Free Film School #129: The Cannon Group

Here at CraveOnline‘s Free Film School we like to pretend that films are an important artistic medium that warrant constant study and review, but I think we all can agree on the fact that most movies are – in a very essential way – commercial schlock. We rarely actually concern ourselves (as critics, as film-goers, and even as filmmakers) with the sheer artistry of films, often getting lost in story conceits, franchise potential, and what films will be #1 at the box office that weekend. We live in an unprecedented age wherein widespread and mainstream audiences are more concerned with the business aspects of movies than with the movies themselves.

Some of those B-movie pioneers will warrant their own lectures someday. Stay tuned for a lecture on Roger Corman, the long-reigning elder statesman of the B-movie business. For now, though, we’re going to start a little bit smaller and have a brief introduction to a ubiquitous studio that thrived in the home video market of the 1980s, and is well-known to trash aficionados of a certain age. Welcome, dear friends, to The Cannon Group.

The Cannon Group is, in short, known for some of the schlockiest films of the 1980s. Few of their films are objectively good (some may argue that none of their films are objectively good), and their successes are mostly cult films. They are also a golden example of how a lot of the movie business actually works, how money can be creatively bent, and how most films are more budget-minded than you think. I am going to use The Cannon Group to illustrate how even some of your favorite big-budget Hollywood movies are made.

Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, a pair of Israeli cousin entrepreneurs took over the company in 1979 and enlisted a new production model that earned them a reputation as both savvy businessmen, as as purveyors of some of the most glorious schlock of the 1980s. Golan-Globus would buy bad scripts for very little money, and put them into full production. As such, they took over certain cheesy action franchises, which were very much a popular trend during the decade. They produced the Death Wish sequels, and patriotic action flicks like Delta Force. Golan-Globus even eventually tackled a film in the Superman series. Although it was the widely-hated Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.

The Cannon Group knew this well, and built their empire on cheap sequels. This allowed the studio to grow and thrive. Bu the mid 1980s, they were producing some notable, bigger-budget genre and cult films like Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce, the Breakin’ movies, and Cobra. They were also beginning to skew a bit more artistic during this period by distributing auteur film like Otello, and even John Cassavetes’ Love Streams. If you look into the vaults of any exploitation production house, you’ll find the American distribution rights to some pretty amazing foreign classics. Roger Corman did this a lot. As such, some cheapo exploitation houses were responsible for getting greats like Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, and others to American audiences. There is a weird overlap in the Venn diagram of trash and European art film.

You ever see that barely-released Captain America film from 1990? Cannon. Ever see Masters of the Universe? Cannon. Wanna know who got the ball rolling on a Spider-Man feature film? Cannon, dude. Indeed, take a look at their entire output sometime. It’s a roadmap of glorious trash, and a good place to start with a B-movies education. Provided you want to move into the 1980s.

America 3000 is a sexist post-apocalypse ripoff worth your time. Death Wish III is amazing. The Apple, a goofy and off-the-wall sci-fi musical from 1980 is one of the best worst movies ever made. The Last American Virgin (a remake/sequel in the obscure Israeli Lemon Popsicle series) is one of the best teen sex romps from the decade. And you don’t know ninja mayhem until you’ve trekked through Cannon. Go for Ninja III: The Domination. That’s the craziest one. That’s the one where a ninja master’s ghost possesses the body of an aerobics instructor.

The lesson we can all glean from The Cannon group is probably the same we can get from any enterprising young studio: Do not attempt to change the world. Creativity and daring artistic content can prove to be an enemy within an artistic medium that is, more often than not, a big-budget business. Work with the money, manipulate low budgets, and produce movies within commercially proven genres. I recently gave a lecture on how most films are actually not art. If you’re trying to make money in the film business, and you’re starting small, you can either gamble on creative and original content, hoping that critics and audiences will find you. Or you can more easily pump out formulaic film by the score, and actually grow.

Once you’ve made enough money with your business model, only then can you begin to make art. The Cannon Group’s glory days only lasted about eight years. In that microcosm, they managed to exemplify every facet of the film business, from exploitation to classy foreign distribution, to sequel properties, to financial success, to eventual disbandment. If you were to look at a bigger studio – say the now-largely-defunct RKO – you’ll find a similar story, only with bigger numbers and more time. The Cannon Group is representative of Hollywood. Get to know them.

And, for goodness’ sake, watch their dumb-ass movies. You’ll love ’em.

Homework for the Week:

How much should a studio focus on making “important” movies, and how often should they focus on just commercial product? If you were to start your own studio, what kind of movies would you start producing? If you could buy a property, would you make a sequel? What is your favorite Cannon film? 

Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can read his weekly articles Trolling, Free Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.