By Making Stars Out of Cars, a Junkman Turned Movie Mogul Has Already Grossed $10 Million
The back lot at Universal it sure isn’t. But H. G. “Toby” Halicki’s Mercantile Company and Junk Yard, a mountain range of rusting auto hulks in Gardena, Calif., is also a thriving motion picture studio. Its first product, a smash-’em-up saga called Gone in 60 Seconds, has thus far grossed more than $10 million in limited, mostly small-town distribution. With over half of the potential domestic market still untapped, Gone may wind up making as much as $30 million once the movie is released in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles this fall.
The plot is banal and the acting atrocious, and 34-year-old Toby Halicki takes complete credit. He wrote, directed, produced, distributed, starred in, and injured his back doing stunts for Gone. His share: 51 percent of the gross.
Halicki has been racing his engine ever since he arrived in California from upstate New York at age 15, the second youngest in a family of 13. With the earnings from his first job pumping gas, Toby restored a 1949 Ford, learning car customizing as he fumbled along. Within a year he owned his own body repair shop, catering to the tastes of Southern California’s dragstrip denizens. While taking real estate courses at night, Halicki remodeled blue-collar homes and later bought wrecked Cadillacs for re-building—all at handsome profit. Some shrewd investments in industrial acreage followed, putting a burgundy Rolls-Royce in his carpeted, chandeliered garage and a gleaming new Cadillac at the curb.
Inspiration for the film struck Halicki while he discussed the problem of car theft with some Los Angeles cops. “The movies have showed you how to rob a bank, how to murder, how to hijack a plane,” he mused. “What’s left? How to steal a car.” With that, Halicki sat down at the typewriter one Thanksgiving morning and began writing the screenplay for Gone in 60 Seconds. He was finished by dinner time.
Halicki’s approach to raising money was just as direct. He went back to his hometown of Dunkirk, N.Y. and hit up old friends. “I went to people who I knew had money—people who owned ice cream factories, lumberyards, real estate,” he recalls. “I’d go into my act, and they’d say, ‘Oh Toby, if anybody can do it you can,’ and then they’d write me a check for $10,000.” Raising money as he went along, Halicki wound up with $850,000. (The movie eventually cost twice that much.)
In Gone, an international auto theft ring masquerading as an insurance investigating firm is awarded a contract to steal 48 luxury cars belonging to celebrities. Halicki plays ringleader Maindrian Pace. Halicki’s leading lady offscreen, cocktail waitress Marion Busia, is also his leading lady on. Auto wrecker George Cole, a friend of Halicki’s, also was given a part, as was just about everybody who hangs around Toby’s junkyard.
But “the stars are the cars” insists Halicki. “Think about the ones you’ve seen in movies—the Lincoln they shoved through a shredder in Goldfinger or the Mark IV the cops systematically stripped to the chassis in The French Connection. You stick on those scenes, right?” Gone is 97 minutes of automotive mayhem in which 93 cars of nearly every make are destroyed intentionally and another 30 are totaled accidentally. Halicki drove some of the stunts himself, including a 125-foot leap over another car that ended in an unscheduled pile-up of 14 pursuing police cars.
Getting the movie into theaters was the most difficult part of the venture. Since major distributors demanded up to 70 percent of the profits to handle Gone, Halicki decided to do it himself, renting several run-down movie houses in Los Angeles. The impressive audiences persuaded some big exhibitors, but to make sure he received an accurate accounting from these owners, Halicki hired armed Burns agents to monitor ticket sales. Halicki says: “One old guy came up to me and shouted, ‘I’ve been in this business 30 years and nobody ever questioned my integrity. Now you send a man with a gun.’ Well, the man must have been forcing people in off the streets, because the grosses sure went up.”
Although he is back in the salvage business, Halicki is planning a sequel to Gone. “It’ll be written by a nobody, directed by a nobody, distributed by a nobody and it’ll star nobodies,” promises Halicki. “We’ll work out of the junkyard. We enjoy it here.”