CANNES HAD NEVER seen anything quite like it.
It was 12 May 1990, early on in the town’s 43rd Film Festival, and on the famous pool terrace of the Hôtel du Cap, the swankiest, most eye-wateringly expensive of the area’s party venues, a movie bash of blockbuster proportions was in full flow. Earlier in the day a planeload of stars and industry bigwigs had flown in from Hollywood on a specially chartered 747. The passengers had been met on the airport Tarmac by a cavalcade of black Mercedes Benzes, equipped with mounted flashing lights, which negotiated tightly winding streets from the normally quiet Riviera town up to the Cap d’antibes. That evening, speedboats roared in and out of the bay, ferrying yet more guests to the astonishing blowout, at which the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Clint Eastwood, James Cameron and Oliver Stone schmoozed, the Gipsy Kings sang, and the titles of forthcoming movies were spelled out in the sky by fireworks. It was enough to raise the eyebrows of even the most jaded Cannes party-watchers.
The shindig, rumoured to have cost as much as $1 million, was ostensibly to announce such Carolco projects as Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Jacob’s Ladder. But in reality it was designed as a way for the company to bask in its own considerable success. In a few short years, Carolco had transformed itself from a shoestring operation, repackaging the international rights to low-grade Hollywood dreck, into a major production company, one which operated from a swanky seven-storey office off Sunset Boulevard and whose executives jetted around the world on the company BAC 1-11 jet.
Among the dancing crowds, Carolco’s cofounder Mario Kassar surveyed the scene with satisfaction. Appropriately enough, it had been at Cannes that he and his former partner, Andrew Vajna, had established Carolco 15 years earlier. Their success — First Blood (1982), Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), Total Recall (1990), and now even bigger and buzzier projects — was evident in the hordes of revellers, glugging champagne amid the famous cabanas. Out on the water among the lights of the bay was a 203-foot yacht, the Maria Alexander, which, it was whispered, was the biggest of any of the moguls’ boats in attendance.
It was pretty good going for a kid who once slept on the town’s beach, and his partner, a former Hungarian wigmaker. “In the books, it’s the best party ever done,” Kassar says now. “Everybody was picking on us and trying to destroy Carolco. So we threw a party with all of our directors and actors and lit up the sky. And then Sly and Arnold came in at the end. There was a big discussion about who would come in first and who second, so I said, ‘Okay, let’s go in now!’ and came in with both of them. That resolved that problem.”
Over the preceding decade and with those twin lodestars — Stallone and Schwarzenegger — Carolco had become one of the most exciting film companies of the age. Its output, loved by pop-cinema fans across the globe, boasted many of the era’s defining movies — glorious excess exploded off the screens. It was the scrappy outsider that had taken on the major studios at their own game and won.
Within three years, Carolco would face its own judgement day, and the glitziest, craziest, richest of the independent film companies would go down in flames as billowy and spectacular as anything their star property, John Rambo, had ever conjured. But along the way, it was one hell of a ride.
For a generation of filmgoers, the Carolco logo — its darting laser beam etching the gleaming titanium curves of a convoluted
letter ‘C’ — promised the most lavish, thrilling, over-the-top blockbusters cinema could provide. “If you go on Youtube and search for the logo, it will remind you of a feeling,” says an ebullient Kassar, speaking to Empire from his Californian home. “When the audience saw it, they expected a good movie. They were never disappointed.” Carolco’s films were certainly bigger (Terminator 2), sexier (Basic Instinct) and explodier (Rambo III) than any of the major studio pictures of the age.
But the company was defined as much by its flamboyant, money-burning business style as its box-office braggadocio. It was emblematic of the go-go ’80s, when chequebooks were prised open as wide as the nostrils in the bathrooms at Spago. Joe Eszterhas would become the highest-paid ‘spec’ screenwriter in history when he secured a $3 million deal for his screenplay, ‘Basic Instinct’, from Carolco. Michael Douglas would pocket $15 million for the same film. Arnold Schwarzenegger would snaffle himself a $13 million Gulfstream jet on top of his $14 million salary for Terminator 2. Sylvester Stallone would sign a ten-picture deal, unprecedented since the days of the old studios, and demand not only a paycheque of $16 million for Rambo III but a percentage of the back end. To Hollywood’s celebrity community, Carolco was a magical ATM from which no withdrawal seemed ever to be refused. “We knew their value,” argues Kassar. “We created this friendship and loyalty, but we had to break the first wall. Otherwise do you think I would have got access to any of those actors? Are you kidding?”
