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.
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.”
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.
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.
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!”
“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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.