First Blood. Total Recall. Terminator 2. For a generation versed in the major action films of the 80s and 90s, the Carolco brand holds a special place in the memory. Its distinctive logo became a byword for bold, often brash movies starring some of the biggest names of the day – not least Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Founded by producers Andrew Vajna and Mario Kassar in the 1970s, Carolco went from indie outsider to a company with the size and clout of a Hollywood major; the studio became famous – and infamous in some quarters – for its headline-grabbing deals. (Legend has it that, when Arnie signed up to make Terminator 2: Judgment Day, he was given a $17 million private jet.)
At the height of its powers, Carolco was making smaller-scale, more left-field films as well as action blockbusters; Angel Heart and Jacob’s Ladder are but two of the cult classics it produced.
Crumbling in the mid-90s amid the box-office disappointment of films like Showgirls and Cutthroat Island, the Carolco name seemed to be consigned to history. But as we heard earlier this year, the Brand’s been revived by new CEO Alex Bafer, who’s partnered up with Mario Kassar to bring the studio into the 21st century.
Their first venture under the revived Carolco name will be a new version of Ryu Murakami’s novel Audition, which was last brought to the screen in terrifying style by director Takashi Miike. Beyond that, they have a planned trilogy of major sci-fi films in the works, which Kassar says will be “the kind of movie I used to do in the old days of Carolco.”
It may be nearly 40 years since the original Carolco began, but Kassar clearly has the same passion for producing films. In a rare interview, he talks to us about Carolco’s earlier films, his excitement at bringing the studio back, and the films he has planned for the near future.
It’s really exciting to hear about your return to Carolco. And also the latest film you’ve announced, BOT.
BOT is basically the kind of movie I used to do in the old days of Carolco. A big, action kind of [film]. Futuristic, but not set too far into the future – we don’t want huge flying space craft or whatever. It’s maybe, I don’t know, 10, 20 years from now. There’s nanotechnology, a good guy and a bad guy. It’s very humane and an interesting story, without giving away too much of it.
It happened because the writer [Tedi Sarafian] a friend of mine – he wrote the Terminator 3 story for me. He called me one day and said, “Mario, what are you doing?” I said, “I don’t know, I’m looking for something interesting – I can’t find anything I really like.”
He said, “I have something for you if you want to hear it.” I said, “Cool, come over.” Then he came over and said, “I’ve written 20 or 25 pages, but it’s at my house.” I said, “Okay, can we print them here?” He said, “Okay.” So I printed those 25 pages, and I read them in 10 or 15 minutes, basically. I knew exactly where he was going with it and what it is, and of course he told me much more.
I said, “You’re not leaving the house until we make a deal.” And that’s how I used to work anyway at Carolco. We each called our lawyers, told them what the deal is, we closed it, and we started writing. That was maybe six months ago, and we’ve been working on it slowly. We’ve stopped now because when you get a director, he wants his input, then the actor will want his input. There’s no point writing in the dark.
Then Audition came into reality, so I started putting my energy into that. Audition‘s ready to start shooting in June, mid-June, so I’ve left BOT simmering while I work on Audition, and then I’ll go back to BOT. That’s my BOT story!
I understand you’re planning to make it into a trilogy, is that right?
Yes, yes. It’s a trilogy.
Do you think there’s a certain amount of risk in creating a film with an original sci-fi concept these days?
It’s no riskier than some existing properties. Fifty Shades Of Grey sold millions and millions of books. The first one did okay, you can’t complain about grossing $500 million. But they put the bar so high, and they were expecting to make much more. Even the other [book adaptation], Divergent – none of them did as well as The Hunger Games or the vampire one, Twilight.
So listen, if we get $200 million [for BOT], we still get to make a trilogy. If the first one is a disaster, if it’s not a hit, then we don’t make a second or a third one. Hopefully, we can make the best out of the first one and if it makes the money it’s supposed to make, then yes, there’s the chance to make a trilogy.
