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‘Benji’ movie seeks to raise quality of family entertainment

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–After a 16-year hiatus from the big screen, Benji is back. A new movie starring the winsome pup — actually the fourth dog to be cast as Benji — will be in theaters starting Friday, Aug. 20.

Understandably, Joe Camp, creator and producer of “Benji: Off the Leash!” and all of its predecessors, is asking that people yearning for family entertainment go see the movie, especially this weekend. In doing so, they will send a message to Hollywood that wholesome movies can be successful, said Camp, who spent three months traveling the country looking for the next Benji in animal shelters.

He discovered the brown-eyed star of the latest Benji movie in a humane society shelter in Gulfport, Miss., and he believes he has the best Benji yet. The film spotlights three unassuming heroes — a soft-hearted dog catcher, a determined boy and a lovable stray, played of course by Benji.

Camp planned for the movie to have a holiday theme; he had already written a Christmas script. Yet when he met this Benji, he said God convinced him to scrap the original script and craft a screenplay that conjectures how this little mixed breed ended up in a dog pound.

“The dialogue is all in the eyes of the animals,” Camp said. There are no computer-generated or talking animals in the movie — except a loudmouth cockatoo who does her own speaking. Although handling some tough subjects like puppy mills and abusive households, Camp said the film depicts an entertaining and fun adventure of Benji and his canine sidekick, Lizard Tongue. (Both dogs have become the Camp family’s pets.)

One of the movie’s central themes is perseverance, a character trait Camp is intimately familiar with after being rebuffed in marketing the screenplay in Hollywood.

It wasn’t that Hollywood wasn’t interested in handling the movie, Camp said; it was that studio executives wanted to have their hands all over what the Benji film eventually would look like. “They wanted to do the movie, but only if they could have control and put in the stuff they deem necessary for an economic bottom line.”

No way, Camp said.

“Hollywood is consistently lowering the bar for what they, not we, think is appropriate for family entertainment,” he said, explaining that he was not going to let any Benji film be trashed by references to bodily functions or the like. That is the norm in many contemporary children’s films, he added.

“One studio exec told me you had to have that stuff in there to make money. He said the kids want it and if you want to make money on a movie, it has to have the language, the potty humor and sexual innuendo,” Camp said.

But Camp stood his ground and turned his back on Hollywood. With the aid of his co-producer, Margaret Loesch, he eventually secured financing for the film. That’s why he is so insistent that families go to theaters this weekend to see the film; he promises they won’t be disappointed.

“If Hollywood sees there is a strong economic bottom line from the release of a good family movie that doesn’t have those kinds of things in it, it will be a lot easier for those of us who care about making that kind of movie to get it financed and keep creative control,” Camp said.

“As long as people keep going to so-called family movies with inappropriate material, Hollywood will keep making them,” he continued, describing the entertainment industry as committed to “lowering the bar until there is none.”

Noting how critical it is for the movie to have a good opening weekend, Camp said it otherwise might become its last weekend in theaters. Major studios can force theater owners to hold a poor-performing movie over by threatening to withhold the right to air the studio’s next blockbuster, but Camp doesn’t have that leverage. Rather, his focus is on the millions of parents who want to be able to take their children to a real family movie.

Mel Gibson’s success with “The Passion of the Christ” showed the impact of individual moviegoers, Camp said. “People got out and went to the film because they cared about the product,” he said, noting like Gibson, he was steadfast in not giving in to the demands of the movie studios.

Camp said he doesn’t have the $30 million Warner Brothers spent just on television advertising for the movie “Garfield,” a movie he says that was identified as a family movie but wasn’t really appropriate for children.

“As consumers, we have to make hard decisions to support the things that are right and not support the things that aren’t,” Camp said. “That’s a message Hollywood has to hear.”
For more information on Joe Camp and Benji, visit www.benji.com.

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  • Dwayne Hastings