Kassar and Vajna had originally met at Cannes in 1974, and had formed Carolco — the name, of a defunct Panama company, was bought off the shelf — the year after. Kassar, himself the son of a Lebanese film distributor, was gregarious and flamboyant, with a liking for ostentatious gold jewellery and a unique understanding of the fiendishly complex deals that could be struck in international distribution. (One of his first acquisitions: a film about a talking vagina titled Chatterbox.) His partner, a Hungarian émigré, had a quieter, more analytical approach. Easily as ambitious as Kassar, Vajna was more focused on the bottom line, known during the company’s heyday for wandering the offices asking loudly, “Who
are all these people?” as the workforce, and wages bill, swelled.
“They were very different characters,” says Peter Macdonald, who would work with the pair as second-unit director on Rambo: First Blood Part II and then, after the departure of original director Russell Mulcahy, find himself directing Rambo III. “Andy was this dour Hungarian and Mario was kind of like a Lebanese playboy. You wondered how on earth they got on. But, in an odd way, they complemented one another. It was like one of those strange marriages that just works.”
The pair soon tired of playing on the fringes of the industry and saw their chance to break into the big league with David Morrell’s novel
First Blood. The story, a downbeat thriller about a Vietnam vet returning to America only to find himself hunted by a bigoted cop, had languished at Warner Bros. for years, the studio unable to find a way to transfer the depressing, politically charged tale to the big screen. Vajna and Kassar paid Warners $380,000 for the rights and offered Sylvester Stallone, still riding the wave of Rocky and its sequels, $3.5 million to star, almost double his usual price. “We had to overpay; what you call the membership dues,” Kassar recalls. “He changed his mind at one stage, he didn’t want to do it. So we thought a little, then went to see his business manager, Herb Nanas, and said, ‘Herb, we don’t want him to act, but because he knows the character so well, can he at least polish the script for us?’ He said, ‘Well, for 50k he can.’ And obviously when [Stallone] starts writing the character, he falls back in love with the character.”
Despite a virtually non-existent marketing campaign, and the doubts of its star, the film was a surprise hit. Stallone’s charisma and the patriotic tone of the film — Rambo’s death in the novel was replaced with a more uplifting conclusion and, even more importantly, cleared the way for sequels — hit a nerve with moviegoers, and it grossed $125 million.
With First Blood, Carolco had developed its secret sauce: mega-profile projects starring
the biggest names, with foreign distributors actually putting up the money, and thus the budget, before the film was actually shot. Deploying this formula, Carolco could compete in terms of scale, spectacle and star power with the biggest of the studios.
And boy, did they.
As the 1980s turned into the 1990s, the company was on what seemed like an unstoppable roll. Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) had made $300 million worldwide; Total Recall, Paul Verhoeven’s ultra-violent sci-fi extravaganza, made over $250 million in 1990. Terminator 2: Judgment Day would justify its ballooning budget with a $520 million payday. Between 1986 and the start of the 1990s, the company’s revenue swelled to a reported $296 million.
For Peter Macdonald, the Carolco experience was eye-opening. “I didn't realise at the time, until I worked with other companies later," he remembers of the Rambo III shoot, “but working with Carolco you didn’t have to worry too much about money. If you needed the budget for a sequence, you got it. They absolutely wanted that money up on the screen. Actually, I never really experienced that again.”
What, it turned out, Kassar and Vajna also wanted up on screen was insane levels of violence. “I was a bit disconcerted when Mario turned to me and said, ‘This is the best carnage I’ve ever seen!’” remembers Macdonald. “I wasn’t sure that was what I wanted. I’d always wanted to make musicals.” In typical Carolco style, Rambo III would end up entering the Guinness Book of World Records as the most violent film ever made, with 221 individual acts of mayhem, 70 major explosions and at least 108 characters killed on screen. “They’re counting the bullets? Good for them,” shrugs Kassar.
But it was Stallone’s unprecedented deal to star in Rambo III that finally led to Carolco’s split. Vajna became irritated with the increasingly spiralling budget, and reportedly attempted to fire the studio’s star money-maker. “If either of them was going to do that it would be Andy,” says Macdonald. “That would be very much like him.” The move finally drove an unbridgeable wedge between the two founders and Kassar bought out Vajna’s shares at a cost of $100 million.
Freed of his former partner’s more cautious presence, Kassar began splashing the cash even more wildly. He bought a pricey property in Beverly Hills and parked his Rolls-royce, complete with RAMBO licence plates, in its driveway.
“Guarantees!” yelled Paul Verhoeven. “There’s no such thing as guarantees! Guarantees don’t happen and if anyone promises you guarantees, they’re lying! We don’t even know that if you walk out of the building here you won’t get hit by a truck! I cannot have control over God! I don’t even believe in God! Why am I talking about God?
