I’ve used this line before, the last time a production company from my youth was revived, and it seems appropriate to do so again: As a young kid growing up in the late 80s into the ’90s, I didn’t have much of a concept of who was really making the movies I was seeing. Disney was probably the only real studio I was aware of for their movies, and I knew Warner Bros. was the place that made cartoons like Looney Tunes, Tiny Toon Adventures, and Animaniacs. I didn’t really know the difference between a production company and a studio; I just knew that most movies started off by showing us a bunch of logos for various companies involved in the making of the film. The logos that stuck out at me were either visually distinctive (that TriStar horse) or simply popped up in front of so many movies I loved that they became kind of like a stamp of approval. If I saw that logo I knew that I was about watch something pretty cool.
That’s what I had with Carolco Pictures, whose logo greeted me every time I watched Field of Dreams,Total Recall, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. So, it’s hard not to feel a little nostalgic every time I see this:
That same logo, or some earlier version of it, would have also greeted you at the start of the first three Rambo films, Red Heat, Iron Eagle 2, Mel Gibson’s Air America and Hamlet, Jacob’s Ladder, The Doors, Basic Instinct, Universal Soldier, Cliffhanger, and Stargate. So, it is in no way an exaggeration to say that Caroclo was one of the biggest independent production companies of the ’80s into the ’90s. Its founders, Mario Kassar (who bought his first films for distribution when he was 18) and Andrew Vajna (who came to the industry after running a successful wig-making factory in Hong Kong), became legends in the industry, and their success led to some of the most expensive and successful movies of the era. For example, Terminator 2, which Carolco produced and TriStar Pictures distributed, cost an unprecedented $94M to make, but made over $500M worldwide, easily the highest-grossing film of 1991. The next year Basic Instinct came along with a $49M budget and grossed over $350M worldwide, one of the top 10 films of the year. Just four years later Carolco was bankrupt.
Wait, what? How the heck did that happen?
You have to go to the very beginning to see where they started to go wrong. Kassar and Vajna founded the company in 1976, but they didn’t really make a big impression in Hollywood until they picked up the rights to David Morrell’s 1972 novel First Blood in 1980, which Warner Bros. had been trying to adapt for years before deciding to move on after failing to settle on a script and/or star they liked. Kassar and Vajna brought Sylvester Stallone to the project, and they had to overpay to get him. That ultimately worked out for them because First Blood became a major hit in 1982, making $125M worldwide against a $14M production budget. When the inevitable sequel, Rambo: First Blood Part 2, arrived, Stallone again earned an exorbitant salary, and it didn’t matter because the film grossed $150M worldwide.
This started a habit of Carolco getting its movies made by repeatedly offering the stars more money than the established studios would, and then the presence of that star in their film could help them secure financing. They started that with Stallone, and would quickly do the same repeatedly with Arnold Schwarzenegger. In a way, they were like the film production equivalent of that one Major League baseball owner who always comes in and pays marquee free agents way more than any other team would, like what the Washington Nationals just did with pitcher Max Scherzer. Oh, Carolco made other movies with less lucrative stars, like a 1987 horror flick starring Robert De Niro (Angel Heart) or a 1989 drama with Mickey Rourke as a disfigured criminal (Johnny Handsome), but their business model was contingent upon just one of their films hitting big each year thus wiping out the losses experiences anywhere else.
By the late ’80s, that was still working out for them, so much so that they lived lives of excess. As originally described by Entertainment Weekly, “There were parties, private jets, generous dividends, the names of new movies deals lit up in fireworks, and stretch limos prowling around Bel Air with the company’s name proudly emblazoned on the number plates. Back at Carolco HQ, big names including James Cameron, Paul Verhoeven and Oliver Stone were all working away on movie projects.” When Andrew Vajna expressed concern about the direction of the company in 1989, his share was bought out for around $100M. It turns out that he got out just in time. Even with how much Terminator 2 made just two years after his departure, Carolco still posted a loss of $91m in the first nine months of 1991, hit hard by the recession and a faltering home video and TV division.
