It would be tempting to say that documentarian Mark Hartley’s in trouble once he runs out of schlocky movie subcultures to turn into films, but who am I kidding? Hollywood will never stop turning out schlocky movies. He broke out with the 2008 film Not Quite Hollywood, a raucous celebration of “Ozploitation,” the exploitation pictures of his native Australia; he followed it up with 2010’s Machete Maidens Unleashed!, which looked at the (frequently foreign) exploitation filmmaking of the Philippines in the 1970s and 1980s. His latest, Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (which opened the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Film Comment Selects” series last weekend), dives into the rich story of the notorious mini-studio run by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. It is, as per usual for Hartley, a giddy, lightning-paced celebration of cheerfully terrible movies. But in a post-movie discussion with Hartley and some of his participants, it became clear that it’s also not some piece of moldy, irrelevant movie history.
Golan and Globus were cousins from Israel, and they got their start making movies there — low-budget productions with commercial potential, culminating in Lemon Popsicle, a monster hit of a sex comedy that made them rich. The took over The Cannon Group in 1979, with a simple recipe for ‘80s success: sex, violence, and slashers. Hartley entertainingly breaks down their methodology: breathlessly high production rates (they were cranking out 30 or more movies a year to the majors’ dozen or so), sequels and ripoffs (Death Wish parts two through five; the Rambo-inspired Missing in Action movies; the Indiana Jones-lite King Solomon’s Mines), brand-name faces (every script went into one of two piles for “the two Chucks,” Norris and Bronson), all financed by a combination of robbing Peter to pay Paul (this season’s grosses financed next season’s budgets) and shady junk bond money.
The studio sustained itself — though sometimes just barely — throughout the 1980s, but its reputation was, to put it mildly, problematic. No one harbored any illusions that Cannon was turning out great cinema; MGM chief Frank Yablans entered his struggling studio into a distribution deal with Cannon, and turns up in the documentary, clearly still bitter, to talk shit about the product they provided. But Golan and Globus had big dreams. They hungered for respectability, and (to some degree) got it by using their Charles Bronson money to finance films by the likes of Cassavetes, Godard, and Zeffirelli (who calls Golan “the best producer I ever worked with”). And they attempted to crash — and cash — in to the big time by making big bets, eschewing their low-budget-low-risk-high-return model by getting into the business of star vehicles (Stallone’s pricey flop Over the Top), tentpoles (the failed Masters of the Universe), and marquee sequels (taking over the Superman franchise from Warner Brothers for its ill-fated fourth installment). That would be the company’s ultimate undoing.
Not that anyone learned from it. “Hollywood now, right now, thinks China is Golan-Globus,” explained Superman IV screenwriter Mark Rosenthal, following the Electric Boogaloo screening. “All the studios, and some of the filmmakers, think, ‘Oh, China’s got money, and they want to raise the quality of their films.’ And I met with all these Chinese companies that are used to making really cheap movies, and everyone sounds like Chinese version of Golan-Globus: ‘We wanna get into the American market now, and we wanna make bigger budget movies, and we wanna get real stars in ours.’ It’s just this perpetual cycle: this idea that you need money to make better movies.”
Of course, Cannon isn’t lionized today — at least, by a certain breed of ironic cinephile — because they were making good movies; we’ve developed a fondness for their schlock, an affection for the cut corners and transparent theft and narrative incoherence. Those fans (and your film editor is one of them) will find much to love in Electric Boogaloo, which is lousy with great clips and hilarious trailers, as well as countless legendary stories about their productions: their race to beat Orion’s Beat Street to the market with their own break-dancing quickie, Breakin; how the Norris vehicle Missing in Action’s sequel was released first (because it was the better movie) and the original first film was then released as a prequel; Golan himself pitching a vehicle to Clint Eastwood’s orangutan co-star Clyde; how the drying up of their funds led to the laughable effects of Superman IV.
It’s not all fun — there are sad stories of incomplete movies abandoned and Scotch-taped after the bottom fell out, and tales of tyrannical directors taking their productions and films in ugly directions — but you have to give them at least this: Golan and Globus loved movies, and they made movies. As Hartley notes, “The great thing about Cannon is that there were no executives past those two guys. If Menahem said we’re making this film, the film got made. You literally could get into an elevator with Menahem on the first floor, and by the fourth floor you’d have a three-picture deal.” You don’t have to squint hard to see the huckster spirit and respectability aspirations of Golan-Globus in the Weinstein brothers; all that separated them was that, at the end of the day, the Weinsteins had taste.
But make no mistake, the influence of the Cannon boys is still keenly felt in Hollywood. In footage of the studio heads at Cannes, in their element, we see them making pitches for pictures that never got made yet were unquestionably sellable; they’d put together a poster with an identifiable star and a recognizable brand, and they’d sell the poster to foreign markets to finance it. Only then would they go hire someone to write a script and make the movie. And there you have it: if anything, instead of Golan-Globus becoming more like traditional Hollywood, Hollywood became more like Golan-Globus.
“When people talk about (Roger) Corman,” Hartley says, “they all talk about the auteurs and protégés of Corman, who were all filmmakers. With Cannon, none of the directors working there went on to have any kind of fame. But the producers did… it’s actually the producers who learned their craft there, and have had major successes in Hollywood.” No kidding.
Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films is slated for release later this year. Pictured: screenwriter Mark Rosenthal, actresses Catherine Mary Stewart and Robin Sherwood, and director Mark Hartley. Photo credit: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire