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Joe Camp and Benji: Running Off the Leash

  • Annabelle Robertson Entertainment Critic
  • Updated Aug 19, 2004
Joe Camp and Benji:  Running Off the Leash

Joe Camp is on a mission from God. 

He knows it, and he isn’t afraid to lambaste the defiant, belligerent Hollywood system that, he insists, is intent on destroying our children in the name of the almighty dollar.  

It is, he says, a calling that has cost him relationships, his life’s savings and the respect of the cinematic powers-that-be.  But Camp knows that the only person worth pleasing isn’t ensconced in a Los Angeles studio. And that, he insists, is what makes it all worthwhile.

“There have been times when I’ve begun to believe the naysayers are right, when the task appears insurmountable” he says. “I’ve been so low, I can’t tell you… but God always shows up, slaps me around a bit, kicks me in the rear and gets me back on track.”

At 65, Camp has had his share of heartache.  His beloved wife, Carolyn, died in 1997 of a massive heart attack, leaving the renowned writer, director and producer to wonder if he would ever do another Benji movie. 

Camp had been trying to write a screenplay with some colleagues in the early 70s, but nothing had panned out.  One night, he became fascinated with the way his dog reacted to a siren going off down the street.

“I started doing silly things, making noises and watching him,” he said. “The dog was looking at me like, ‘What in the devil has gotten into you? Have you lost your mind?’ But you could see that – you could see that expression and what he was thinking.”

With that thought in mind, Camp went to bed. He woke up the next morning with the story, sat down and wrote the entire treatment, longhand, in two hours.  When Carolyn read it, she had tears in her eyes.

Using some of his contacts, Camp snagged an agent, but the script kept getting sent back.  He finally found a partner in 1972 and began fundraising to distribute the film himself, while working fulltime at his own ad agency.  By March of 1973, they had raised the money and finished the script.  They went looking for the dog.

“I wanted a dog that looked like Tramp from “Lady in the Tramp,”” Camp says, with a laugh, “but I ended up with Lady, instead.”

Camp finished the film and took it to Hollywood, where he was sure that at least five studios would be bidding for the rights.  All of them turned him down. 

“The number two in command at Universal Studios said, ‘I would love to make this movie myself.  I love it and I could make it a hit, but I can’t do it in this organization, so I suggest that you go out and figure out a way to distribute it yourself,’” Camp says.

Convinced that they were onto something, they went out and raised more money.  “Benji” premiered in 1974 at a Dallas theatre, where it did well enough to get the phones ringing.  Several months later, they released it in Albuquerque, where it set a house record.  Two weeks later, the same thing happened in Baltimore.

But it was the powerhouse city of Los Angeles that launched the lovable canine onto the national scene.  “Benji” opened in L.A. in November, 1974 – just in time to qualify the song for an Academy Award nomination.

Not to be outdone, Camp also pitched Benji for “Best Actor.”

With all the buzz in the trade newspapers, comedians like Johnny Carson starting making “Benji” jokes.  Nobody realized that the film wasn’t playing anywhere at the time, but soon, everyone but Benji was begging.

“It paved the way for the rest of the country,” Camp says. “But that’s the whole concept of what the Benji movies are about, anyway.  The dog is the three-dimensional character.”

Since then, a total of four dogs have starred as Benji in six motion pictures, three of which landed within the coveted top 10 percent of box office grosses during their release year.  In fact, Variety listed the original “Benji” as the third box office gross for 1974, right behind “Jaws” and “Towering Inferno.”

More than 71 million people, half of them adults, have seen a Benji movie in the theatre. Benji television specials have led the ratings, with one receiving a whopping 39 percent of audience share.

Two of Benji’s televisions specials have been nominated for Emmys. The title theme of “Benji” was nominated for an Oscar and won the Golden Globe Award. And, Benji was the second animal ever to be inducted into the Animal Hall of Fame.

