Over the Brooklyn Bridge
It is a typically glitzy PR luncheon at a dark New York night club—the glowing red sauce on the chicken breasts could light up a Vegas runway for Charo. Upstaging the fruit cup, Menahem Golan rises to address his audience on the subject of inspiration.
“I am reading this script when all of a sudden the plane starts dropping like a stone,” he declares. “Everybody is panicking. I don't notice. The oxygen mask drops from the ceiling. I don't take it. I've got to finish the script. Just when I'm done, the plane comes out of its fall. Everybody is relieved, but all I can think of is only one thing: If I could read a script through all that, I've got to make the movie.”
If this sounds like something out of a low-budget picture about moviemaking—Won Ton Ton Gets Skyjacked—consider the source. In the grand and shallow tradition of Roger Corman (Little Shop of Horrors) and Samuel Z. Arkoff (Beach Blanket Bingo), Menahem Golan, 55, and his partner Yoram Globus, 40, are the New Hollywood's kings of the cheapies. The two Israelis, flying the corporate banner of the Cannon Group, knowingly grind out everything from the umpteenth martial arts bone-cruncher Enter the Ninja to Bo Derek's sultry Bolero, with occasional nods to their old-home market: The script Golan just couldn't put down, even in turbulence at 30,000 feet, was a Jewish-boy-meets-Christian-girl romantic comedy called My Darling Shiksa. (It will be released as Over the Brooklyn Bridge.)
The reason for Golan and Globus' eminence is as elementary as a balance sheet. Cannon is making money—first in the pre-sale market, the international playground of the low-budget producers where rights are sold to film, cassette, cable, and syndicated television distributors, often before the movies are made; and then at the box office, in cut-rate, cut-throat competition with the major studios.
Treasure of the Four Crowns
Did The New York Times call Cannon's 3-D adventure Treasure of the Four Crowns “as close to being unwatchable as a movie can be”? Doesn't matter if, like Menahem Golan, you read only the bottom line: Four Crowns, budgeted at $2.5 million, grossed $10 million in the U.S. alone. Cannon's teenage sex-tease comedy The Last American Virgin was panned by the few reviewers who bothered to see it, but the movie took in $14 million on a $2-million budget. The crown jewel in Cannon's rhinestone display is Charles Bronson's vigilante spree Death Wish II, which turned a $6 million investment into $22 million in gross receipts. Add in the foreign sales for these films ($28 million for Death Wish II) and Cannon's image begins to acquire a little luster poolside among the Hollywood honchos.
It starts to shine when it is compared to the current state of affairs in the movie industry. Though 1983 looks to set an all-time record for North American grosses, the major studios are making relatively few movies, leaving weeks of open play-dates in domestic theaters. Cannon is willing and able to fill the gap. Last year, the company started shooting twelve films, four more than Columbia and five more than Paramount. The budgets are not the same—an average $5 million for Cannon as opposed to $11.5 million for the majors-but the sheer number of films helps to make Golan and Globus an imposing Hollywood duo.
Their breakneck pace and tight-fisted finances have left some disgruntled bodies behind, with complaints about promises unkept and bills unpaid. In a left-handed compliment to the two filmmakers' growing power, most grumblers have swallowed their losses in private. But last July, one old unresolved dispute caught up with Golan and Globus. They were hit with a lawsuit by a Chicago financial services company, Walter E. Heller & Co., charging that the two filmmakers had not repaid a loan of over $450,000, plus interest, used to finance the production of a film Golan and Globus had backed eight years ago. The two filmmakers settled out of court the following month for the full amount, less interest.
“Oh yeah, I've heard stories that weren't so good,” says Bolero co-star George Kennedy, when asked about working for Golan and Globus. “But all I can say is that they've treated me right. Paid me on time. Everything.”
Whatever the complaints, they have not slowed down Cannon's deal-making mania. In the process the company has taken some sizeable financial risks, piling up substantial debt from a single source, the Slavenburg's bank in HoIland. The bank, though, has established a winning relationship with Cannon over the last few years and is likely to continue furnishing it with a steady flow of cash. With additional financial punch coming in October from a new public stock offering of one million shares, Cannon is confident enough of its resources to have slated 15 films in 1984.
