Monday, March 16, 2015

Mini-Major Discussion: TriStar Pictures

by Jason

Most moviegoers my age will remember the iconic Pegasus logo (I picked out the older version for the article, which is probably better known) of the film studio TriStar Pictures. For a while, TriStar pictures popped up regularly every year, but have you noticed you haven’t seen the Pegasus take flight much in the past decade? So, let’s sit back and re-live the glory days of the studio that gave us Robin Williams playing Peter Pan, David Bowie singing to Muppets, an army of giant bugs, a sports agent who screams over the phone, and a giant lizard who eats a lot of fish…

Who Were They?

TriStar originally began, fittingly, in 1982 as a pooled effort by three entities, HBO, Columbia, and CBS, to share costs in a film industry that had been growing expensive. However, CBS and HBO would divest their interests in TriStar, and later Coca-Cola, which owned Columbia, would sell that studio to TriStar in 1987. Columbia and TriStar were then reformed into separate film studios, later to be bought by Sony, creating the TriStar Pictures that we know to this day.

TriStar got off to a good start with their first produced film, the Robert Redford headliner The Natural, a hit that also scored a few Oscar nods. The studio also secured distribution deals with mini-majors like Carolco, Cannon, Hemdale, as well as the Salkind producers for Supergirl and Santa Claus: The Movie. TriStar also worked with Jim Henson on his film projects after Henson’s previous partner, ITC, went under. TriStar scored another coup by bankrolling a few Robin Williams projects, Hook, The Fisher King, and Jumanji, all hits or cult classics that retain followings to this day. With a lot of successes under its belt, TriStar flourished in the 1980s and 1990s.

What Were They Known For?

Having a film logo that everyone, especially children, would love to ride.

As far as their movies, a pretty well rounded collection of audience favorites, Oscar winners, and a few stinkers. Not terribly different from what most big studios would put out.

The Studio’s Peak Moment

1996’s Jerry McGuire. Big hit and five Oscar nods, and that catchphrase, “Show me the money!” Yeah, how long did we go listening to that everywhere?

The Studio’s Most Notorious Movie

TriStar had a few duds, even a few really infamous ones:

I Know Who Killed Me is credited with burying Lindsay Lohan’s film career even deeper than it already was.

Baby Geniuses was pretty horrible but its reputation was eclipsed by its sequel, which would surely have made it on here if it wasn’t distributed by Sony’s Triumph division instead. TriStar, you dodged a bullet…

And then there’s Bruce Willis’ Hudson Hawk, a movie to this day is held as a premiere example of a flop although its notoriety has faded with time.

Suspense and horror author Dean Koontz found TriStar’s adaptation of his novel Hideaway to be pretty notorious. Many of his fans would agree.

But the prize for TriStar’s most notorious flick has to go to one of the most infamous slasher flicks of all time: Silent Night, Deadly Night. Serial killers dressed in painted William Shatner masks or hockey masks, no problem. A killer dressed like jolly old Saint Nick, big frickin’ problem. Yes, the killer of Silent Night, Deadly Night is a man dressed in a Santa Claus outfit and hunts his victims with an axe. This film was utterly hated by parents who did not like the killer Santa motif in the movie’s ad campaign. It even pissed off Gene Siskel, who called out the ad campaign, called out the movie for its horribleness, then called out the movie makers by name: LINK.

After two weeks, the studio actually pulled the movie from theaters. Today, TriStar no longer owns the rights, and is no doubt happy not to. Not surprisingly, the movie spawned a lot of cheapie sequels.

The Studio’s Up and Comers

Jennifer Connelly. Labyrinth was her first major motion picture, though it would take a while for her career to really take off.

English actress Helena Bonham Carter had one of her early film roles in the Kenneth Branagh directed Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

Bruce Willis’ first feature film role was in Blind Date.

Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman got great mileage out of Glory, with Freeman’s performance garnering great notice and Washington winning an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

One of Billy Zane’s first starring roles was in 1993’s Sniper.

Future Bond girl Denise Richards and future Romulan senator Dina Meyer got early gigs in Starship Troopers.

One of Mark Wahlberg’s first starring roles was in The Big Hit.

Catherine Zeta-Jones won a star-making role in The Mask of Zorro.

Director Neill Blomkamp had his breakout hit District 9 partially produced by TriStar, and the studio would later bankroll his followup, Elysium.

Finally, TriStar gave John Travolta’s film career a big shot in the arm (he had been on the wane in the 80s since his Grease glory days) with Look Who's Talking, a comedy that nearly made 300 million worldwide (seriously). Travolta’s career resurrection would be completed a few years later with Pulp Fiction.

