Camp's latest movie, "Benji: Off the Leash!," had a successful theatrical run last summer, earning the second highest box office gross increase (65 percent) from Friday to Saturday of its opening weekend. It continued to hold its own among its big-budget competition in the coming weeks and, to box office analysts, its steady popularity indicated the tremendous buzz the family film was getting among moviegoers.

And now "Benji: Off the Leash!" is available on video in VHS and DVD format. Less than a week after its video release last December, stores have been selling out of the movie and e-mail has been streaming into the Benji website (www.benji.com), with words of thanks to the producers for making a film so entertaining and so full of positive messages.

One BOTL fan, a mom named Crystal, writes: "Thank you for never losing your values concerning what kids should see. I grew up watching Benji movies (they were my favorite)! The day 'Benji Off the Leash' was released, I bought it for my 7-year-old, who has fallen so in love with Benji! And I know I don't have to worry about watching it first, to make sure it's really okay for her! Thank you again."

Camp is gratified, but not much surprised by such responses. No doubt he knows by now the magic of Benji. Over the years since the original "Benji" movie was released in 1974, the filmmaker has brought his fetching, furry hero back to the screen repeatedly in sequels produced for theatrical release and for television. Four different dogs have played the ageless character's role, and for "Benji Off the Leash," Camp actually did a talent search for his star, ultimately finding the right dog for the job in a Mississippi animal shelter, all ready for her close-up. And family audiences were more than ready for Benji's return.

Fighting to Keep 'Family' Films Family-Friendly

But the popular writer, producer, and director of the "Benji" films has worked on numerous other projects across these decades. Among the better-known titles are "Oh, Heavenly Dog!" with Chevy Chase and Jane Seymour; "Hawmps!" with Slim Pickens and Denver Pyle; and "The Double McGuffin" with Ernest Borgnine and George Kennedy. Camp's typical work, though sometimes critically neglected, has always been well-received by audience members of all ages.

This has remained true, even as movies and moviegoers have changed, and as Hollywood has continued to nudge and nip away at the MPAA's rating standards. Camp laments the effects of this downward creep of values, seeing it in much of what passes for entertainment nowadays. In a special online message to parents, the filmmaker notes that in the past few years even so-called family movies have begun to lower the bar to admit "all sorts of foul language, potty humor, excessive violence, and sexual innuendo." Meanwhile, the major studios have been contending that they do not create culture, but reflect it, and that such content is what today's audiences want – arguments the family-friendly producer calls "patently ludicrous."

But while Hollywood has not always shown much faith in family films, Camp has never lost his. He knows what it's like to struggle to find financial backing for a production, or to finally get to the negotiating stage with a studio willing to back a family film, only to run into a wall when cynical film industry executives show themselves bent on compromising the high standards and family-friendly content the filmmaker was insisting on.

A number of finance meetings ended for Camp, first in disappointment, then in determination – a firm resolution to find the money, not only to get his films made but to make them his way. The filmmaker ultimately turned down big Hollywood studio money to produce "Benji Off the Leash!" independently so he could keep the movie safe for even the youngest children and, at the same time, show the major studios and the television networks that good entertainment can also be wholesome, positive, and safe for the entire family. Still, he admits, it is not easy to finance a movie from private sources – especially sources "who know that in today's climate there's a lot of risk out there with a movie that does not stoop to that lowest common denominator."

No, it is not easy. "It's a lot of work," the Christian independent filmmaker adds, "to raise money to advertise and distribute a movie from private sources who might not care as much as you do." But Camp does care, and out of that caring comes his firm conviction that anyone blessed with the ability to affect the minds and hearts of millions of young people, should do so responsibly.


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