Welcome to the debut of a new series of articles I call “Mini-Major Discussion.” These articles will look at film studios that aren’t one of the “major” studios (Warner Bros, Fox, Paramount, Disney, Universal, Columbia) but independent studios that once were big enough to be called “mini-majors.” Mostly, I’m looking at past studios that have for one reason or another gone under, although I plan to look at a few still-active ones, too. And what better pick to kick off Mini-major Discussion than Carolco Pictures. Think of some of the greatest blockbusters of the 1980s and 1990s. Chances are they came not from Paramount or Twentieth Century Fox, but from this independent outfit. This is the studio that gave us Rambo, Terminator 2, Basic Instinct, and Total Recall. So…how did Carolco crash and burn so badly?
Carolco Pictures was founded in the late 1970s by two foreign-born film producers, Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna. After a few forgettable outings, the studio scored its first big hit with First Blood, an adaptation of David Morrell’s novel of the same name. Kassar and Vajna secured a loan from a European bank on the power of Sylvester Stallone’s name to finance the project. However, Carolco really took off with the megasuccess of the Rambo sequel, First Blood Part II, released on the tenth anniversary of America’s pullout from Vietnam. Critics hated it, but audiences loved it, and Carolco was on its way.
What Were They Known For?
Huge-budgeted action and sci-fi movies that audiences love to this day. Carolco knew what the movie going public wanted (well, mostly, we’ll get to that later) and gave it to them. The studio cannily outbid the major studios in getting big stars like Stallone and Schwarzenegger and directors like Paul Verhoeven and James Cameron. Kassar and company raised a lot of dough for their films by going to foreign distributors and pre-selling the film rights in those territories. Basically, Kassar recognized the power of the foreign film market and played it to his advantage in financing his films, and in making movies that would play well worldwide.
The Studio’s Peak Moment
Terminator 2. One of the best sequels ever made, a landmark in computer-generated special effects, and perhaps the height of Ah-nolddom. T2’s production budget was also the highest up to that point.
The Studio’s Most Notorious Movie
Showgirls. Although in development by Carolco, it was later sold off to MGM with Kassar maintaining producing credit and a chunk of the profits when Carolco was starting its death throes. Basic Instinct may qualify as a runner-up, as might Cutthroat Island, mostly because it was such a colossal flop that killed its studio.
The Studio’s Up and Comers
Screenwriter Dean Devlin and director Roland Emmerich. The duo worked on their first major studio film under the Carolco aegis, the Jean Claude Van-Damme/Dolph Lundgren sci-fi action vehicle Universal Soldier, written by Devlin and directed by Emmerich. Later, Kassar produced the duo’s sleeper hit Stargate, one of the last films to be made under the Carolco umbrella. Had Carolco survived, Independence Day might have been made at Carolco and not Twentieth Century Fox.
The first three Rambo pictures, Extreme Prejudice, Angel Heart, Red Heat, Total Recall, Terminator 2, Basic Instinct, DeepStar Six, Jacob’s Ladder, L.A. Story, Air America, The Doors, Chaplin, Universal Soldier, Stargate, Cliffhanger, Showgirls, Cutthroat Island.
What Killed the Studio?
Spending too much, making too many smaller films that lost money, and in the end making a really stupid choice to finance a movie in a genre that was pretty much dead by that point.
Mario Kassar definitely lived large. On top of personal spending and big salaries for big stars and directors, Kassar indulged in hefty favors for his pals, like giving Schwarzenegger a 17 million dollar jet as a gift during the making of T2 on top of Arnold’s 14 million dollar salary. But while Carolco made the crowd-pleasing blockbusters, they also made a lot of movies that didn’t make back their budgets. One of them was Robert Downey Jr.’s Chaplin, a critically acclaimed biopic of silent screen legend Charlie Chaplin, but projects like these began taking their toll, plus a lack of spending control on the part of Kassar and pals, all of which sent Carolco spiraling into financial oblivion. It got so bad that while the 1993 Stallone-staring actioner Cliffhanger was a big hit, Carolco took in virtually none of the proceeds because they had to sell most of the distribution rights to Tristar Pictures just to get it made.
The killing blow came when Kassar was faced with a decision to finance one of two films. One was a Paul Verhoeven-helmed flick set to star Arnold called Crusade. This is a pretty famous film in the annals of development hell legend, a medieval war film that would have featured Arnold as an imprisoned thief who has a cross burned onto his back, which would convince his jailers that he had received a sign from God and allow him to join the Crusades. Would the movie have been any good? We’ll never know, as Kassar didn’t have enough faith in the project and turned to a prospective pirate flick named Cutthroat Island. With Michael Douglas looking at the script, Kassar seemed to have the star power to make it work, even if pirate flicks hadn’t been hot in ages.
However, Douglas ultimately bowed out, and producers scrambled to find anyone to take the primary male lead. It would finally go to B-lister Matthew Modine, but the movie’s focus grew to encompass its female star Geena Davis so it hardly mattered. The film’s budget wound up at $98 million. It made $10 million. And with that, Carolco went on the chopping block.
Post-Carolco, Kassar and Vajina teamed back up to make Terminator 3 and Basic Instinct 2 under the new aegis of C2 Pictures, but neither film recaptured the duo’s glory days. T3 was a modest hit, but BI 2 bombed.
Carolco arguably pioneered the art of making big budget pictures that would not only play well in America but throughout the world. At the time, those pictures were still dependent on big stars, but today the FX-driven Transformers, the Marvel pictures, etc, really don’t rely on big name stars any more. There were signs that Carolco could have easily transitioned into the modern era of blockbuster filmmaking. Kassar had tried to acquire the rights to Spider-Man for Cameron to direct, and had he succeeded, Carolco could have kicked off the Marvel superhero craze. Likewise, if Carolco had made Independence Day or possibly even Cameron’s Titanic, it could still have existed to this day.
Finally, Carolco’s success in an encouragement that an indie studio can make a hit as big as a Paramount or a Universal can produce. The fact that Kassar and Vajna could operate outside the studio system and produce such memorable films proved that you don’t need to be one of the “Big Six” to create great, big-budgeted entertainment.
So what is your favorite Carolco picture? What do you think of the studio? Any other thoughts?