Benji is back. The feature film, which opens nationwide on August 20, is called “Benji Off the Leash!” But it might just as well be called “Benji: Passion of the Dog.” Just as Mel Gibson produced and distributed “Passion of the Christ” independently without Hollywood, Joe Camp is doing the same.
Camp, who is Benji’s original producer and creator, is barking up against an even bigger challenge. Well, for one thing, he’s not Mel Gibson. Although, his star with four legs is arguably a bigger name than Jim Caviezel, the actor who plays Christ in “Passion.”
It’s not that Hollywood didn’t want Benji. It’s that Camp decided he didn’t want Hollywood. He explains that three studios expressed serious interest in producing a new Benji film. The problem is that studio bigwigs wouldn’t do the deal unless they could have complete control. The studios also made it clear they’d give the kids who watched Benji what they want, or at least Hollywood perceives the kids want.
“That would mean poop jokes, four letter words and excessive violence,” says Camp. “I’m sorry but I wasn’t about to compromise what Benji stands for.”
When it comes to movie stars with paws, only Lassie is more well known than Benji. Camp literally tears up as he tells a story about one little boy in France who lit up meeting Benji in person, and then getting a big wet kiss from the canine star. Of course, Camp has hundreds of stories just like that one. Well, not quite like that one.
He says, “That little boy was me and how I was moved by Disney’s ‘Song of the South’. I wanted to make movies like that ” movies people remember ” movies that touch people.”
The dog who actually inspired the Benji movies was a Yorkshire terrier named Sir Benjamin of Courtney. “I was sitting and reading a book, and a siren went off outside, when Benji looked up and gave a kind of expression that spoke to me,” Camp says.
“I then did stupid stuff to see how Benji would respond. I rolled around on the floor, and he responded one way, and then I looked scared and he responded another. The thing about Lassie is that while the audience liked Lassie, their heart was with the boy (Timmy). Those stories were told from the point of view of people. I realized right then and there that dogs have a point of view.”
Try pitching that to a movie studio. Camp did, and they laughed. Several years later, in 1971, he had formed his production company. He never lost his determination to have a Benji movie made, and began to raise his own funds for that purpose. Benji made it to the big screen in 1975, and 21 million people were touched just as Camp hoped they would be.
A second feature film, “For the Love of Benji” quickly followed. The scruffy star also appeared in several of his own TV specials. For those who don’t recall or weren’t born yet, at the time Benji was huge. Those TV specials rated better than any MTV special does today. In 1980, a third feature film, released by 20th Century Fox, called “Oh Heavenly Dog,” starred Chevy Chase, Omar Sharif and Jane Seymour. In 1987, the fourth Benji flick, “Benji the Hunted” hit theaters, and out-distanced lots of big time movies at the box office.
Certainly, there have been all sorts of reasons to explain why mixed breed dog numbers have gone up since the 1980’s, but arguably Benji is an influential factor. To this day, it’s not unusual for people to go into a shelter and ask for a “Benji-type” dog.
Public popularity of Benji never diminished. It’s what the public doesn’t know that slowed the Benji machine. In 1988 Camp’s first wife, Carolyn, suffered a stroke. They decided they’d step out of show biz for a while and enjoy one another. Camp signed a partnership to keep the Benji name and image alive while he simply spent that time with his wife until her death in 1997. Meanwhile, that partnership had gone sour. Camp was determined to save the Benji name he had created from languishing, and wrangled back control from the bad partners. Camp says that effort took four years, and $1 million in legal fees.
Today, he’s remarried and as eager as ever to see Benji become a big star all over again on the big screen. Of course, the landscape has changed since the last Benji movie 17 years ago. No producer goes it alone on both production and distribution anymore and succeeds at reaching a mass audience. “Well, Mel Gibson did it,” says Camp. “I believe anything is possible if the product is good. And so far, (the test) audience reaction, has been the best we’ve had for any Benji movie. It’s like I’m ready to say, ‘If you don’t like the movie, you can have your money back.’ Well, almost.”
It so happens that this summer, a record number of movies are being released by big studios. “The money they spend on press to outdo one another is obscene,” says Camp. “We raised money on our own. We don’t compete against that. We can’t.”
Like an old time politician, Camp is getting the word out by meeting folks one-on- one traveling all around the country. Camp, his wife Kathleen, the current Benji ” another shelter dog – and his co-star Shaggy (also from a shelter) have hardly seen their North San Diego County home since the beginning of the year.
Is bringing back Benji worth all this? Camp says, “I remember the children, like that little boy in France. I know this movie is good, even if it’s not the thing now to be wholesome. So what? I want to prove we can do it. And the message about dogs in this movie is so very important. I think we all need a Benji in the world right about now.”
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