Notable Movies

The Natural, Runaway, the Short Circuit movies, Labyrinth, Sunset, The Blob (remake), Look Who's Talking (and sequels), The Muppets Take Manhattan, The Last Dragon, Steel Magnolias, Glory, The Freshman (1990), Real Genius, Peggy Sue Got Married, Switching Channels, Hudson Hawk, Weekend at Bernie's II, So I Married an Axe Murderer, Family Business, The Fisher King, Hook, Rudy, Philadelphia, Guarding Tess, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Devil in a Blue Dress, Legends of the Fall, The Quick and the Dead, Jumanji, Mary Reilly, Matilda, Donnie Brasco, Starship Troopers, Godzilla (1999), The Mask of Zorro, Universal Soldier: The Return, Elysium.

What Happened To the Studio?


TriStar’s streak was stomped on by their monster-sized would-be blockbuster, Godzilla. TriStar and Sony thought they had the surest thing of surest things, a CGI-powered remake of a well known franchise directed by the guys who did Independence Day. The studio even picked out the release date to correspond with the day Spielberg’s The Lost World came out. They figured they’d beat that movie’s opening weekend with a 100 million gross on opening weekend.

Instead, the moviegoing public was largely turned off by the hype, and the final result left a lot of people cold, with the acting, script, and the new Godzilla singled out for criticism. The film was ridiculed as the worst example of studio overhype. Some people claimed the Taco Bell commercials featuring the Taco Bell dog trying to trap Godzilla to be more entertaining than the movie they was promoting.

The movie wasn’t a flop - it did make around 300 million worldwide - but the backlash and underperformance was so stinging that it knocked a studio that was once riding high on its heels. In 2000, the next year after Godzilla, TriStar released nothing except an English dub of Toho-produced Godzilla 2000. For pretty much the entirety of the 2000s, TriStar limped along with low-budget efforts, comedies like Daddy Day Care, or foreign-made films and a few anime movies.


TriStar found a niche in the 2010s as a distributor of Christian-themed films like Soul Surfer, Courageous, Heaven Is for Real, Moms' Night Out, and When the Game Stands Tall. Since most of these films were made by the Sony-owned Affirm Films, we can say synergy was a factor.

The studio got back into the big-budget game with 2013’s Elysium, a not-well received movie that probably drained a lot of goodwill for its director Blomkamp, as his current flick, Chappie, debuted with a thud. As of today, TriStar has definitely fallen from its glory days, sticking mostly to low-budget fare, and although it’s owned by Sony, the Japanese corporation has seen fit to place its big budget movie eggs in Columbia instead.

The studio’s iconic Pegasus logo remains a fond memory for many moviegoers. The logo has inspired a number of parodies, including the “Joe Swanson Theatres” logo from Family Guy as well as this “Tri Sunn” parody on Youtube: LINK.

So what is your favorite TriStar picture? What do you think of the studio? Any other thoughts?


AndrewPrice said...

Jason, Thanks for another fascinating article! This is yet another studio from whom I've seen their entire catalog. Impressive!

(I'll have more to say later.)

shawn said...

Love me some Real Genius.

Also, I know it's not a great movie, but I think Bruce Willis' vanity peice Hudson Hawk is pretty silly too.

ScottDS said...

Every time I hear the TriStar fanfare from the 80s, I just assume Short Circuit is on. :-)

Hudson Hawk... I can't say I hate it. It's just so over the top and ridiculous that I can't even take it seriously enough to criticize it!

Godzilla... I remember seeing it in the theater with my brother and we both kinda liked it. Or, rather, we didn't hate it like all the critics did. (The teaser trailers certainly made an impression.) Fast-forward years later and not only is it airing on TV, the Nostalgia Critic does a review of it. My reaction: "Oh my God, I was wrong! So horribly wrong!" :-)

The Muppets Take Manhattan... When I was 3 or 4 years old, I pretty much watched this every day, along with The Great Muppet Caper.

Hook... Maybe I need to see it again, but this one never did it for me. (Sorry, Rufio!)

Starship Troopers... Yeah, I know. But I'm a big fan of this movie. And the CGI bugs still hold up to this day. I have yet to see any of the direct-to-video sequels.

Jason said...

I saw Hook once on VHS. It definitely seemed off, more towards the end. It felt like the movie built and built up, but didn’t deliver the payoff in the final act. The fight between Hook and Peter Pan was poorly done. The ending also was long and drawn out. I think Spielberg went too far in laying on the schmaltz. On the bright side, I enjoyed Bob Hoskins as Smee. Hoffman was fun, too.

At the time, I didn’t think Godzilla was terrible. It felt so-so until Broderick and company got to the nest of raptors…I mean Godzilla babies in Madison Square Garden. Then it was a pretty enjoyable final act, but I’ve never felt like seeing the movie again since. And thanks to the NC, I’ll always think of “That’s a lot of fish” when I remember this movie!

I haven’t seen either Short Circuit movie all the way through yet. I did see a big chunk of the second one, when Johnny Five gets attacked and thrashed. Imagine being a kid and seeing that! But I loved seeing Johnny go full badass after that. Ha ha!

The funny part about Starship Troopers 3 is that Casper Van Dien returns for it. The fact that he starred in the big budget first one and then came back for the direct-to-video third one showed how far his career fell since then.

