Not all mini-majors and independent film companies are Hollywood or even American-based. For this Mini-Major Discussion, I decided to focus on a film company that was actually based in Britain, and although it didn’t produce many films, chances are we have seen at least one ITC flick in our lifetime. Also, it may be a surprise to learn that this outfit actually was responsible for the rise of…the Muppets?
Who Were They?
ITC was a British television company founded in 1955 by television mogul Lew Grade. For its first few decades, the company produced many television shows for Britain, with some for an eye for American audiences such as Space: 1999, but in the 1970s, ITC branched out into filmmaking.
What Were They Known For?
A whole lot of British TV shows, though none named Doctor Who.
American audiences may recognize names like The Saint, Thunderbirds, UFO, Space: 1999, and The Prisoner, as well as the mini-series Jesus of Nazareth. All of these programs were produced by ITC. But their best known TV show was actually produced by an American, Jim Henson. After Henson failed to get traction with American network heads to make The Muppet Show, Lew Grade offered to back the show, provided it was filmed in England. Later, when Henson decided to end the show and take the Muppets to movies, he made The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, and The Dark Crystal with ITC.
Their movie catalog isn’t very large, but it includes a few cult classics like The Boys From Brazil, The Last Unicorn, The Brave Little Toaster, and The Stepfather, as well as Academy Award winners On Golden Pond and Sophie's Choice.
The Studio’s Peak Moment
The Muppet Movie. It was a smash hit, grossing 65,200,000 in the U.S. alone, and was the highest grossing Muppet movie in Jim Henson’s lifetime.
The Studio’s Most Notorious Movie
Okay, this isn’t a movie, but some would say the second season of Space: 1999 was notorious for being a poor follow-up, and its producer sometimes gets a share of the blame, Fred Freiberger. You may recognize him as the guy who produced the poorly received third season of Star Trek. (Poor guy couldn’t catch a break!)
Runner up: The Legend of the Lone Ranger. ITC tried to reboot the iconic hero, previously portrayed by actor Clayton Moore in the classic Lone Ranger TV series, in a new feature film, but they did not want Moore, by now 65 years old, to go around making appearances wearing the iconic mask, as they wanted their actor to be identified with the role and didn’t want Moore’s appearances to confuse people that he would be reprising his role in the film. So they got a court order telling him to stop going around in costume.
Which turned out to be a big, big mistake. The controversy damaged the film before release and effectively killed its chances. It didn’t help that the actual Lone Ranger didn’t don his mask until an hour and ten minutes into the film.
Second Runner Up: Can’t Stop the Music. This was a musical comedy based on the rise of the Village People, which had the worst timing you can imagine. It was released in 1980, by which time disco was not only dead, but reviled. CSTM was so bad, it inspired the creation of the Razzie Awards.
But the dubious winner of the title must go to Raise the Titanic. RTT is why there were no Clive Cussler movie adaptations until Sahara. (And needless to say, Sahara is why there have been no Cussler movies since)
The Studio’s Up and Comers
Jim Henson wasn’t exactly an unknown even back in the 1970s, but ITC did produce The Muppet Show and the films The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, and The Dark Crystal, launching Henson and his Muppets to the height of their success.
Steve Guttenberg got early roles in The Boys from Brazil and Can’t Stop the Music.
Terry O'Quinn, for his role as the serial killer in The Stepfather.
The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, Saturn 3, The Big Sleep, Where the Boys Are '84, Sophie's Choice, The Stepfather, Farewell, My Lovely, The Legend of the Lone Ranger, Without a Clue, The Dark Crystal, The Brave Little Toaster, The Company of Wolves, Backfire, The Boys from Brazil, The Evil That Men Do, The Eagle Has Landed, Inside Moves, Capricorn One, Desperate Characters, The Return of the Pink Panther, and The Tamarind Seed.
What Killed the Studio?
Again, Raise the Titanic.
Raise the Titanic started out as a novel written by Clive Cussler, part of his numerous “Dirk Pitt” novels. Grade thought the series would work as a possible James Bond-style type adventure series, and bought the rights to the novel. However, actually getting a workable script written proved difficult. It was said as many as seventeen writers took a crack at the movie, with one claiming the original novel was more like a manual how to raise a big ship from the ocean than an actual adventure piece. Then the production struggled to depict the Titanic being raised from the ocean. The initial tank built for the model Titanic was too small, so six million was sunk (pun intended) into building a bigger one. The cost of the movie prompted Grade to quip, “It would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic!”
Cussler hated the movie and refused to endorse it. The film was one of two big bombs for ITC, the other Can’t Stop the Music. The box office disasters of both movies led to Grade pulling out of the filmmaking business. ITC sold Universal its distribution rights to movies still in post-production, including On Golden Pond, Sophie's Choice, The Dark Crystal, and The Great Muppet Caper. Ironically, as with Orion’s troubled bankruptcy period, some of these films would end up being some of the most acclaimed titles the studio would put out.
Despite having the wind knocked out of its sails, ITC continued on for some years after, even releasing a few more films, before being bought by Polygram in 1995, and then Universal bought up Polygram in 1998. Grade would be brought into Embassy Pictures and later returned to head ITC after Polygram purchased it, before his death in 1998. So like many other mini-majors, ITC would see its library swallowed up by a bigger company.
Jim Henson moved the Muppets on to TriStar and later planned to sell the Muppets property to Disney shortly before he died. After a series of middling films, Disney successfully revived the Muppets with the 2011 film The Muppets but the 2014 sequel Muppets Most Wanted ended up a bust.
So what are your favorite ITC movies? (Actually, I’ll go ahead and throw in any of their television shows for the discussion, since ITC has such a big television catalog). Any other thoughts?