The Film That Started a $75 Billion Industry - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Film That Started a $75 Billion Industry

The Film That Started a $75 Billion Industry

By Eugene S. Robinson


Because Pumping Iron, George Butler’s 1977 paean to the transformative powers of bodybuilding, is probably the thing most singularly responsible for you feeling bad about eating that extra muffin. 

By Eugene S. Robinson

On Jan. 18, 1977, at a theater in upper mid-Manhattan, there was a movie earthquake.

Which is to say this movie didn’t just open — it completely changed, destroyed and altered the landscape from that moment on. That movie was Pumping Iron. And those in the know were lined up down the street to buy their tickets, grouped not in clusters, but isolated pairs or, maybe more prevalently, just dudes alone.

It may be hard to see from a remove of 37 years, but there was indeed a time where lifting weights to achieve some sort of improved physical fitness level made you an outlier. Very, very much an outlier. Before the film’s most famous star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, went on to be a top box-office draw, governor and household name, he appeared as Arnold Strong in the low-budget Hercules in New York, and then later, as a psychotic killer on a Streets of San Francisco episode with Michael Douglas. 

Lifting weights was suddenly like eating spinach.

Because back then weightlifters were a common Hollywood shorthand for guys who weren’t wrapped too tightly or too well. By which we mean: nuts. And it didn’t help that sometimes this ended up being true. So whether it was form following function or function following form, outside of beloved TV host and fitness god Jack LaLanne, the folks who were lifting weights back in 1977 were considered misfits, deviants, miscreants and possibly power-mad.

For those of us standing in the New York cold for the film’s debut, which had been shilled for months in the pages of Joe Weider’s Muscle magazine, we wouldn’t have had it any other way. Bodybuilding was subcultural, secret and ours, with its own language, customs and mores. The film broke that all open, for better and for worse.

Jack Lalanne stretching on floor

Jack Lalanne

Better because by the time moms, grandmoms, pops and kids were doing like Arnold did, Gold’s Gym could expand beyond its original little Venice Beach spot to 700 locations in 42 states and 30 countries. Bodybuilders could make a living by competing in contests each season for cash awards and by working as personal trainers off-season. And the growth in ancillaries was to die for: from diets, supplements and health clubs of every other stripe, to apparel and even books. 

Worse because, well, popularity breeds contempt. Pilates, triathalons, extreme marathons, Bikram yoga, CrossFit and every exercise craze since owes its start to America’s first conscious awareness of recreation as religion: bodybuilding, complete with the health awareness, absent the cult-y aspects. Lifting weights was suddenly like eating spinach. Stuff normal people did to feel better, versus stuff not-so-normal people did to feel better. We hard-core, longtime bodybuilding men and women had become members of a club that previously wouldn’t have had us as members, and we were surrounded by tourists, amateurs and “exercisers.” 

“I remember guys bleeding in the gym, passing out,” the late Jimmy Dahl, a longtime lifter and New York cop, once said while holding court in Ridgewood, Queens’ Olympia Gym. “Bleeding and passing out from cutting weight, from throwing around the pig iron. Now what do you got? Ferns.” He was bemoaning the absence of people working out hard enough to burst blood blisters on their palms, or slowly starving themselves for competition weigh-ins. Out were the sweaty stink pits of basement gyms, replaced with what a friend once described as the Battlestar Galactica gym: shiny chrome, pro shops, techno music and, yes, sometimes potted plants.

But bodybuilding’s greatest legacy? It’s the way it changed the world through fitness’s twin promises of increased longevity and beauty, with total global industry revenues for health and fitness clubs at around $75 billion last year, paid up by about 131 million gym members worldwide. All, arguably, because of Pumping Iron.But the film’s influence extends beyond the gym. It still holds on to its cult movie status, and those who love it really love it: On Rotten Tomatoes, it scores a 96-percent approval rating. Arnold is legend. Lou Ferrigno, Arnold’s adversary in the film, became TV’s Incredible Hulk and still makes appearances in modern Hulk remakes. SNL’s parody sketch “Pumping Up With Hans & Franz” became a hit in the late ’80s. And bodybuilding has a clear progeny in today’s MMA, which draws similar kinds of square pegs who are attracted to its subversive weird factor, and which has eclipsed bodybuilding as a sport that’s so outside it’s inside.

Whose soundtrack song said it best: “Everybody wants to live forever.” 

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