The rise and fall of Cannon Films

At its 80s peak, production company Cannon Films was putting out more than a dozen movies per year. So what went wrong? Ryan takes a look...

In 1986, Cannon Films were riding on a wave of success. Producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, the two figureheads behind the studio, had just opened their expensive new offices in Los Angeles, and their growing fame was captured for posterity in a BBC Omnibus documentary called The Last Moguls.

The swaggering self-promotion of Cannon at its mid-80s height was also captured in a promo video from the era. Against a backdrop of wailing stadium rock, clips from the studio’s slate of dramas and trashy action movies played out, with the voice of ubiquitous trailer narrator Don La Fontaine growling the following grandiose statements over the top:

“Cannon Films [a slow-motion shot of Sylvester Stallone screaming]. The home of high-powered, high-voltage motion picture entertainment [an unidentifiable vehicle explodes]. With the screen’s biggest spectacles [a jeep leaps off a sandy ridge and hits a palm tree]. Brightest stars [a shot of a naked Michael Caine lying on top of Sally Field]. And biggest line-up of explosive entertainment [Dolph Lundgren swings a sword about while dressed as He-Man].

“We’re taking motion picture excitement over the edge [Chuck Norris fires a rocket launcher at a car]. And your box office over the top [Sylvester grimaces during an arm wrestle]. We’re Cannon Films, and we’re dynamite [a car explodes].”

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As that promo made plain, Cannon had made its fortune on the back of movies like The Delta Force, Missing In Action, and dramas like Bolero and Surrender. Its films starred action stalwarts such as Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris, but it also managed to hook in respected directors such as Jean-Luc Godard and Andrei Konchalovsky. Cannon’s action films were frequently reviled by critics (The Delta Force was described by one critic as “an exploitation movie in the very worst sense”), yet it also made Oscar- and Golden Globe-nominated movies, too – an unusually mixed output for any American production company.

But within months of both the making of that promo video, and the BBC’s hour-long documentary, Cannon Films was in trouble. Its unique method of making movies, which had seen it become the most powerful independent production company in Hollywood, also became its undoing, and Cannon began to fall almost as quickly as it had risen. So what on Earth went wrong?

Business As Usual

Originally founded in 1967, Cannon Films gradually became known for its mixture of relatively low-budget yet ambitious movies. Its earliest critical and financial success was Joe (1970), a drama about an advertising executive who ends up in the orbit of a crazed factory worker (Joe, played by Peter Boyle) – with murderous results. Nominated for an Oscar for its screenplay, Joe wound up making $19.3 million on a tiny $106,000 budget – a success Cannon couldn’t quite repeat with its next few pictures, which ranged from sex comedies (Guess What We Learned In School Today) to motorcycle exploitation flicks (Northville Cemetery Massacre).

Cannon was in the financial doldrums when two Israeli cousins, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, bought the company for $500,000 in 1979. Two years earlier, the pair had made a film for Cannon, a quickly-made but financially well-received thriller called Operation Thunderbolt, with Golan directing and Globus co-producing. That film typified their quick-and-dirty approach to filmmaking: based on a true life hijacking of a passenger jet, the movie was in the can within 90 days of the story hitting news headlines. Despite the hectic shoot, the film was a success, and was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 1978 Academy Awards.

Golan and Globus had already managed to build a fledgling film industry almost single-handedly in Israel with this approach, and their purchase of the ailing Cannon marked the beginning of their campaign in America.

Ninja III: The Domination

Golan and Globus’s acquisition of Cannon coincided with the VHS boom of the late 70s and early 80s, and it was arguably that market’s insatiable appetite for B-movies that underpinned their initial successes. Their output during the early 80s ranged from horror (New Year’s Evil) to martial arts action (Enter The Ninja) to revenge sequels (Death Wish II), and once Cannon had managed to get its footing again after several lean years, Golan and Globus rapidly increased their output.

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In 1982, they produced a handful of movies, but the following year, they’d released six. The year after that, eight, then 11 in 1985. A trip to the average video shop in the 80s would pay testament to the sheer number of movies Cannon was making at the time; shelves were lined with lurid box art and equally colourful titles – things like Exterminator 2, Invasion USA and Avenging Force.

There was far more to the Cannon name than just schlock, however. Packed into a given year would be any number of prestige projects, many of them featuring some remarkable filmmaking, writing and acting talent. Runaway Train, written by Akira Kurosawa (with rewrites from Paul Zindel and Eddie “Mr Blue” Bunker) and directed by Andrei Konchalovsky, was released in 1985 to considerable acclaim – including Oscar nominations for stars Eric Roberts and Jon Voight – if not amazing box office business.

