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Overview (4)

Born in Washington, USA
Died in San Diego, California, USA  (complications from surgery)
Birth NameDwain Atkins Esper
Nickname King of the Celluloid Gypsies

Spouse (1)

Hildegarde Stadie (17 August 1920 - 18 October 1982) (his death) (2 children)

Trade Mark (1)

Frequently uses animal imagery in his films

Trivia (4)

Had two children, Dwain, Jr. and Millicent, with his wife Hildegarde Stadie.
Once owned the rights to Tod Browning's big-budget MGM flop Freaks (1932). Esper turned a tidy profit by doing what he usually did: renting out theaters himself and sensationally exploiting the film in ways no conventional promoter would ever think of.
Esper initially eschewed the exchange system to distribute his films, the main problem being that he didn't understand how it worked (see "Trivia" of his sleazier contemporary Robert J. Horner for a description). Secondly, the topics he was drawn to were sex, drug addiction and general debauchery, things that rubbed many exchange owners the wrong way. Thirdly, although his later films improved--due to his hiring reasonably competent directors instead of doing the chore himself--his earliest films were terrible. This itself was normally no obstacle to the exchange system, but Esper would often splice in nude scenes to spice things up (this was a big problem after the 1934 Production Code kicked in). Esper's way of distributing his films was what is now called "four-walling", in which he and his wife would rent a theater and do targeted advertising (invariably plastering "Adults only" all over it) to create a buzz. He was run out of more than a few towns in his day after just one showing of his films. His real coup was obtaining the rights to MGM's Freaks (1932) cheaply, a production Louis B. Mayer disowned but one that fell in line with Esper's twisted tastes. He peddled it around towns across America for much of the 1930s. Strictly speaking, Esper virtually created the "four walling" system, which was used fairly extensively in the 1960s/'70s independent/exploitation film market (Tom Laughlin was an avid proponent of it). Back in the 1930s the system was called "roadshow presentation," but this usually referred to high-quality productions that warranted increased admissions prices, something Esper could never hope to pull off. The fact that he managed to maintain a career (of sorts) as an independent film producer--though way over on the "fringe" of the business--during the Depression was a remarkable achievement in itself.
Got rich as a building contractor before entering the movie business in 1932.

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