The success, Camp says, has been wonderful.  But it hasn’t been enough to curb the downward spiral of so-called “family” movies coming out of Hollywood.

“Over the past few decades, we’ve watched the bar of what is acceptable in general audience entertainment drop and drop and drop,” he said. “First it was language – a few words here and there, then a few more words, then fewer clothes and more violence.”

Camp compares the film industry to children who are testing their parents, and describes the founding of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) as a way for the studios to avoid being censored by the government – and a way to rank their indecency.

“The MPAA gave [Hollywood] the ‘right’ to say and do whatever in the world they wanted to, by warning parents that it was there,” he said. “So the bar went [even] lower.”

Camp is concerned about parents monitoring the films children see, and not minimizing inappropriate material.

“I think all too many parents these days have watched the bar lowered slowly but surely, and they say, ‘Well, it’s a good movie, except for that and that and that,’” he says. “But before long, the bar gets all the way to the bottom, and there’s no difference.”

It is this casual attitude about that prevented Camp from finding a major distributor for his sixth and latest film, “Benji: Off the Leash!” – and this, despite rave reviews from critics. To do that, he would have had to give up complete control of not only the screenplay, but also the character of Benji.

He described a conversation with a studio executive who insisted that, because economics was the bottom line for them, they were willing to give kids whatever they wanted.

“He said that [the studios] have to give kids what they want, which is poop jokes, sex, titillating language, action (meaning, violence) and special effects,” Camp recounted. “I asked him if he had kids, and if he always gave them what they wanted – or what they needed. The meeting ended right there.”

“Benji: Off the Leash!” certainly does what Camp claims films should: it raises the bar.  It steers clear of foul language (save one well-deserved reference to “butthead”) and sexuality, while focusing on the very real issue of abuse – of both animals and people, which Camp insists are often linked.

In the film, Hatchett (Chris Kendrick), an abusive stepfather, breeds puppies in his filthy backyard while trying to avoid arrest for the unlicensed puppy mill.  When he decides to kill the runt born from his recent star breeder, 14-year-old Colby (Nick Whitaker) rescues and protects the puppy until he is old enough to fend for himself.  Unfortunately, Hatchett is just as abusive to Colby and his mother as he is to the animals, and Colby has no one but the lovable Benji, another stray mutt and a belligerent bird for allies.  But together, they manage to muddle on through – to Hollywood, appropriately enough.

Camp is quick to point out that although the film is not overtly Christian, it is characterized by Christian values.  And the deeper themes of abuse, he says, will go right over younger children’s heads.

“It’s not a movie about Jesus,” he says.  “It’s a movie about what Jesus taught his entire life – love and hope and persistence toward a goal.”

Like the young Colby, Camp has a certain fondness for mutts.  He’s thrilled that the original “Benji” spawned a movement of pet adoptions – more than a million, in fact.  And he’s using this film as a vehicle to promote a non-profit foundation called Benji’s Buddies, which will make Benji available to local shelters for major fund-raisers, like the one recently held in Jackson, Miss. that raised more than $100,000 for a new construction.

With the help of corporate sponsorships, Benji’s Buddies hopes to once again foster excitement about mixed breed dogs as well as raising awareness about the joys of shelter pet adoption for children, families and even pets.  The American Humane Society reports that as many as five million pets die in shelters every year. Sadly, however, less than 20 percent of new pets come from shelters.

It’s just one more uphill battle that Camp, who remarried three years ago, believes he is called to. 

“We’re out there fighting the fight in the summer of the most movies ever made in history, with the highest advertising budgets,” he says. “Folks that want to send a message to Hollywood about good movies which are also safe, please get out and support this one, just like you did with “The Passion of the Christ.”  It sends a huge message to Hollywood.  When we all show what we will and won’t spend our money for, it’s a message that they have to listen to.”

"Benji:  Off the Leash!" releases in theaters nationwide on Friday, August 20, 2004.