This is ludicrous!”
It was 1994, and the scene was a production meeting for Verhoeven’s violent medieval epic Crusade, set to star Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the reason for the director’s not untypical hysteria was Carolco’s insistence that he give them assurances that the already eyewatering budget, nearing $100 million, wouldn’t be exceeded.
“I just kept kicking him under the table and trying to tell him to shut up while we’re ahead,” Schwarzenegger told Empire later. “But he just wouldn’t. That was the end of that movie. It was a shame.”
By the mid-1990s, Carolco was on the ropes. Due to the company’s original business model, raising budgets for their blockbusters via presales, even massively profitable films like Terminator 2 turned out to be less financially rewarding than they looked on paper. Its only possible lifelines were the two potential blockbusters it had in development: Verhoeven’s Crusade and Renny Harlin’s Cutthroat Island, a pirate picture starring Michael Douglas — whom they had paid $13 million — and Geena Davis.
The former was now dead. “It’s a sore point
for me, because I really believed in Crusade,” says Kassar. “I wanted to do it very badly. Arnold was ready to do it. Paul was ready to do it. But Paul is convinced that I stopped Crusade to do Cutthroat Island, which in reality — and he’s not gonna believe me — is not true. I was a big fan of his and always gave him carte blanche to do his movies. But I needed to have a completion model for that movie, and he wouldn’t pin the number down. He thought I was tricking him and I wasn’t tricking him, actually. I really wasn’t.”
And so there remained only the pirate movie. But Cutthroat Island seemed doomed from the start. “They had to make this movie,” Geena Davis told the New York Times shortly after the film released. “The company was dead. Everyone knew that, one way or another, this was their last film.” Michael Douglas was unhappy with the screenplay, a problem that only got worse when Renny Harlin repeatedly boosted Davis’ onscreen role at the expense of Douglas’, a situation uncomfortably complicated by the fact that Harlin was romantically involved with Davis at the time. Shortly before principal photography was due to commence in Malta, where over 1,000 feet of buildings had already had fake facades built and gargantuan sets were under construction, Douglas quit the film. None of the A-listers approached — Keanu Reeves, Liam Neeson, Michael Keaton, Ralph Fiennes — would take the role. Eventually, Matthew Modine stepped in, but a key plank of Carolco’s winning formula, a major international star, was already missing before the film even began production.
“I assumed the whole project would be cancelled,” said Davis in 1996. “To my horror, I learned not only would they not cancel, but I had a legal obligation to go ahead. I tried desperately to get out of that movie.”
Kassar chuckles when that quote is put to him. “You know, it’s very funny how they all want to get out of it, but they end up doing it,” he says. “Matthew Modine is a good actor and I did exactly the same numbers of sales, even without Michael Douglas. But [MGM] released it at Christmas, they spent $2, put it into two theatres. You will always read it every time you read a Carolco article: at the end, a boilerplate ‘… and Cutthroat Island, and then, and then, and then…’ It follows me everywhere. But I laugh when I read it, because it doesn’t matter to me.”
Finally costing the beleaguered company $98 million, Cutthroat Island limped out of cinemas in early 1995, having made just $10 million. Swinging cuts at the once-lavish offices had already been enacted, staff let go. An infamous memo announced that free milk would henceforth no longer be provided at the firm’s drinks stations. The company that had once bought Arnold Schwarzenegger a jet was now asking its remaining employees to take their coffee black.
It was to no avail. The company was forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the rights to its library of films sold to Canal+. Though Kassar and Vajna would team up again to produce the likes of Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines and Basic Instinct 2, Carolco was no more.
But the company had changed the industry, proving that an independent could take on the studios at their own game, and leaving behind some of the era’s defining, best-remembered movies. Without them, we wouldn’t have the T-1000. There’d be no Rambo. Arnie would never have gone to Mars.
“It was a different time,” Kassar reflects of his golden age. “I did some different things than the out-of-the-box things people did in those days. Everything was very specially done, from the way we did screenings to the way our office was set up. But you’re in showbusiness. You have to be a showman. You’ve got to create an aura around everything.”
Whatever it costs.
Above: Arnold Schwarzenegger hangs around for a few million dollars in Terminator 2. Left: Sylvester Stallone cuts up rough as Rambo in 1982’s First Blood.
Above: Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone smoulder in
Basic Instinct. Right: Arnie with producers Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna at the T3 premiere in 2003.
Left: Geena Davis and Matthew Modine in Carolco’s illfated Cutthroat Island.
Above: Sly brings out his big guns (times two) in Rambo III.
Right: Mr Schwarzenegger gets Total Recall.