Jason said...

I had forgotten to mention this in the article, but the dance choreographer for Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, Cheryl McFadden, went on to bigger things. If you don’t recognize her name, she’s credited by her middle name Gates for the role of Dr. Crusher in ST: TNG. :)

ScottDS said...

Short Circuit was a childhood favorite. It has its funny moments and, being a fan of the Police Academy films, it was fun to see G.W. Bailey and Steve Guttenberg in another movie together. And even people who've never seen the film remember Fisher Stevens as the Indian character.

"Where are you from?"
"No, I mean your ancestors."
"Oh, them... Pittsburgh."

I never warmed up to the second film. It's kinda lame, Number 5 is more annoying than anything, and the scene where he's beaten up by the bad guys is pretty traumatic!!

AndrewPrice said...

I too disliked Hook. This was a film with a ton of potential that ended up being a cliche-fest painted in Spielberg's worst excesses.

Labyrinth was awesome. So was Real Genius:

"I want to see more of you around the lab."
"Ok, I'll put on weight."


Rustbelt said...

The Tristar logo was the first logo I ever saw, as "Santa Claus the Movie" was the first movie I ever saw in a theater. I think I was five. A wonderful December evening with family and friends. The film still holds a place in my heart and David Huddleston will always be Santa to me.
(On a funny note, the theater where I saw the film has since been replaced by a Best Buy.)

Though the ending was a bit of a letdown, I still enjoy "Hook."

And so, yeah, Tristar tried a version of Godzilla and it didn't work out. Saw it in the theater, didn't really like it, but I don't care.

Wait, wait...who am I kidding??? I DO CARE!!!! THIS FILM SUCKS!!! ^^#$&%^()@!!!

Godzilla an overgrown reptile created by the French??? The frickin' French?!?! What were they thinking? I don't care if France was testing bombs at the time. It's a terrible idea. As the RLM guys noted, there is no true sense of scale, every character is comic relief, how the 50 or so choppers are supposed to maneuver between the buildings is anyone's guess, and you could play a drinking game with all the Jurassic Park ripoff scenes. ("This is when CGI made stupid easy.")
To quote Rich Evenas himself, "The new Godzilla movie (2014) has its issues. But what it needed to get right, it got right. This movie (1998) gets nothing right." Here's their review: LINK

I can't begin to tell you how happy I was that Toho responded by stripping Sony of its license and starting up the third official Godzilla series of movies (known as the "Millennium" or "Alternate Reality" series, 1999- 2004). The fight between Godzilla and Orga in "Godzilla 2000" restored my faith in the Big G. LINK

As for the lizard...he's actually owned (in terms of rights) by Toho these days- albeit under another name. He's either known as GINO ("Godzilla In Name Only") or just "Zilla." The latter is due to the producer and director of "Godzilla: Final Wars" saying that the creature "took the God out of Godzilla."
Haruo Nakajima (played Godzilla in the suit from the 50's to the 70's) said "its face looks like an iguana and its body and limbs look like a frog."
Kenpachiro Satsuma (played Godzilla in the suit in the 80's and 90's) actually walked out of the premiere, saying "it's not Godzilla, it doesn't have his spirit."

Anyway, here's Toho's official reaction to Zilla a.k.a. GINO. (Translation: "I knew that tuna-eating lizard wasn't up to much! Next.")

Jason said...

Rustbelt: Santa Claus: The Movie was the first movie I watched in a theater, but I don't recall the experience (I was 4) and apparently I was too restless and my parents had to take me out before the movie finished. I plan to see the movie again to see if it triggers any repressed memories!

Tennessee Jed said...

I must say, Tri Star was perhaps the most recognizable logo of the era. Along with the Lion, perhaps one of the more iconic in film history. I like a lott of those films, in particular, Glory, Pulp Fiction, Devll in the Blue Dress. Legends of the Fall, Mask of Zorro. Yes I like period films .... even the Natural. Nice job, Jason!

Jason said...

Thanks. Actually, Pulp Fiction was from Miramax, not TriStar. I was just commenting that it fully brought Travolta back to the A-list. :)

The Mask of Zorro was a lot of fun. Much better than its sequel, which interestingly TriStar had no involvement in (Columbia did it instead).

Anonymous said...

Well if no one else will I will stand up for Hudson Hawk.

I didn't care what the critics said then and I don't care what anyone says now, I love that bat shit crazy movie. No excuses, no explanations.


Kit said...


I agree, Labyrinth was awesome.
You remind me of the babe…

AndrewPrice said...

What Babe? The Babe with the power!

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I recall enjoying Hudson Hawk as a zany film, but not much beyond that. It was a fun way to spend some time. :)

Kit said...

What power?

Anonymous said...


I think part of my enjoyment of the film stems from the hatred it gets, I also like it, as you said a zany film. It is unique which I also enjoyed.


AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I enjoy unique films too.

Post a Comment