The Trial of Billy Jack

Tagline: The Film That Changed Everything!!

movie poster In an excerpt from the book Amazing Story Behind the Legend of Billy Jack, Tom Laughlin recalls two employees almost put an end to Tom's distribution revolution that changed Hollywood forever

"Tom, we've got a disaster on our hands." Those were the words Laughlin heard when he picked up the phone one morning shortly before the scheduled release of The Trial.

The urgent voice at the other end of the line belonged to John Rubel, the chief executive officer of the Laughlin-Taylor Distribution company, who had set up the four-walling for Billy Jack. A former high-ranking executive at Litton Industries and onetime under secretary of defense, Rubel was accustomed to handling a crisis, and this one required an immediate meeting of the company's staff.

The first to show up at the couple's Brentwood home was Rubel, followed by Laughlin's attorney, Ed Rubin. Widely considered one of the top lawyers in the business, Rubin represented Columbia and Twentieth Century Fox, as well as top stars such as Paul Newman and Steve McQueen. He walked into the backyard and showed Laughlin a copy of that morning's Daily Variety. There, next to the little fire pit beside the plaster wall, Laughlin read the news. He finished the article, speechless, and handed the paper to Delores. What he had read made him feel suddenly nauseous. He figured they were through.

According to the article, Laughlin's own executives in charge of distribution -- Lou Marx, who was once a top executive at MGM during the studio's golden days, and Roger Reese, who had administered the four walling of Billy Jack in town after town -- had suddenly quit, and they had done it during a press conference at the National Association of Theater Owners convention in Atlanta, the biggest event of the year for the nation's theater owners.

Marx and Reese had lied to the press gathered in the convention's hotel lobby. The reason they had quit, they announced, was that Laughlin had changed the deal and was now refusing to give distributors the picture without a cash advance. It was stunning news and an outright lie. Laughlin had been smeared in the national trades, and by the very people he had hired and trusted. Here he had given Marx a chance to revive his career and even paid for a quadruple bypass. And he had given Reese, who had never distributed a picture, the title of vice president of distribution.

And now, they had notified the exhibitors -- all 1,200 of them --that Laughlin had backed down on his requirement to collect $10,000 up front from each theater screening The Trial. Without warning, they had turned around and made him out to look like an erratic negotiator who had gone back on his word.

From the start, Marx and Reese had opposed demanding that distributors pay up front, but Laughlin had always made his position clear -- no money, no picture. The advance was a key part of the distribution deal. The money -- $10,000 per exhibitor -- was what guaranteed Laughlin would recoup his investment in the film. It also assured that the theaters wouldn't back down from their commitment to screen the movie, which was scheduled for a November release.

When distributors balked at the idea, Marx and Reese had tried several times to talk Laughlin out of what they considered an unrealistic demand. The exhibitors, they told him, knew he was no Warner Brothers. They figured he didn't have much of a choice but to cave in, and they'd get the film without putting up any money up front. Marx and Reese could sell the 1,200 prints, but not under Laughlin's conditions.
No one would do that.
But Laughlin was adamant. "Needers need needers," he told his hired guns in a speech. He had already put the demand in memos and in the contract with the exhibitors. It was clear. He was sure he could get the money.

Standing firm wasn't easy. Tom and Delores had recently bought a large home in Brentwood on Rockingham, where O.J. Simpson would later become their neighbor, and they had children they needed to put through college. Besides, alienating the exhibitors could jeopardize their future relations with the studios.

But now here they were, just six weeks from the long-anticipated opening of The Trial with a soundstage lined with 1,200 copies of his film and no exhibitors to screen them. Laughlin was in a bind.

He knew that after the film played, exhibitors would try to pay as little as possible. Exhibitors routinely renegotiated the terms of their contract after what, in the business, is called a review. If the picture didn't do the anticipated business, the studio or filmmaker's share of the profits was scaled down. Major studios had other films to offer for years to come, so exhibitors didn't mess with them. But independent filmmakers had little leverage to guarantee they wouldn't walk away empty handed. Laughlin knew he had to get as much up front as possible. Of course, he could always sue the exhibitors, but that would jeopardize his chances of ever working in the film business again.

Tom and Delores weighed their options and, as usual, chose the most unpredictable path. They would do nothing. They figured that an exhibitor in Milwaukee, for instance, would be wary of holding out knowing their competitor down the block could always pay Laughlin the $10,000 and get all the business, especially with the unprecedented nationwide television campaign that had was going to accompany the opening.

* RELEASE: November 1974
* GROSS: $89 Million
* DISTRIB: Taylor-Laughlin Distribution & Warner Bros.
* SCRIPT: Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor
* PRODUCER: Joe Cramer, DIRECTOR: Tom Laughlin
* CAST: Tom Laughlin, Delores Taylor, Teresa Laughlin, Victor Izay, William Wellman Jr.
* Created the term "opening weekend" by making an unheard of $30 million in the first thirty days.

The Golden Turkey Awards by Harry & Michael Medved says:
The half-breed/Vietnam vet/karate king is back, this time on trial for murder while fighting various White House conspiracies with his "sizzling expose's" [sounds like they almost liked this one].

"Billy Jack" availability on video and on DVD from

Additional information on all the Billy Jack movies can be seen at the official website:

Billy Jack Goes To Washington was Frank Capra Jr.'s remake of his father's "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" (1939) but ran into the same kind resistance from Washington itself Continue: Billy Jack Goes To Washington

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