Cannon's unavoidable presence in Hollywood has enabled them to brush up their low-budget formula. In an attempt to parlay their financial credibility into critical respectability and a shot at a wider audience, Golan and Globus have assembled the kinds of packages that attract actors who would never appear in a typical B-movie. In the past year a veritable constellation of stars, including Katharine Hepburn, Nastassja Kinski, Faye Dunaway, Sean Connery, Roger Moore, and John Gielgud have all begun shooting films for Cannon.
Hard on their heels have been the major studios and other distributors, enticed by Cannon's financial success and hooked by the lure of big names. Last year, Columbia contracted Cannon to distribute a bundle of films in several key foreign markets. An even more important deal was struck this past April when MGM/UA became Cannon's U.S. distributor for three years. Among the earliest joint ventures will be Cannon's first big-budget film, a $12 million Brooke Shields vehicle titled Sahara. When Sahara and other Cannon fodder show up on the screen, each will be listed as a “MGM/UA and Cannon Group Release.”
This acceptance by the establishment says as much about Hollywood today as it does about Cannon. In a business with a high fatality rate, Cannon has won a nod of approval from the industry for carving out a niche for itself. The image of Cannon as a merchandiser of shoddy goods—as if Golan and Globus were peddling costume jewelry on a Fifth Avenue sidewalk in front of Tiffany's—is now overlooked by industry insiders. They take heart from Cannon's plans to follow in the footsteps of Joseph E. Levine and Dino De Laurentiis, established producers with B-movie roots, rather than to continue in the muddy path worn deep by Corman and Arkoff.
Studio bosses may also find it harder to look down their noses at Cannon when their own companies are rushing to find the lowest common box-office denominator. With corporate overlords running tighter studios and churning out bubblegum movies (Porky's, Flashdance, Risky Business) for new mass markets like cable and for younger audiences who don't read reviews, the majors are looking like Cannon dressed in an Armani suit.
“Sounds like all the other studios,” jokes MGM/UA vice chairman Frank Yablans, who adds seriously: “You have to start somewhere. Obviously we don't expect to get 22 films of the caliber of Treasure of the Four Crowns. But every studio has a mixture of exploitative and quality films, and I don't look for Cannon to be any different. “
Whatever Cannon's future, it represents a vast improvement over the recent past for the company and its two guiding lights. Until four years ago, Golan and his nephew Yoram Globus were best known as independent Israeli filmmakers with an eye toward acquiring a base of operations in America. Cannon meanwhile, was a financially troubled film company, based on Sunset Boulevard, with a legacy of such menial fare as The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington. The company was desperate for help.
The bearish Golan—who outfits himself in mogul mufti, with safari jackets and silk scarves—and the cherubic Globus did not lack credentials for the job. Golan is a gregarious, informal outside man with four Academy Award nominations for best foreign film (The House on Chelouche Street, Operation Thunderbolt, I Love You Rosa, and Sallah) under his substantial belt and a classic education in the American grind market. He cut his teeth in filmmaking as a lowly assistant to Roger Corman; his first film to play in this country, Trunk to Cairo, was distributed by Samuel Arkoff.
Away from the set, Globus is the complementary inside man, viewing film making with a coolly calculated vision born of a lifetime in the business. In the movie house owned by his father, Globus did everything from sell tickets to book films. Now he is the craftsman of international finance and marketing. But the partners did not win over Cannon's management until they sold armloads of the company's old films to their large stable of customers at the film distributors' annual rite of spring, the Cannes Film Festival.
“We sold hundreds of thousands of dollars worth,” Golan boasts in a thick Israeli accent. “More than Cannon sold in ten years. We were not surprised Cannes is our Christmas. It's where we meet distributors from all over the world who are our friends. And we know how to take care of them because we learned the hard way. What's the hard way? Selling a black-and-white Hebrew film to Japan. “
Soon the pair were in control as Cannon's majority stockholders with the posts of chairman and president, respectively. They churned out a pack of films, including a series of American Graffiti rip offs called Lemon Popsicle (five so far, all directed and/or written by fellow Israeli Boaz Davidson, who has helmed nine Golan-Globus quickies). Then, in 1982, came a slew of commercial hits like Ninja and Death Wish II. Ironically though, possibly the most important movie for Golan and Globus last year was one that was a disaster at the box office and two others that are still not ready for release in the United States.