It’s more dangerous to shoot two or three together at the same time. Because then your budget is so high, and then when you release the first one, if God forbid it doesn’t work, then you’re in trouble with the second and the third.
What are your thoughts on modern Hollywood and the way things have gone since the 90s? Do you think it’s become too risk averse in some ways?
I think Hollywood has always been very reluctant to take chances. The studios don’t take any chances. Either they’re doing those Marvel movies, where they’re franchising them and they know they have an audience, so they keep on making money with them. But at other times of the year, a lot of [their releases] are foreign or English movies, and one out of five makes money, or barely makes money. They really count on their summer tent pole pictures.
Because it’s becoming such a huge corporation – it’s all about shareholders and accounting, they’ve diversified into so many things. And if the shares don’t go up, they don’t care about the movies – they look at the stock market, the numbers. It’s a number machine now. It’s not like the old, old days, where a producer made movies, he had all the actors, and they were cranking them out one after the other. It’s like a bank, with offices and computers and adding machines.
Is that why it’s been important to you to remain independent? Because although you were at Paramount briefly, you’ve always made films outside the studio system.
If you don’t count Lionsgate as a studio – though it is a studio now, it’s as big as a studio now, but it’s independent. But in the old days, there were maybe 10 independent companies – money was easier to come by in the 80s. People were on a roll and they were making lots of it.
Then all of a sudden, the studios woke up one day and said, “Why do we have so many independents around taking up our business?” And I think what they did was they put them all out of business and opened up their own independent branches, you know? Every big studio has a little company that makes independent films. Whether it’s Focus, or Fox Searchlight, they all have smaller studios.
Your output in the 80s and 90s was a really interesting mix. Carolco was famous for things like Rambo and Terminator 2 and then you made smaller films as well, things like Angel Heart and Jacob’s Ladder. Will you still do that with the new Carolco?
Yes, I’d like to. I mean, my first, first movie was very small. The investment was only half a million dollars. It was The Silent Partner with Elliott Gould and Christopher Plummer. It was made in Canada, and it was written by Curtis Hanson. We tried to do the remake of that, and it would have been a great remake, but Curtis Hanson [couldn’t do it], so I forgot about it.
So I started small, and it’s not like I said, “Now I want to make a big, big movie.” I bought the rights to the book for [the David Morrell novel] First Blood, which belonged to Warner. They had it for I don’t know how many years, and they wrote about 13 different screenplays for about 13 different actors – you name it, Dustin Hoffman, John Travolta. All those stories.
In those days, the studio would sell you something they weren’t doing. Then one day they [Warner] did [Home Alone] with the little kid, where they weren’t going to make it, then Fox took it and made millions. Now you can’t take anything from the studios until they make a deal with you – “Okay, go make it, but come back to us and we’ll decide whether to distribute it or not.” They don’t want to be in that position any more.
So I got [First Blood], and all of a sudden it just grew by itself. It became a phenomena. But nobody had touched it, nobody wanted it, they were all worried. From then on, I started making movies… they had to have a certain quality, they had to have names, because Carolco was independent, we relied on foreign sales.
We had to have a name to attract foreign distributors to buy them, because the first thing they’d say is, “Who’s in it? I need to put it on my poster outside the theatre.” If you say “Joe Blow” nobody will look at it, but if you say, either Arnold or Sly or De Niro, whatever those names were, then they’d buy it and pay the price. That’s why we went for the big names – and it became our standard of making movies.
Going back to Angel Heart, I mean in those days, it cost about $14 million or $15 million, but if you go 20, 25 years back, how much would that be now? It’s much more, right? So I don’t know how small those films really were – they were small compared to the others that were made for $20 million , $30 million or $40 million. Even then, I hired De Niro for a week – I mean, he was perfect for the role, but I had to have him to add to the marquee value.
Did you get a lot of satisfaction from making those sorts of films, though? I don’t think a lot of studios would have made something as unusual as Jacob’s Ladder.
