Penthouse Retrospective

by Ernest Volkman Originally Published: May, 1980

The Guccione Legacy | 40 Years Ago This Month

… I didn’t want all the excitement and speculation to die before the film was ready to play.

Why were you so convinced you’d get bad press? In the beginning it appeared that you had all the right ingredients: big-name stars, a world-renowned author, an Academy Award-winning art director, enormous financial resources enough, it would appear, to ensure a pretty good shot at critical acclaim.

Guccione: I’m not being naive, and I don’t wish to sound paranoiac, but I knew, or rather suspected, that the press would see me as a kind of dilettante upstart, an intruder. No matter how good the film was, they would see me, Bob Guccione, publisher of Penthouse, wheeler-dealer in sex and nudity, trying his hand at something new, pressing his luck in a medium that was alien to his experience, buying his way in… You know what I’m talking about. If you make an outstanding success in one area, people are somehow loath to see you do it in another.

Penthouse: Wouldn’t the film speak tor itself?

Guccione: In anyone else’s case, perhaps, or if the film was small and modestly produced, yes. But I promised to produce a blockbuster, a landmark film. I promised that Caligula would fundamentally change the theatergoing public’s perception of motion pictures. I said that it would foment changes within the industry itself. I really shot my mouth off, but I meant every word of it, and I still do.

Could the reaction of the critics have anything to do with the fact that you held no press screening in advance of the February opening of the film — that the critics had to stand in line with the rest of the public, that the temperature was 11 degrees Fahrenheit, and that they had to pay $7 .50 tor their ticket, like everybody else?

Guccione: Let me put it this way — I don’t think it helped matters very much, but then, I didn’t care. I made Caligula tor the masses, not for a few self-appointed elitists. Besides, every time I read a lousy review, I want the pleasure of knowing it cost the author $7.50 to write it.

Penthouse: There has been a lot of talk about your decision to charge a ticket price of $7.50. Many professionals believe this to be a tactical error in marketing and that it could topple whatever tentative interest or demand Caligula might have created.

Guccione: Apparently they were wrong. Professionalism is not necessarily a synonym for infallibility or privileged information, and since this film deviates in so many ways from every other film ever made, taking advice from conventional or so-called professional sources could be counterproductive. Besides, I don’t know what you mean by “tentative interest.” The public interest in Caligula is rabid rather than tentative.

Did you conduct some sort of market survey to determine the public’s willingness to pay such a high price?

Guccione: Not at all. If you were to ask the public how they feel about paying more for any goods or service, they’re bound to object, if only in principle. As in all things, however, value, rather than price, is the operative word. I have a personal theory that the whole system of motion picture ticket pricing is wrong and should be revised. As with ariy other product or service, certain economic principles must apply. If the cost of manufacturing and marketing a pair of shoes is $50 and the retailer sells them for $100, it might, depending on the quality, design, et cetera, be acceptable to the public. But if another pair of shoes cost only $10 to manufacture, the retailer would be out of place-not to mention out of business — if he tried to get the same $100 ticket.

Why should motion picture making be any different? The price of a ticket at the box office should bear some relationship to the cost of making the film. Why should a theater charge 3 or 4 dollars to see a film that might have cost $500,000 or a million dollars to make and the same 3 or 4 dollars to see a film that cost 15 or 20 or even 40 million dollars to make? It can’t be right, and, furthermore, it doesn’t happen in any other industry I can think of. A man must be paid for the work he does, and if filmmakers are to have a real incentive to make bigger and better films, they’ve got to have a real opportunity of getting their money back. It’s a matter of immutable economic principle. Most people will pay more for damn near anything they want if the value is there, and the same people, including me, will bitch over nickles and dimes if we think we’ve been ripped off. In the case of Caligula, we’ve provided lots of value in lots of different ways.

In the quality and variety of explicit sexuality, you mean.

Guccione: Yes, among other things. No one doubts the importance of sex, and if you do it a little better than the next guy accenting people rather than the pneumatic, nonstop grind of disembodied cocks and cunts — if you show more respect for everybody’s favorite subject, that’s value! There’s considerable value in the production as well, in the costumes and sets, in the number and quality of artists and craftsmen; and from a purely visual point of view, few films have ever matched its opulence.

But the critics were generally unresponsive, preferring to deal with more obvious values, such as plot, authorship, sex, violence…

Guccione: That’s their hang-up. Besides. what is a critic? What are his or her credentials? What gives hirp the right to make value judgments on behalf of the public taste? History is filled with their nameless gravestones, while the men and women they spent their lives attacking live on. How many great artists, writers, musicians, et cetera can you name?

Few of us can imagine a life and then build it to a point when the entire world recognizes, if not envies, it. The Bob Guccione Legacy reached that goal.

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