Free Film School #129: The Cannon Group

Cannon logo

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.

The Delta Force posterWhich means commercial schlock – as I perhaps dismissively just stated it – is perhaps worth a look. Indeed, there are numerous important purveyors of B-grade schlock in this world that I would not trade for anything. I do appreciate a complex and artistically rendered feature film to explore the depth of humanity, of abstract thought, of the soul, and I will proclaim to the high heavens such movies. But while each of us can now appreciate a grand piece of art, the B-movies, the genre flicks, the off-the-wall films made in a hurry, on a budget, clearly only intended for a quick buck, these movies can often be the pulsing lifeblood of a scattered industry.

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.

The Last American Virgin posterThe Cannon Group was founded way back in 1967 by a pair of enterprising producers,  Dennis Friedland and Chris Dewey, who had a limited budget model they felt would make a good model to create a high volume of cinema product. They placed a low ceiling on their movie's budgets, and forced filmmakers to stay constrained. This is not too different from big Hollywood product, only the ceiling is in a different place. They rarely interfered creatively, but their limited resources were a form of keep a tight grip on things. Friedland and Dewey ran the company until 1979. Their model wasn't entirely successful, and they were forced to sell the studio to the pair of businessmen that Cannon fans know best.

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.

It is a perhaps regrettable truth in Hollywood that quality rarely dictates popularity. Ninja III posterSequels and franchises are only sometimes based on goodwill. Mostly, we have to vote with our dollars, and we'll only get sequels so long as we keep paying for previous installments. As such, any studio that can cheaply and quickly make any chapter in any franchise and still make a profit will be allowed to perpetuate and thrive. A non-Cannon example: Look at the Resident Evil movies. Those movies are garbage. And yet there are five of those suckers. Because they're cheap to make, and they all make money. This cheap production law is why so many slasher sequels were made in the 1980s. They cost almost no money. It's also why so many remakes were churned out in the '00s. Studios could save on advertising by tapping into an already-known product.

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.

Superman IV posterDespite the art imprimatur, The Cannon Group could never shake their image of being a schlock house. At the height of their powers (in the late 1980s), the studio was recognized and taken seriously by other studios and even by some audiences. But to film fans of today, the studio only invites smiles of recognizable trash. Cannon films are marked by a bold, sloppy, action-packed ethos. Large, clunky, and obvious, Cannon films essentially defined what B-movies of the 1980s ought to be, and what they ought to look like. If you read about exploitation history, you hear a lot about vague and unnamed First Blood ripoffs and bad fantasy films. Between Roger Corman and The Cannon Group, you have pretty much all of those ripoffs handily bunched together.

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.

Golan and Globus eventually split following the box office failure of Superman IV, and the subsequent takeover of their company by The Apple soundtrackPathé. Tracing the history of the company following their glory days is a dodgy proposition, as the mark had been dispersed, and the Cannon name ceased to have its power. In 1990, the company tried to relaunch as an independent, only to fail two years later. The Cannon Group officially folded in 1993, and has lain dormant ever since.

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.

Captain America

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.