Every movie, whether it’s a million dollar budget or $100 million, is problematic. From day one to the last day, to the test screening, to the Friday opening where you hope it makes whatever. I came to the conclusion that the problem is the same [regardless of budget]. You might as well do the big one than the $25 million one – that, in my opinion, is the most dangerous budget. Because with $25 million you don’t really get anybody in it. It’s neither here nor there. Either do a $5 million movie or do an $80 million, you know what I’m saying? The middle of the road is dangerous.
With the smaller ones, you’ve no cash, you know what it is, no one’s expecting big actors, you’re going for a specific genre – like Audition, it’s a cult movie, the audience knows exactly what it’s going for. If it’s released at the right time with the right people, you know where you’re going with it.
Then you go for something like BOT, this is what they expect from Carolco – these are the movies Carolco do. When you look at Carolco’s line-up, there were a lot of BOTs around. But raising the funds is the same. Whether you raise $4 million or $5 million for a small picture, or you raise $100 million for a big movie, it’s the same question, the same energy, the same everything.
To be honest with you, it’s easier to raise $100 million than raise $5 million. That’s because, when you say to somebody, “Oh, I need two or three million,” they say, “Why don’t you [fund it] yourself?” If you say, “I need $100 million because it’s going to have this or that in it,” it makes more sense to them. It’s more attractive, their ego gets higher, they get all excited. The small amount of money worries people. In my experience, I’ve found it easier to raise big money than small money.
What do you think about the way the industry’s gone in terms of making money after a film leaves the cinema? You had a big rental market in the 80s and 90s, whereas now we have streaming. How has that affected things?
Well, after VHS there was DVD and now there’s streaming, so that’s another way of making money. Because of the internet, things have changed, but in a way it balances, because you lose one element of income, but something else comes up. And then you have tax incentives for shooting here and shooting there – Canada, the UK, Germany. Now, who knows what there is? It’s a complicated way of financing movies. I like the simple ways. Simple is always better.
Do you have any regrets about choosing not to make Paul Verhoeven’s Crusade?
I loved working with Paul. I was going to do a movie with him a few years ago. I had it all ready – it was about Ataturk, the president of Turkey, years ago. It was financed, money in the bank, very good screenplay, location, everything. Then, for political reasons, everyone got worried – the whole political mood in Turkey changed, and we had to put it to the side.
I did Chaplain. [Biographies] have to be special. Chaplain was such a special story, I couldn’t say no to it. But with biographies, you can see them on television – you look at the History Channel. Gandhi was great, but usually biographies are kind of dangerous. You have to really pick and choose.
How important has it been to revive the Carolco name? People like me grew up with those films, so you must be excited to have it back again.
I have to blame Alex [Bafer] for that. To be honest with you, I was tired of walking down memory lane. I kind of forgot about it for a while. My brain has a defence mechanism, and put it to one side. I was functioning without Carolco, doing my own thing, and somehow, for whatever reason, I met somebody in Vegas, and became friendly with them, and then Alex, who I didn’t know, had a company in Florida. He was doing small films if I recall, and I think Alex is like you – a big movie fan, and had seen every Carolco movie, more than me.
He found that the Carolco name was available. When I wanted to buy Carolco, they wouldn’t sell it to me – for whatever reason, I couldn’t get it. Then Alex got it, and then when he found out that his friend knew me, he said, “Can you set up a meeting?” So we met, and it brought all the memories of Carolco back.
When he said, “I have Carolco,” I said, “Then you have me. I’ll be back!”
I had about 1800 employees at my Carolco office. I had texts and calls from all of them, congratulating me, saying, “Do you need anything? We’re ready to come back and work”. This is after 20-something years. They’re no longer 23 years old! The support is amazing.
This was something I had no idea about. I was so into it, so deep inside it, that I didn’t see from the outside how big Carolco was. Iconic, actually. The logo’s on YouTube. People have it as their ringtone. So I’m very excited, to be honest with you. It’s taking me back to my old days. Working nine to five – that’s not me. I do everything from A to Z with love and affection. If I don’t believe in something, I can’t do it.
Let’s put it this way – it’s good to be back!
Mario Kassar, thank you very much.