One of the most popular and profitable independent film studios of the 1970’s was Sunn Classics. They were also known as Schick Sunn Classics, part of the razor company.
Known for their speculative documentaries, they would use market research to create a film, go into a town and rent out theatres, saturate the market with advertising, and clean up at the box office. This process, known as “Four Walling”, was very successful for them. Orson Welles was especially interesting in their way of doing business, visiting their studio to learn about it.
Among the films that Sunn released were
IN SEARCH OF NOAH’S ARK which along with IN SEARCH OF HISTORIC JESUS speculated on the history behind religious finds.
The reincarnation film BEYOND AND BACK. They also released THE BERMUDA TRIANGLE, ENCOUNTERS WITH DISASTER and MYSTERIOUS MONSTERS.
My personal favorite was
THE LINCOLN CONSPIRACY. I saw this a couple times during its run and had the tie in paperback.
The folks behind Sunn were marketing geniuses. Every film had a tie in paperback. They got you going into the film and made money from you again by buying the book.
Most of the films were narrated by the late great Brad Crandall, who had one of the best voices of the day.
They even branched out into television.
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF GRIZZLY ADAMS was first a film for Sunn in 1974, but became better known as a TV series (1977-1978).
The created the GREATEST HEROES OF THE BIBLE series, where TV stars of the 70’s were cast as Biblical characters (see Eve Plumb as Noah’s Wife!).
And there was the CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED series of films based on great works of literature. Some of these, such as THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW with Jeff Golblum, became very popular (I remember having a school wide assembly to watch it in the auditorium).
As the studio grew in popularity, it unfortunately led to its downfall. Known for its family films, it expanded into PG rated narrative films (like HANGAR 18) and even R rated horror films (THE BOOGENS). It was bought out by other companies and eventually disappeared.
One of the key figures behind Sunn, who wrote, produced and sometimes directed the films was Charles E. Sellier Jr.
After the demise of Sunn he continued to make films. In one of the strangest career tracks, he may be best known for his directing the very controversial killer Santa Claus film SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT. I always found this to be a shock, as Sunn was such a family company and Sellier was the creator of Grizzly Adams (plus a Born Again Christian).
It turns out, it wasn’t that much of a shock. On the SILENT NIGHT DVD, there is an interview with him where it states that he had just finished shooting a film when he got a call from a friend from his time at NBC, who was now in charge of Tri Star (who was then involved with SILENT NIGHT). The friend said they needed a director. Sellier had no interest in the film. Since he had a crew together from his last film, he figured it was a way to keep them working rather than having to let them all go. So, he made the film.
Sunn tried to come back in the early 90’s. As Sunn International Pictures, they made several more Biblical speculation films for CBS, known as ANCIENT SECRETS OF THE BIBLE. Aaron Eckhart got his start playing Samson in one of these films.
They ran into a bit of trouble with this as it turns out one of the people they interviewed, about the finding of Noah’s Ark, was a renowned hoaxer. He did the interview as a joke and, after it aired, came out to say he was making it all up. CBS was embarrassed and didn’t continue with more films with Sunn.
There were a few more documentaries (including a series about UFOs), mainly for cable, but that was it for the second incarnation of Sunn.
Sellier continues to make films, mainly religious documentaries, under the title Grizzly Adams Productions.
In recent years, Sunn has attempted to come back for a third time, with many of those originally involved with the studio (minus Sellier). They launched a website, and have ambitious plans for a new movie studio, with some films in development (including Tim Conway's DORF character). Although since the site's launch a couple years ago, there has been little updating.
As for all of their early films, most have never seen the light of day on DVD. Many were released on VHS by Vestron, Vid America, and VCI Home Video (and all are extremely expensive to find on Ebay). VCI is still in business, but I contacted them a few years ago and they no longer had the rights to them.
So who has the rights?
Paramount of all companies. As Sunn went from company to company, it eventually wound up being owned by one of Aaron Spelling’s companies, which are now owned by Paramount. Although I don’t know if even Paramount is aware of this fact.
THE BOOGENS is the only one that has had a TV airing (on the Sundance Channel) where it played with a Paramount opening logo.
You would think that a box set of GRIZZLY ADAMS would do well. It was a well known family film and series that people would buy out of nostalgia, and feel safe showing to their children. It hasn’t been seen since the early 90’s when it aired on a then little known TV channel, FX.
Sunn Classics came around at a time where it was still possible for independent film companies to succeed in Hollywood. Today, with movie theatres owned by big corporations, showing only the blockbuster Hollywood films, you rarely find documentaries, especially independent documentaries, on movie screens.