s now home to a bank and assorted law and doctoral offices. On the ground floor, a woman named Terry sells orchid arrangements and terrariums from a small shop. She’s never heard of FVI, much less has any idea that she’s currently doing business in a place where the likes of Grizzly were unleashed on the world. In fact, there’s no indication that the company was ever here at all. In all my attempts to track down traces of FVI’s history around the Atlanta area (where Paste is based), this is the closest I ever came—a nondescript office building and terrarium shop that belies a forgotten legacy of classic B-movie schlock.

And yet maybe, just maybe, somewhere on a sun-drenched beach on the Gulf of Mexico, an 89-year-old Edward L. Montoro continues to sip a piña colada and have the last laugh.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident B-movie expert. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin