Interview with The Cannon Film Guide author Austin Trunick part 2

In the first part of this conversation with The Cannon Film Guide Volume I and The Cannon Film Guide Volume II author Austin Trunick, we discussed how he first found Cannon and why he decided to write his books. Read on to get deep into Cannon love in this free-ranging discussion.

B&S About Movies: I vividly remember being in elementary school and people actively losing their minds over Sho Kosugi. They’d seen Pray for Death and it became so hyperbolic, them getting excited about a movie that was better than the actual movie the way they were telling it.

Then again, you can’t really exaggerate Ninja 3: The Domination.

Austin Trunick: Oh, not at all. I mean, that’s impossible. No description can live up to just the beginning, those first ten minutes of the movie.

B&S: Cannon was ahead of the ninja trend, right?

Austin: Absolutely. I mean, you had some ninjas showing up here and there, usually as bad guys. The biggest appearance, at least in the West, before Cannon’s movies, was The Octagon, which had Chuck Norris fighting ninjas in there. 

But Cannon were the first ones to really put ninjas front and center. In The Cannon Film GuideVolume I I talked about how Sho Kosugi created so many of the things that we associate with ninjas in pop culture. Most of it came from a big bag of weapons that he brought with him to the set of Enter the Ninja

There are many times when Cannon followed a trend, but this is one time when you can argue that they were ahead of it, as they really kicked off the ninja craze that was everywhere in the 1980s.

B&S: G.I. Joe is my other passion in life next to movies. The entire Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow relationship — foreigner learns ninjutsu and the native son hates that an outsider has moved above him — that’s Enter the Ninja.

Austin: What year is that?

B&S: 1984.

Austin: So definitely after Enter the Ninja.

B&S: It’s not far from Franco Nero to Snakes Eyes.

The most important moment of Sam’s childhood.

Austin: Have you ever been to Keith Raineville’s Vintage Ninja site?

He has a section for you called Kosugi Kicks, which finds all these different examples of comic book artwork, toy artwork and video game artwork where it’s just basically artists copying the same four or five famous Sho Kosugi poses.

Suddenly, Sho Kosugi was everywhere. He was the most prominent ninja in those early years.

B&S: I love how in Grady Hendrix and Chris Poggiali’s These Fists Break Bricks, the book begins with how Hollywood used Asian actors and ends with Sho Kosugi as the biggest action star of the time and him eventually walking away from Hollywood.

Austin: Sho Kosugi was definitely one of my favorites, especially as a very young person. One of the first video stores I remember was Brookfield Video and I can still remember the layout of that store. I can’t remember details of my daily life but I remember everything about that store when I was five years old. In the Action section, Stallone and Chuck were up high on the shelves but at eye level for a very short kid was martial arts movies. Not just Sho Kosugi but lots of Godfrey Ho. Those movies need a big book written about them.

B&S: They’re less movies as they are hallucinogenics. Stephen Thrower said in Nightmare U.S.A. that he originally watched so many of those movies under the influence and can get the same high watching them. For me, it’s true. That’s why I call them movie drugs. You can get the same zoned-out high and bliss from murderdrone movies or Godfrey Ho’s re-edited ninjas.

My hometown video store was Prime Time Video and there was a definite hierarchy to the Action section. I can see the hand-drawn sign for that section and there was Arnold, Stallone and Chuck at the top, followed by probably Bronson but in the middle, it’s all Cannon.

Austin: Action — Bronson and Norris making action — was their bread and butter. They had appeal abroad, so Cannon had the formula: pre-sell a movie for $10 million, then make it for $5 million. They would come out ahead and if they had just stuck with that, they would have been in business for a long time.

B&S: I’m obsessed by that. They could have just kept on doing that. In that mindset, couldn’t they have lasted longer?

Austin: Oh, absolutely. The big movies were a problem.

The most frustrating part thing for me, when I think of where Cannon went wrong, was at the beginning of 1986. You have all these articles about how these two Israelis came in and took Hollywood by storm. People laughed them off at first but now, you have legitimate actors signing deals with them. You have the Stallone deal. They had Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino and John Travolta, all these big names. I mean, theoretically, they had them (laughs).

You have directors who are starting to line up for work with them. And they have box office success. Coming off of Runaway Train they’re even getting Oscar nominations.