Cannon’s annual line-up continually veered between the high-brow and the B-grade in a similarly bewildering fashion. Avenging Force was preceded by Franco Zefferelli’s Otello in 1986. Jean-Luc Goddard’s King Lear and Barbet Schroeder’s drama Barfly came out shortly before the bloody shoot-em-up Death Wish 4: The Crackdown in 1987, and so on.

Golan and Globus managed to blaze a trail through Hollywood thanks to shrewd deal-making (“99 percent of the budget is going on the screen, not on limousines and lunches,” one Cannon exec said in the BBC’s documentary), aggressive self-promotion and a relentless pursuit of filmmaking talent. While their films weren’t always hits, their constant courting of the international market, their regular presence at Cannes and their clever way of selling films in packages to overseas distributors saw them reliably turn a profit.

It was this understanding of the international market, in fact, that made Cannon stand out from the Hollywood studio pack.

“We grew up on American films and we decided to make them ourselves,” Globus said in a 1986 interview. “But when we got there, we found it didn’t really fit with the spirit of how we make movies. We grew in the international market, we grew at the Cannes festival. We know the international market as well if not better than any American producer. American producers in the past never really thought about anything more than their own back yard. So we came with a different kind of producing for the world. Six years later, you know what Cannon is. I think everybody knows.”

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Who Killed Mary What’s ‘Er Name?

For a time, Cannon Films seemed to be tripping along happily on its model of explosive action and intelligent drama. But while the BBC were filming Golan and Globus in their posh new offices, talking about their domination of UK cinema chains, or trying to cut deals with directors like Peter Bogdanovich, there were already signs that things were starting to go wrong.  

By 1986, having released a string of action movies starring Chuck Norris, Charles Bronson  and Michael Dudikof, suddenly saw an opportunity in the comic book adaptation business. Golan and Globus hungrily bought up the rights for the Superman franchise from producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind, who appeared to be unsure what to do with the series after the negative reception of Superman III (1983) and Supergirl (1984).

Golan and Globus then courted Christopher Reeve to return to the fold as Superman, and even offered to make Street Smart – an adult drama Reeve had been trying to get financed for years – to help sweeten the deal. The BBC’s cameras were quietly filming while Golan engaged in a minor telephone dispute over Street Smart’s budget – the sticking point, it seemed, was that Reeve wanted a bit of extra money so the production could be shot on location in New York.

“If you don’t have another million-and-a-half to do this movie in New York,” Reeve had apparently said, “how do I know you have $30m to do Superman?”

“How could he talk to me like that,” Golan complained to an anonymous person on the other end of the phone. “He doesn’t understand the world we are living in. I did Street Smart because I wanted to please him, because I liked the script…”

As it turned out, Reeve’s question about Superman IV’s budget wasn’t an unreasonable one at all. Cannon’s habit of having dozens of movies in production at any one time was beginning to tell on the quality of its output – particularly when it came to making effects-heavy superhero movies. The studio had originally earmarked $36 million for Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, a relatively low figure that was slashed in half (to a reported $17 million) just one month before production began.

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This depressingly low budget was evident from Superman IV‘s opening frame, and critics rounded on it. They smirked at the use of the UK’s Milton Keynes as an unconvincing stand-in for Metropolis. They tittered at the bog-standard special effects, the badly-choreographed fight scenes, and the stilted performance from Nuclear Man actor Mark Pillow. Box office receipts added further misery: faring the worst of the four Reeve Superman pictures, it effectively killed the series for the best part of two decades.

A month after Superman IV opened in July 1987, along came another box office disappointment. Masters Of The Universe, an action fantasy film starring Dolph Lundgren, was the result of an expensive joint venture with toy manufacturer Mattell, and made back just $17 million on its $22 million budget. The cash flow problems at Cannon had been so dire during the making of Masters Of The Universe that the production had been threatened with closure multiple times, and the plug was eventually pulled during the filming of the climactic battle scene. Director Gary Goddard was given the chance to go back and shoot extra scenes three months later, but was only given a month to do so – resulting in a considerably curtailed fight between Lundgren’s He-Man and Frank Langella’s Skeletor.