“They weren't taken seriously,” says top agent Martin Baum, “until about a year and a half ago when they made That Championship Season and signed Faye Dunaway for The Wicked Lady and Duet for One.”
By filming Jason Miller's That Championship Season and by signing Dunaway, particularly for Duet, Cannon was attempting to escape the company's sole reliance on exploitation movies. British director Michael Winner got Cannon rolling when he brought Academy Award-winner Faye Dunaway to Golan's attention.
Golan wanted to do another picture with Winner, who had guided both Death Wish films to their box-office successes. Winner had in mind a bawdier version of a 1945 film about a 17th-century thief called The Wicked Lady, with Dunaway as its star. Golan liked the idea so much that when Dunaway, after she began shooting Lady, expressed an interest in turning the 1981 British play Duet for One into a movie he signed her a second time. (“I hate dealing with agents,” Golan says vehemently. “It's easier talking to the stars directly.”)
The Wicked Lady
Landing Dunaway led to Miller, who had the same lawyer. Miller's Pulitzer Prize-winning play had been kicking around the movie industry for a decade without anyone mounting the effort needed to transform the drama into a movie. The play took place in one room and had a cast of five unsympathetic middle-aged men-not the stuff Hollywood dreams are made of. But not only did Golan and Globus commit themselves to filming the production, they were able to attract five respected stars to the cast: Robert Mitchum, Stacy Keach, Bruce Dern, Martin Sheen, and Paul Sorvino.
The team was faithful to the play—too doggedly faithful, said the critics, for it to succeed as a movie. Audiences seemed to agree: Despite a heavy promotional campaign the $6 million film lost millions at the box office. Yet if the public was not impressed, the movie colony was. The presence of such a solid cast in an “honest” production reassured Hollywood; Cannon's timely financial success in its other productions took on a more acceptable mien. It was easier now to ignore the exploitative source of Cannon's riches—the Happy Hooker had finally gone legit. Thus, the result of Golan and Globus's efforts with Season and Dunaway was a domino effect among stars signing Cannon contracts.
The fact remains that Championship was not even a contender. Searching for reasons, Golan speaks softly, haltingly: “We believed in its commerciality when we decided to do it. We probably made mistakes. We should have opened it up more. I miscalculated that a middle-age story would attract the youth. They didn't come and that made the difference. It's a lesson. I'd be careful in picking up theatrical pieces in the future because critics make a very big difference to artistic movies. “
Oddly enough, he is plunging right back into the theater for source material with the play Duet for One. A London success (with actress Frances de la Tour) but a Broadway flop (with Anne Bancroft directed by William Friedkin), this story of a crippled, suicidal concert violinist presents an even greater commercial challenge than Season. It is not Cannon's only big risk next year. John Cassavetes, high priest of art-house angst, has directed, written, and starred in (with his wife Gena Rowlands) Love Streams. Neither Golan nor Globus exudes the usual buoyancy when talking about the films' financial prospects. “We like them,” says Globus, casually stroking his beard, looking and sounding more like the Viennese psychiatrist in Duet for One than a Hollywood mogul on the hot seat. “Otherwise we wouldn't do them.”
Another film with dubious commercial possibilities is a vehicle for Katharine Hepburn called The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley. Like Season, the script for this movie has languished around Hollywood for years; but this wait has proceeded unceremoniously, and perhaps for good reasons. In the movie Hepburn teams up with a mafia hit man (played by Nick Nolte) to murder all the “useless” senior citizens in New York City. This Gray Panther update of Jonathan Swift's Modest Proposal is a project Golan would likely have “passed on” were it not for Hepburn's enthusiastic support. While Golan may be straining foolishly to draw big names, for him it is an investment in the future.
“It is important for us to continue to work with major actors,” says Golan earnestly, as he waves his arms around. “By elevating our image we have a better chance of getting better writer better stars, and better directors to work with us, and so better films.”
