The Cannon Group thrived throughout much of the 1980s, churning out very low budget genre schlock and minting modest profits from their endless stream of ninja movies, Chuck Norris vehicles, vigilante films, and an assortment of other entertaining D grade trash. When Cannon heads Golan and Globus began to expand their low rent operation in the mid-80s, in a bid for some respectability from the industry and to attract A-list talent — they mounted some bigger budget productions that flopped and drained the company of their capital.
The glory years of The Cannon Group saw dozens of cheap films released yearly, with an average price of less than $5 million to produce and about $3 million or less to market. Cannon would pre-sell foreign rights on these threadbare pictures, then sell off ancillary rights to video & TV and in many cases, these movies were in small profit before a foot of film was even shot.
In 1986, as Cannon was increasing their spending on productions, they took out full-page ads in the trade papers, proclaiming itself as “the company of the future.” The year would end with a $60 million loss. In 1987, Cannon was selling off assets to remain solvent and by 1988, they faced bankruptcy.
We are going to look into 4 of Cannon’s bigger budget pictures that led to their demise:
1. Lifeforce (1985)
Lifeforce was one of the earlier big-budget films from Cannon and is undoubtedly the greatest movie ever made about nude vampires from outer space. Tobe Hooper had been exiled from Hollywood studios after a controversy questioned if it was he or Spielberg that directed Poltergeist. Hooper had said of the experience, “Things were hard right after ‘Poltergeist,’ and they shouldn’t have been. It was a hit picture and at the very least one would think that regardless of the controversy–just by association–I should have gotten work.”
Cannon came to the rescue for the down on his luck director and offered him a three-picture deal: Lifeforce, Invaders from Mars, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Lifeforce cost $24 million and is one of the finest examples of Z-grade material given a healthy budget. The result on screen is a bonkers piece of schlock that looks fantastic (especially in 70mm) and is probably the ultimate example of what a big-budget Cannon film would look like. Who else besides Cannon would expect blockbuster returns for a big-budget movie they greenlit under the original title Space Vampires?
Lifeforce was savaged by critics and bombed with just $11,603,545.
2. Over the Top (1987)
As Cannon began to increase their spending on some of their productions, like the giant wad of cheese that was Over the Top — they also increased the number of movies they released, which was about 40 in 1987. The logic being, that if they produced an insane amount of movies at least one will be a major hit — nope.
Sylvester Stallone was in major demand in the mid-80s, pumping out hits like the Rocky and Rambo sequels and (also the rare flop like Rhinestone) Warner Bros was trying to court him to make Cobra (1986). Stallone was committed to Over the Top at Cannon, so WB began a relationship with Cannon to land Stallone. The major studio brokered a co-financing and profit participation deal with Cannon for Cobra and WB would also distribute Cannon’s Over the Top and Superman IV. Cobra would go before the cameras first.
To stave off bankruptcy in late 1986, which stemmed mostly from Cannon’s failed expansion into pricier films and the purchase of a UK movie theater chain, Warner Bros bailed the company out to the tune of $75 million. In return, WB acquired domestic video distribution rights to certain Cannon films and the rights to 21 films, which accounted for $25 million of that $75M. Cobra had solid global returns and WB profited, but the studio was about to waste a large investment on buying into and marketing the godawful Over The Top for Cannon.
To secure Stallone for Over the Top, Cannon gave him a huge $12 million salary and the budget for the picture was $25 million. WB had far more financial exposure to the movie than Cannon, which reduced their risk by selling foreign rights. Warner’s deal saw them pay between $12 to $15 million for the stateside rights, plus marketing and distribution expenses.
Menahem Golan opted to direct the movie himself, who was no stranger to directing crap, like the travesty The Apple (1980) and despite being the co-owner of Cannon, Stallone had final cut on the movie. This competitive arm wrestling movie was ridiculed greatly in the press and by critics and Stallone landed a serious flop on his resume when it left theaters with only $16,057,580. WB would see returned about $8 million after theaters take their percentage of the gross and no overages would flow back to Cannon.
3. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
After Over the Top failed to turn into a much needed hit and financial lifeline for Cannon, their big summer release was Superman IV, one of the best bad movies in the history of cinema. Cannon’s woes were stemmed not only from their string of box office flops, but an investigation from the SEC and a class-action shareholder lawsuit — and Superman IV was a potential savior for the ailing organization. The SEC was investigating Cannon for their shady accounting practices (that case would be settled at the end of the year) and shareholders sued after Cannon inflated its stock price (shareholders eventually won a $33 million settlement).
Cannon had picked up the Superman rights (and further sequel rights) at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival for $5 million from the Salkind family. They had been burned after the disappointing returns from Superman III and the dreadful performance of Supergirl.
Cannon offered $6 million to Christopher Reeve to reprise his role, but he was not interested. Eventually, a $5 million salary deal was brokered with Reeve to star in Part IV as long as Cannon would fund his pet project Street Smart for $7 million. Street Smart was released four months before The Quest for Peace and landed decent reviews, but Cannon spent pennies on marketing the picture and it disappeared with just $1,119,112 at the box office.
Superman IV was developed with a healthy $36 million budget, but Cannon’s cash-flow problems led to the production being slashed down to $17 million. The penny-pinching shoot was as threadbare as any low rent Cannon fare was, with most of the budget going to the cast and none going toward anything resembling acceptable VFX.
Superman IV arrived in theaters with a toxic buzz, a poor C Cinemascore, and quickly died at the box office with $15,681,020 and killed off the original franchise.
4. Masters of the Universe (1987)
(it’s worth watching the Honest Trailer)
Two whole weeks after Superman IV opened with embarrassing numbers, Cannon released their last movie with a sizable budget, the kinda enjoyable campy trainwreck Masters of the Universe. Production began with a $16.8 million budget but the filmmakers burned through the money before completing the climactic battle between He-Man and Skeletor. This slapdash production ended with a $22 million price tag, despite looking like it cost a tenth of the price.
Masters of the Universe was not screened for critics and flopped with $17,336,370. Cannon commanded between 35% to 40% (depending on the theater) of the ticket price and would see returned at most, $6.9 million of the receipts.
Following its string of box office failures, Cannon was purchased by Pathé Communications, and Golan exited the company. The Cannon Group had littered the multiplex with so much garbage in the 80s — but they also produced a handful of genuinely decent pictures. The fact that a masterpiece like Barfly even exists, makes the whole Cannon venture worthwhile.