When The Warriors and The Wanderers did battle at the box office

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A look back at the race to get the first New York gang film of 1979 to the big screen – and it turns out there was a lot of competition.

Who would have predicted that the producer of the Alien franchise and a writer of Raiders Of The Lost Ark would find themselves embroiled in a race to produce the first gang film of the year in 1979? Not just that, but also find themselves battling several rivals, a number of which came from one single studio?

But that’s what happened. The Raiders scribe was Philip Kaufman, who in the mid-1970s had been helping develop the full length feature take on the science fiction franchise, Star Trek.  But after conversations with Paramount, his Trek project was shelved, as the studio concluded at the time he was asking that there was no market for science fiction movies (this was a few years before the release of Star Wars in 1977).  With his tail between his legs, Kaufman went into development on the remake of the classic Invasion Of The Body Snatchers instead, released in 1978.

That same year, Walter Hill, who had enjoyed previous success with his feature Hard Times (1975) starring Charles Bronson, was busy founding his own production company: Brandywine Productions.  He was looking at various scripts to rewrite and produce, one of which went on to be Alien (1979).  The other was a western titled The Last Gun, which failed to materialise when financial backers pulled out, eight weeks from shooting.

For both Kaufman and Hill, the early/mid 70s was a time of success, but also of stumbling ideas. 1978 was going to turn things around.

By this time, Kaufman had come to New York and pitched a project called The Wanderers to Warner Brothers. The studio liked it, gave it the greenlight, and would plan to release the finished movie in July 1979. “Finally I got the deal”, Kaufman said, “and suddenly everybody announced a gang movie!”

He wasn’t far wrong. Separately, producer Larry Gordon – who had been working with Hill on The Last Gun – had an opportunity at Paramount Pictures. Paramount too was looking to do its own gang film, and to make matters worse, Warner Brothers had commissioned a further one as well: Micheal Pressman’s Boulevard Nights, that it also scheduled for summer 1979.

“I have a window at Paramount, if you’re still interested in doing The Warriors, but we’d have to go right away”, said Gordon, recollecting the greenlighting process in the 2005 documentary The Warriors: Battleground.  Hill, speaking to Esquire magazine in 2014, agreed that “it came together very quickly, Larry had a special relationship with Paramount and we promised to make the movie very cheaply, which we did.  So it came together in a matter of weeks […], it was a very accelerated process”.

The Warriors ultimately was produced on a very low budget and with a tight production schedule because of the fixed release date it had been given. The date was so tight because the studio wanted the picture to premiere before Kaufman’s The Wanderers.

As a consequence, Hill’s creative choices were hindered by the need to go so fast, with the quick turnaround process designed to torpedo the rival gang film.  In Hill’s own words, “to do the vision of the novel, it really only makes sense if you do it all black and Hispanic.  The studio was not very keen on that idea, and I later came to realise that the studio kinda [sic] forced me into the comic book idea, because it was about the only way I could make it all make sense to myself”.

Still, both The Warriors and The Wanderers were pressing ahead, with both directors now backed by major studios. The race was on.  Hot on their heels were even more similar projects, too. The previously mentioned Boulevard Nights, the Universal-produced Walk Proud, and remarkably a third project backed by Warner Brothers, Over The Edge.  It seemed Warners was very much hedging its bets.

Throughout the casting and subsequent filming process for the films, there were many hurdles to overcome, as Manhattan was filled with production crews night and day.  Kaufman recounted that “we had endless groups of kids, radio searches for them, all over New York City. We had enormous casting sessions. We were trying to get basically unknowns to be in the film”.

“Ken Wahl, for example, had never acted before, and I think he was on his way to a job he had at a pizza parlour when somebody had seen a photo he had sent in”.

The producer of The Warriors, Larry Gordon has similar memories of the casting process. “There were thousands of actors and kids wanting to be actors, coming in to see us, we just kept looking until we found the best people”. The lead, Micheal Beck, recalls getting the role. “I had been in an independent film […] and Sigourney Weaver was also in this movie.  They screened the movie to consider Sigourney [for Alien], and Walter I guess, liked my performance”

As for the filming process, Hill noted that due to the abundance of films being produced in New York at the time, it was hard to put a production crew together, because some of the budgets on those other projects surpassed their own. “We were a low budget film, and we shot all at night, and there were about five other movies being made in New York that summer, and so nobody wanted to work on our film – so crew wise, it was very difficult for us to crew up”.

Both The Warriors and The Wanderers experienced difficulties on set as well once cameras started rolling, with real life gang members muscling into camera shots, intimidating production assistants, and demanding they take off their costumes whilst travelling between locations.  Both productions also had issues directing large crowds of untrained actors, and were begrudgingly slowed down by institutions like the New York Gang Unit, enforcing safety measures, and the New York Transit Authority.  The fate of their respective release dates was dependent on how they circumnavigated the pitfalls of New York City, and the clock was always ticking.

Eventually, The Warriors was the first to land in February of 1979. It not only beat Kaufman’s The Wanderers to the screen by five months (The Wanderers landed in July of that year), but also  Universal’s Walk Proud by four, Warners’ Over The Edge by three, and Boulevard Nights by one.

The Wanderers got the worst end of the stick, as by the time it had been released, it was just figured to be another one of those ‘gang films’. But it also may have benefited in ways that the others did not.  For one, it did the best – relatively – at the box office, grossing $23m. It also avoided the negative publicity that The Warriors attracted, as that film’s reputation was tarnished by multiple shootings outside theatres showing the movie. This resulted in Paramount pulling back its advertising and promotion, eventually yanking the film from theatres altogether.

The other films had to adjust their marketing tactics as a consequence too. In the case of Boulevard Nights, Universal would claim that the film’s only relevance to gang culture was its setting, and nothing else. As for Over The Edge, Warner Bros would cut its losses and limit its theatrical release.

Of the five gang films released that year, it’s The Warriors in particular but The Wanderers too that have endured, and stood the test of time. In the case of the former, it’s been made into a videogame too, and received the splashier treatment on home releases. And Hollywood hasn’t been shy of gang films since, either: it’s just 1979 was, for some reason, the year that the gang movies, well, all ganged up…

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