Stars cost money. Robert Mitchum, for example, got $1 million for starring in The Winds of War. That sum would have knocked Season's budget out of kilter. So Mitchum and his co-stars were persuaded to sign for $250,000 each, because they were getting the kind of important roles that are rarely available in films today, a relatively easy two-month shooting schedule, and the promise of ten percent of the profits. The last was a consideration few thought likely to be fulfilled—and it was not—but one that Cannon regularly awards for risky projects in lieu of paying the stars their usual salaries.
There are other giveaways available in the Cannon store. Hepburn, Dunaway, Shields, and Roger Moore have all won a percentage of gross box office receipts. Bo Derek is not only the star but the producer of her “10“-echo Bolero (with John Derek directing). On Duet for One, Faye Dunaway got her husband, photographer Terry O'Neill, his first crack at directing. Brooke Shields' mother Teri is the executive producer of Sahara and has final approval over everything her daughter does for the movie.
Death Wish II
Globus sees nothing wrong in meeting all these demands, for Cannon or any of the major studios. “Why is Clint Eastwood directing most of his movies?” he asks rhetorically. “When they reach his level, stars have demands.” But sometimes the demands are more than Cannon bargained for; you win some, you lose more. In Hepbum's first visit to Cannon's New York office she told Golan she wanted her English hairdresser flown in from London. “What's the matter,” Golan countered, “there are no hairdressers in New York?” In the end she paid for her hairdresser's trip.
For all Cannon's well-intended concessions, there still remains the possibility that the only thing Cannon gets in return for signing a star is a brand name on the marquee. “You have to scratch to peep out,” says Golan, clawing the air. “Films are made over breakfast in Beverly Hills and it's very difficult to establish yourself in the community, especially if you are a blood foreigner. Along the way you have to make compromises. You have to eat a lot of Hollywood Crap. “
If Cannon has taken more risks with its films than it has before, neither Golan nor Globus has forgotten their comfortable and highly profitable roots. “We continue,” says Golan firmly, “to do bread-and-butter commercial pictures because we need the foundation they give us.”
The evidence is on the screen. For every Championship Season there is a Revenge of the Ninja martial arts picture or a House of the Long Shadows horror show. For each Duet or Quigley being filmed there is the soft-porn Mata Hari or a brainless The Adventures of Hercules ready to tap a decidedly different audience. With this scatter-shot approach, Cannon's eye for film may appear unfocused, but it also adds variety that will help Cannon make a broader impact in the industry.
The Adventures of Hercules
There is a trade-off for Cannon between high-risk, star-filled movies needed to improve the company's image and the feeble exploitation films that have been so profitable for it. Yet. Golan and Globus are not so foolish as to throw away money. Even its more un-commercial films are carefully protected from the capricious tastes of the movie public. Like all Cannon films they have a form of financial insurance: the pre-sale market, whose first commandment has been in toned by the prophet Corman: “If you can't pre-sell for enough money, you don't make the picture.”
That has never been a problem at Cannon. Before the company makes a film, some or all of the cost is absorbed by cable television, videocassette, videodisc, and film distributors. They buy for a fee—plus a certain percentage of their sales to theater and television—various rights to exhibit the movie once it is complete. “And Menahem,” say Roger Corman, “is a master of the pre-sell on the international market.”
There are several reason why Golan and Globus have been so successful pre-selling its films. For starters, they offer their customers what they want. Through experience Golan and Globus know which pictures will play in what markets. “As we want to go on a secure basis,” Golan explains, “it is difficult to pre-sell a movie if you don’t have all the elements.”
The elements in the pre-sell market are often sex, action, recognizable actors, and, not least, the price distributors have to pay for the film rights. The lower a film's budget, the smaller the cost to the distributors for those rights which in turn results in a smaller financial risk for them for having purchased a film blind. It’s a lot easier for Cannon to pre-sell its $5-million pictures than it would be if it regularly made pictures for more than twice as much, as do the major studios. By offering mostly low-budget movies, Cannon can occasionally slip in a picture like the $12-million Sahara.