From that point forward, the company was always on the brink of collapse, and even the insane success of Basic Instinct could only offer a brief reprieve. A year after Instinct they released Cliffhanger, which turned into a surprise hit, but Carolco saw very little of the $255M worldwide gross after they had to give up US theatrical and home video rights just to cover half of the film’s $60M budget. By the time their ill-fated Matthew Modine-Geena Davis pirate movie Cutthroat Island hit theaters in 1995 they had already filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and their only hope was for Island to become an improbable success. That obviously didn’t happen. It made little more than $10M worldwide against a $98M production budget, and Carolco’s assets were prompty sold off, Vajna and Kassar eventually re-emerging years down the road with C2 Pictures. Through that company, they managed to turn Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines into an apparent modest financial success success ($433M worldwide against a $200M production budget), but were again undone by an overly generous contract to a big star, in this case Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose Terminator 3 contract is semi-legendary in some circles. C2 was disbanded after Basic Instinct 2 bombed, and the first season of The Sarah Connor Chronicles failed to catch fire.
The problem Vajna and Kassar made the second time around was that they really just created C2 for the purpose of reviving the Terminator franchise. That’s someone else problem now. They’ve moved on, and Kassar has now been added to a group which has re-taken the name Carolco Pictures, according to the following press release which was emailed to me:
Brick Top Productions, Inc. (BTOP)(OTCQB:CRCO), announced that Carolco Pictures, the legendary name behind dozens of film blockbusters such as Rambo, Basic Instinct and Total Recall, is back and making its first appearance in 20 years. Brick Top Productions officially changed its corporate name to Carolco Pictures Inc. and its stock symbol to CRCO.
The Carolco corporate name and stock symbol changes follow the recent addition of Mario Kassar, Carolco Pictures’ former founder, who has been named Chief Development Executive pursuant to a multi-million dollar contractual condition precedent to fund his newest film project “Audition.” A psychological horror-drama based on Ryu Murakami’s bestselling novel to be directed by Richard Gray, “Audition” would be the second production to carry the new Carolco label following “Nick the Doorman”.
Mario Kassar, a major innovator in international motion picture productions, financing and distribution, has decades of experience as both producer and executive producer of worldwide blockbusters and can be characterized like his movies: action-packed. Kassar has released 36 motion pictures which have been nominated for 16 Academy Awards. Renowned for his talent for green-lighting projects that go on to become worldwide blockbusters, Kassar served as Executive Producer of such hits as the Rambo films, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Basic Instinct, Total Recall,Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Cliffhanger and Stargate, among others. In total, his films as producer and executive producer have grossed more than $3 billion (today’s value) in worldwide theatrical box office. For more information see www.mariokassar.com.
Alex Bafer, Carolco’s Chairman and CEO stated, “Obtaining the Carolco name and other intellectual property took some time, but there was nothing better than having Carolco’s former founder and one of the world’s greatest movie producers, Mario Kassar, join us by entering into an agreement whereby we are able to fund his next picture. Having Mario completes the Carolco circle in reviving the former studio name and adds to our recent Board additions and other projects.”
Recently the company expanded its operations with Board appointments including Robert “Rob” Ortiz and Jason Goodman, opened offices in Los Angeles and New York City and entered into an Executive Services Agreement with Producer/Director Harrison Smith and Actress/Producer Felissa Rose as co-Heads of Independent Genre Film Development, subject to the Company’s funding of their project, Love Bites, based on the best-selling book by actress Adrienne Barbeau.
The funny thing about this is that the name Carolco Pictures originally had no real meaning or value. They took the name from a moribund company in Panama, with Kassar later telling Entertainment Weekly, “We just bought the name. It means nothing.” Well, clearly the name means something now. It used to represent the height of Hollywood 90s excess, but now Kassar and corporate partners are trying to take that back. For example, Carolco is always known as that company which Cutthroat Island bankrupted. Now, we have to add, “Technically, that company came back…around 20 years later.” The fact that Kassar’s first project in the new Carolco will be an adaptation of Ryu Murakami’s Audition, which has already been turned into a brilliant Takashi Miike film, is a bit of a head-scratcher considering the film’s Carolco was once known for. However, I know one person who might be interested in any scares this new Audition might offer.