New documentary charts the rise and fall of Cannon Films

Film still from Electric Boogaloo
Film still from Electric Boogaloo
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Pop Quiz: what do Chuck Norris, breakdancing, Jean-Luc Godard and Superman have in common? Answer: they’re all indelibly associated with Cannon Films, the somewhat legendary production outfit that attempted to challenge the global dominance of Hollywood in the 1980s by churning out dozens of relatively low budget movies per year and haphazardly seeing what, if anything, would stick.

From sexploitation flicks, horror films and action b-movies like Norris’ Missing in Action series, to hip-hop dance movies such as Breakin’, shoddy blockbusters such as Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, and arthouse experiments like Godard’s Norman Mailer/Molly Ringwald-starring King Lear, owners Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus deemed no idea too weird, no trend too insignificant and no script too rubbish to warrant its existence as a movie.

Film still from Electric Boogaloo

Film still from Electric Boogaloo

Reaching a production peak of 43 movies in 1986 alone, then going bankrupt soon after, Cannon’s rapid rise and swift fall is chronicled in Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, an entertainingly frank documentary from Mark Hartley, director of Australian exploitation cinema doc Not Quite Hollywood, the title of which could be equally applicable here. The world of Cannon, after all, is like a distorted mirror image of Hollywood: its films feature recognisable names and genres, but everything’s a little off. The films are chintzier, less predictable and crazier in ways both good and bad – though mostly bad if we’re being completely honest.

That, it turns out, was one of the appeals for Hartley. “Behind every bad film is a great story,” he says. “And I also wanted to make a film about the 1980s – and for me, Cannon epitomises the 80s.”

You certainly don’t need to scrutinise the Cannon roster too hard to find a slew of terrible 1980s movies. There’s the appalling Death Wish 2, Bo Derek bonk-fest Bolero, bizarre musical The Apple (which was directed by Cannon chairman Menahem Golan himself), Indiana Jones knock-off King Solomon’s Mines, or Hartley’s film’s namesake, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. And that’s before we even get to later fare, such as Sylvester Stallone arm-wrestling flop Over the Top or failed He-Man franchise-starter Masters of the Universe.

“They had a strange European sensibility,” says Hartley of Golan and Globus, who started out making films in their native Israel before decamping to Hollywood in 1979 and buying Cannon. “These guys were financing their slate by selling American-style films to foreign territories. And while they knew how to make American-style films for foreign territories, they didn’t have a clue how to make American-style films for Americans.”

Mark Hartley, director of  Electric Boogaloo

Mark Hartley, director of Electric Boogaloo

Golan, who died last year at the age of 85, seems to have been particularly obsessed with Hollywood, running Cannon almost like an old-fashioned studio. He’d put “talent” like Chuck Norris under exclusive contract and have black-tie premieres for his movies. And he associated himself with stars of yesteryear like Charles Bronson, making multiple movies with him including several Death Wish sequels. “Cannon Films was a retirement home for Charles Bronson,” says Hartley. “In America no one was making films with people like that anymore.”

But the Cannon story is not just a catalogue of crap cinema. Golan and Globus sometimes made Oscar fare, like the Meryl Streep-starring A Cry in the Dark or the Jon Voight thriller Runaway Train. And they funded filmmakers like Godard, Franco Zeffirelli (Othello), John Cassavetes (Love Stream) and John Frankenheimer (52 Pick-Up) when no one else would. For these reasons, some of Hartley’s interviewees consider Golan and Globus the precursors of the Weinsteins. Others reckon the sheer volume of trash tarnished Cannon’s reputation irredeemably.

“No matter what people thought of the films, or working on the films, everyone agreed that Menahem loved movies,” says Hartley of Golan, who emerges as the most dominant personality. “He lived, breathed, ate, slept, dreamt cinema and there’s no way you could begrudge him his love of films. It was his lack of taste that was probably the largest problem.”

That lack of taste led to plenty of contretemps with actors, directors and crew members. The film is full of Cannon employees and stars reflecting in frequently bemused, sometimes irritated fashion about the shoddiness of the operation. B-movie actress Laurene Landon, for instance, sets alight her only copy of the film she made with Cannon (America 3000). Others regale Hartley with negative stories about working with Michael Winner, whose crude sensibilities were allowed to flourish on ever-more deranged Death Wish sequels.

“It was weird hearing these Winner stories because he was a particularly nasty piece of work on set,” says Hartley, an unabashed fan of Winner’s work, who admits to being a bit dispirited when his filmmaking hero died before he could get the chance to meet him. “But that’s a perfect example of how the documentary changed and was driven by the interview subjects. There were certain segments in the film that I wish were more celebratory because they’re talking about films I love. But I didn’t get that from the people I spoke to so I’m not going to gloss over that.”

When Hartley began researching the film – and he reckons he re-watched between 120 and 140 Cannon movies so we don’t have to (“That’s my public service”, he quips) – he thought the Cannon story would be “an inspirational story of these two knock-about outsiders who went to Hollywood and tried to take on the studio system. It was going to be a David versus Goliath story. And that totally went out the window when I started talking to people. It became far more of a cautionary tale.”

Cannon might still have been around today, reckons Hartley, had Golan and Globus not betrayed their initial business model of making low-budget films and pre-selling them into profit. “They wanted to compete with the majors, they wanted to get respect, and to do that they had to continue to grow and make bigger and bigger films. But even their bigger films, they were still short-changing you.”

Super-Man IV: The Quest for Peace was the beginning of the end, compounded as it was by the failures of Over the Top and Masters of the Universe, the latter coming out a year after the craze for the toys had diminished. “If that film had been released one year earlier, it would probably have made $100m,” says Hartley.

Timing, then, was another contributing factor of the Cannon demise. Much of Hollywood now operates using their model of pre-selling foreign rights and the current blockbuster landscape is also now dominated by franchises based on toy lines and superheroes. “They were ahead of the audience because they had Spider-Man, they had Captain America and they couldn’t get them made. These are films that are now gigantic blockbusters and Cannon couldn’t get arrested making the prototypes of these movies.”

But if the story has become a cautionary tale, Golan and Globus’s determination to take on the competition by producing movies as quickly as possible has an amusing punchline: shortly after Hartley contacted Menahem and Yoram about participating in Electric Boogaloo, he learned from some of his other interviewees that they’d started making their own documentary about Cannon. Entitled The Go-Go Boys, it beat Hartley’s film onto cinema screens by several months.

“It became a battle of the Cannon films,” chuckles Hartley.

Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films is in cinemas from Friday