Cannon could just drop Sahara into theaters and sell the rights later, but that would involve too much risk. If the movie does not do well at the box office, Cannon will have gotten a better price for having pre-sold the picture. (Conversely, Cannon will have made less than it could have, if the movie becomes a hit.) The strategy behind Cannon's conservative marketing philosophy is not to shoot craps with the major studios for the blockbuster bucks, but rather to keep a lid on its film budgets. Golan and Globus aren't interested in being high rollers; they just want to run a successful business.
''There is so much waste in films,” says Winner, who has thrived for almost two decades by slapping movies together quickly, “but Cannon runs a careful operation. They're not like David Lean, with individual costumes for everyone or waiting ten days for the sun to shine just right.” Chances are that a single day might be too long. Cannon is a lean organization, with none of the overhead of the major studios and little room for artistic flights of fancy. On location for Brooklyn Bridge, for example, Shelley Winters had a problem with her part. Golan plays the director as father figure: “She's a method actor. In order to say a simple line like, 'How do you do?' she has to tell you about her grandmother.”
Golan: “Say, 'How do you do?'”
Winters: “But, I don't feel it.”
Golan: “So say it without feeling.”
And the camera rolls on.
The making of that movie was a triumph with military precision. Shooting marched on twelve hours a day, six days a week. The schedule called for the film to be shot in six weeks for $4 million; it was completed a week early and $500,000 under budget. With the bargain basement precision of a Taiwan timepiece, Cannon keeps turning them out. And that's another plus for the B-movie boss. “Distributors are assured,” says Corman, “that Cannon can deliver. They feel they're dealing with a proven package rather than somebody out there with just a script or an idea.”
The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley
Thus, major distributors like Columbia and Viacom, which handle worldwide syndicated and network television rights, are ready pre-sale clients. But if the giants do not distribute a movie in every market Cannon wants to reach or do not pick up the movie at all, Golan and Globus jet after the business themselves. ''There is a great hunger,” says Golan, “for American motion pictures. And there are thousands of independent distributors who can't satisfy that need in their countries because they're cut off from the American product by the major studios who have their own worldwide networks. So we're here to make American movies to take care of those distributors.”
It is a largely convincing speech; Golan probably believes it himself. Others figure he is just helping himself to a plate of Hollywood hype. “You have to take them with a grain of salt,” says Fred Schneier, Viacom senior vice-president. “Two grains.”
A pillar of salt would be needed for all the exaggerations made routinely in the movie business. Golan and Globus don't care as long they can make money, especially in the tough American market. This year HBO bought pay-cable rights to Duet and Quigley, along with nine other films, before a single scene was shot. In all, of the $100 million Cannon has invested in the 18 films it is shooting this year, the company has rung up pre-sales of $90 million and expects to cover its entire investment before the films hit the theaters. Thus box office receipts will be one long gravy train.
For all its marketing prowess, dependability, attention to costs, and ambition, Cannon has yet to achieve the stability, the power, and (despite its pre-sale and box office success) the financial resources to make major motion pictures consistently. There are also many potential pitfalls facing Golan and Globus' climb upward: dissatisfied associates, ballooning budgets, riskier film projects.
Duet for One
“When they use big stars,” says Schneier, “they run the danger of having a head without a body. Big-budget films are more of a problem for them later. It's not their game now. They must maintain a balance in their films, and not forget the low-budget movies that pay the freight.”
But neither Schneier nor others in the industry doubt that Golan and Globus will be able to navigate their way into the Hollywood mainstream. ''They're very aggressive,” says David Matlon, executive vice-president of the new Columbia, CBS and HBO joint venture Tri-Star Pictures. “Cannon could be a major, major studio in a few years.”
There appears then to be only one hurdle: Golan and Globus have yet to demonstrate that, under their no-frills stewardship, Cannon can produce movies that are critical successes. In their upscale films and their exploitation quickies, the two G's have shown no talent for hiring the promising, eccentric writers and directors who do, after all, make movies. Even Roger Corman gave such future directorial stars as Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese a break. Michael Winner and Boaz Davidson are not the answer to Cannon's search for critical pedigree.
The Cannon fathers refuse to be moved by the argument that better films might mean even bigger profits. “For me,” says Globus succinctly, “an artistic movie is a movie audiences want to see.”