Down Twisted

Cannon ploughed on through the latter part of the 80s with a continuous stream of films, but the financial blow from Superman IV and Masters Of The Universe was far-reaching, as was the damage to the studio’s reputation. Cannon had purchased the film rights for Spider-Man from Marvel Comics, and had intended to make a movie adaptation, first with Missing In Action director Joseph Zito at the helm, and then Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s Tobe Hooper. Bizarrely, Golan and Globus had bought Spider-Man without fully understanding who the character was, and were planning to make a movie about a “giant eight-legged tarantula.”

“Golan and Globus didn’t really know what Spider-Man was,” director Zito told The LA Times. “They thought it was like the Wolfman.”

Cannon persisted through multiple attempts at making a low-budget Spider-Man, but amid all the financial turbulence, the movie simply refused to happen. Neither did a proposed $5 million sequel to Masters Of The Universe, in spite of around $2 million being spent on costumes and sets. In a cunning bit of recycling, young director Albert Pyun quickly wrote a script based on the stuff he had lying around, made the sci-fi action flick Cyborg for just $500,000, and promptly made the studio a much-needed profit of $10 million.

It was in this kind of market that Cannon thrived: $1.5 million action movies like Kickboxer (1989), starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, which went on to make about $40 million worldwide. When it attempted something in a higher financial bracket, intended for a family audience – like 1992’s $10 million Captain America adaptation – the results were less convincing, and it was this approach that ultimately led to Cannon’s downfall. Captain America was widely panned, and went straight-to-video in most territories.

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Back in 1986, the mayor of Los Angeles had loudly proclaimed Golan and Globus’s brilliance at the opening party for Cannon’s new offices. “They are among the greatest marketing geniuses anywhere,” the mayor enthused. “Their films make money before they’re even released. They make something like 45 films a year, right? Incredible!”

Unfortunately, Cannon’s model of drumming up cash through the pre-sale of films fell apart following its string of box-office flops, and by 1988, the studio faced bankruptcy. The studio was purchased by Pathé Communications, and Menahem Golan left shortly afterwards. Although Cannon continued to release films with Globus as studio head in the 1990s, it was a shadow of its former self. Films like American Ninja V and American Samurai (the 11th and 12th Cannon films with the word ‘American’ in the title) dribbled out in the early 90s, before the little-seen 1993 action film Street Knight served as the company’s muted swansong.

Appointment With Death

Cannon’s fall may have been almost as speedy as its ascent, but in its heyday, the breadth of the company’s output was astonishing. It may have given us forgettable duds like Death Wish 4, but it also gave us some true trash classics like Cobra or Tobe Hooper’s bizarre nude space vampire epic Lifeforce – and with Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, Cannon gave us one of the most memorable sequel titles in history.

From beginning to end, Cannon was responsible for lots of shameless opportunism. Films like King Solomon’s Mines came in the wake of Indiana Jones, Missing In Action was a movie ‘inspired’ by the script for Rambo: First Blood Part II, and with The Delta Force, Golan and Globus effectively ripped off their own Operation Thunderbolt. But Cannon also gave us unique stuff we wouldn’t have seen anywhere else, like The Company Of Wolves, which it distributed in the US, or the acclaimed Qatsi trilogy of documentaries.

It has to be said that, while no other American studio has attempted to make quite the breadth and number of films Cannon did in its pomp, other producers appear to have taken some inspiration from Golan and Globus’s practices. French production company EuropaCorp, for example, has carved out a profitable niche in the action market, with the Taken movies and Lock-Out among its recent successes.

In America, producer Jason Blum has made a killing in the horror market, with movies like Paranormal Activity and its sequels, Sinister, The Purge, and Insidious all making a fortune on tiny budgets. This frugal yet shrewd approach to filmmaking is far closer to Golan and Globus’s style, and in the face of the huge costs in mainstream Hollywood production, it’s a logical response.

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Cannon’s embrace of the international market – something Hollywood ignored for years to its cost – is now a vital part of high-budget filmmaking. As movies like this year’s Pacific Rim have proved, a solid performance overseas can make the difference between a profit and a loss, particularly when it comes to a genre picture made for more than $100 million.

Cannon will probably be better remembered for the B-grade action pictures that packed the lower shelves of video libraries in the 80s and 90s, in spite of its sideline in making solid adult dramas and thrillers. But Golan and Globus’ love for cinema and filmmaking shouldn’t be underestimated, even in light of some of their more curious business decisions.

“We’re like those troubadours in the middle ages who’d go to the market place and tell stories to people with dreary lives,” Golan once said. “We’re all looking for a life beyond what we’re limited to on Earth. And that’s what cinema provides.” 

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