Early 1986 is the peak period. They had $300 million in a line of credit, which is impossible to think of, and investors had confidence in them. They could have spent some of that $300 million to make Superman IV for the full $24 million. They could have put more into their big movies like Masters of the Universe and Over the Top

How many $5 million dollar movies could Cannon have made with that money?

Instead, they went and bought Thorn EMI, which was an English company with a huge catalog of films but they also had a theater chain and Elstree Studios over in London. That cost $270 million of the $300 million that they had.

So the money they were supposed to put into movies, they spent on real estate and facilities that they didn’t need. It’s unfortunate because they make that deal and suddenly everything suddenly starts to fall apart. That’s the moment where everything begins to unravel. It’s sad because at that point, they also start getting investigated by the SEC. All of their productions that they were supposed to make that summer, they had to move or they were yanking budgets. They just didn’t have the money anymore.

They went from being $300 million in the green to $100 million dollars in the red over the course of three or four months.

B&S: When they got to the second act of the Hero’s Journey, they didn’t come back. They took the fall and couldn’t get it back. Did they start believing their own press?

Austin: Probably. I mean their motto became that they were the seventh major studio. Suddenly, they have stars and directors working for them. Famous names like Norman Mailer, writing scripts with a lot of prestige.

I think it’s probably easy to believe that suddenly you’re there, that you had made that step up even though there’s probably half the stairway in front of you at that point to climb.

B&S: It reminds me of how exploitation films suffered for a bit when blockbusters like Jaws took their formula but did it on a bigger budget. Did Hollywood catch on to the Cannon formula?

Austin: I think it’s more that Cannon got away from what was successful for them.

If you’re spending $20 million or more on a movie, you needed to make more than $500,000 at the box office. That’s the model they had for years. It didn’t matter how a Cannon movie did in the theaters. It didn’t matter if it was a flop or it wasn’t a critical success because they already made a profit on cable, foreign sales and video.

But when you’re spending a lot more on the movie, they couldn’t do that anymore. Some of these films needed to be hits and none of their big movies were.

B&S: Pirates was already a flop by those standards even before it was made.

Austin: Pirates is a very Cannon pickup because that’s a movie that several studios had already sunk money into. And then they abandoned it because they saw it was a sinking ship. They washed their hands and took the loss then instead of a bigger loss later. It looked like the movie wasn’t going to get released or even finished.

Cannon swoops into the rescue. I think they thought they could do it. Did they think that Walter Matthau or Roman Polanski’s names could make it a big hit?

I think they had other things they wanted out of the deal. They wanted to shoot a swashbuckling TV series called Sea Hawk and their thought was, “We’ll get a pirate ship out of this deal.”

That made the budget of the TV show lower. Part of the budget they were sinking into Pirates was also going to get them that ship. They made sure that the ship was included in the deal.

And it ends up parked near Cannes for years.

There’s a picture of Placido Domingo posing in front of it with Golan and Globus.

But that wasn’t their whole plan.

They thought that they could get their money back and Polanski promised them more films. They were really hoping to get to make The Two Jakes, the sequel to Chinatown, but there was no way that Jack Nicholson was going to make a movie at Cannon.

There’s a great reel on YouTube that has a bunch of unmade Cannon stuff. Their campaign books do that too. There’s an ad for a movie listed as “A Roman Polanski film.” No plot, no synopsis or anything. Just a picture of Roman Polanski and the Cannon logo! (laughs)

B&S: They did that all the time. There were ads for Spider-Man forever. Captain America too.

Austin: That’s probably the most famous unmade Cannon movie. Everyone that worked at Cannon or directed one of their movies was attached at one time or another. Tobe Hooper, Joe Zito…

Captain America had David Engelbach attached. Michael Winner too! I can only imagine what Michael Winner’s Captain America would look like. John Stockwell who did Dangerously Close at Cannon and some surf movies later on, his name was on it. Alberty Pyun finally got to do it (at 21st Century). And he was supposed to make Spider-Man too.

B&S: Cannon nearly made a DC and Marvel move in the same year.

Austin: Cannon paid $250,000 for those Marvel rights. That’s unbelievable.

In our next part, Austin discusses Tobe Hooper’s movies for Cannon.

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