Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Mini-Major Discussion: Carolco Pictures

by Jason

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?

Were They?

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.

Notable Movies

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?


Rustbelt said...

So, this is the outfit that inflicted Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich on us?
Well, now I know who else to blame for "Godzilla '98." (Or as it's properly known among G-fans, "GINO: Godzilla In Name Only.")

Sony, you're partially- and by partially, I mean 0.5%- off the hook.

shawn said...

I would probably have to go with Terminator 2 as my favorite Carolco pic, followed by L.A. Story.

It's easy to see why the went broke. Arnold's paycheck for Terminator 3 was 29 million. A record movie deal at the time which I don't believe has been beaten.

ScottDS said...

Of course, it should be mentioned that the Carolco fanfare was composed and conducted by Jerry Goldsmith and is a subtle reworking of his Rambo theme. :-)

You pretty much named the four best right in your intro: First Blood, Total Recall, T2, and Basic Instinct.

First Blood, for me, is a perfectly-paced movie and it's one of those that I have to finish if I stumble across it on TV. Everything works and I can't believe it was directed by the same guy who did Weekend at Bernie's!

I saw Basic Instinct in its entirety for this first time just five years ago... what wonderfully, trashy fun! (SPOILERS: Seriously, did anyone think Sharon Stone was actually innocent? Also, at no point in the film is she asked to turn in any kind of DNA sample. The film would've been over in 10 minutes!)

T2 was the ultimate R-rated action film... I was 8 and my brother was 5 and unfortunately, thanks to our over-protective mother, we only got glimpses of it when it was playing as a demo at electronics stores!

His personal life notwithstanding, will there ever be a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood like Arnold ever again?

Tennessee Jed said...

I would have to agree, at the time, the genre was what was happening, and they did it well by not being overly pretentious. Arnold was perfect for these. He played to his strengths (no pun intended.)

AndrewPrice said...

Jason, Thanks for an interesting article and a nice start on an interesting new series.

For a brief period there, Carolco had a string of truly massive hits. After that, I kind of assumed that the company was so rich that it could not fail... then it did. Amazing.

AndrewPrice said...

In terms of a favorite, btw, I would probably say Terminator 2 or Aliens, but there are several other contenders too. All told, I like almost all of it.

ScottDS said...

^Aliens was 20th Century Fox. T2 is the only film Cameron made for Carolco. :-)

It's a shame Renny Harlin's career never quite recovered after Cutthroat Island. He's not a bad director and he's still working. If anything, he'll be remembered for Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger, and possibly The Adventures of Ford Fairlane. He also did The Long Kiss Goodnight, which is a lot of fun and IMHO Samuel L. Jackson's most quotable movie.

Jason said...

Andrew, yeah I’ve noticed that a number of these independent studios have the same story: they generate big blockbusters for a time and then *pow* one day they go under, and you never know the underlying problems that the studio is suffering from. Usually, a really dumb mistake is involved that finishes off the company; in this case, making an expensive pirate movie with no bankable stars.

My favs from Carolco: T2, Total Recall, and Stargate. I bought a copy of Cliffhanger recently, so I may add another to my list.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Really? Huh. I thought they did Aliens. Oh well. In that event, let me toss out The Doors, one of the last inspired films Oliver Stone made.

AndrewPrice said...

Jason, It's funny, but I guess it shows that having a billion dollars is no guarantee of survival.

In all honesty, I'm impressed with how many big hits this one studio had. They really caught a wave at one point.

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

Yeah, the Alien franchise is one of the jewels in Fox' crown. (Alien 3 even features an awesomely corrupted version of the Fox fanfare.)

Thankfully, they haven't completely destroyed it - I can't say the same about Die Hard, Fox' other big franchise.

I haven't seen The Doors.

Dave Olson said...

So what is it about the "Big Six" (Fox, Warners, Universal, Paramount, MGM/UA, Columbia) that makes them impervious to fiscal ruin, and why do the upstarts like Carolco flame out so spectacularly? Well, I'm not a Hollywood Insider (brief pause to cross myself; best prayer I've said all day), but I can think of a few reasons:

* Catalog. The Big Six has a vast library of old movies and TV shows that generate cash by the boxcar load, so they can afford plenty of big-budget stinkers like Cutthroat Island in the short term without going under.

* TV. As mentioned above, the Big Six all have TV production divisions that run endlessly on broadcast and cable in syndication, both here and around the world. It's been said that reruns of "I Love Lucy" are still funding the CBS News Department. (Or, as I call it, See B.S. News.)

*Property. Southern California is a hideously expensive place to live and work. The Big Six had massive studio lots before land prices went berserk in the Sixties and Seventies. They can shoot most of their stuff on their own sets, which is cheaper than location filming.

*Unions. Moviemaking is heavily unionized, and the Big Six can afford these higher costs. Although this may be coming to an end with so many productions heading to Canada or New Mexico. Or Old Mexico for that matter.

*Ego. Ah, now we're really getting down to it. Cassar and Vajna had a couple of hits and saw themselves as the new moguls; modern day incarnations of Louis Mayer and Jack Warner. Nothing could stop their gravy train so they went full lottery-winner, splurging on parties and indulgences. Mayer and the Warners may have thrown great parties in their day too, but they were shrewd businessmen who never let the bottom line out of their sight. Hence, MGM and Warner Brothers are still around, and Carolco went under long ago.

ScottDS said...

Dave -

The other studios also released their own movies on home video - Carolco had to deal with other distributors. It's why Sony owns the home video rights to Cliffhanger and Lionsgate owns the home video rights to most of the rest, including T2 and Total Recall. (The latter has been given a nice new transfer, while the former needs one.)

Jason said...

Actually, MGM isn't part of the "Big Six" anymore. Disney has now filled that slot. MGM actually has fallen on hard times and nearly went under in 2010.

Yeah, in future Mini-Major Discussions, you're going to see a few more financial implosions by studios whom you thought were invincible. You're right that some of these execs get big heads and end up spending their way into oblivion. With a little more discipline, their companies might have survived.

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