10 Lessons from the Kings of Lowbrow Cinema, A Writer’s Confession
“If you make an American film with a beginning, a middle and an end, with a budget of less than five million dollars, you must be an idiot to lose money.” —Menahem Golan
If you think you don’t know the Cannon Group, let me tell you, you do. The Cannon is the reason we have Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson, and gave us indelible film gems such as Masters of the Universe, American Ninja, Life Force, and Cobra.
Cannon Films was an american film production company most famously known thanks to Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, two Israeli film producers who bought the company in 1979 with the dream of making Hollywood movies. They succeeded at making movies, alright. In its 27 years of existence, Cannon produced over two hundred films.
It’s too bad neither of these two guys knew that much about managing money (or about making quality movies for that matter) and have become a text-book example of how to run a company down. Cannon closed down on 1994, but before they closed down, Menahem and Yoram were extremely successful at producing and selling their movies (and not always in that order).
At the very core of it, one can say that the Cannon group sold their ideas and did it extremely well. Here it is what any professional in the creative arts looking to reach their audience can learn from these geniuses of popular trash.
Lesson #1 - Choose a genre
Menahem and Yoram choose action and all it’s variants. They tried other genres (dancing, historical fiction, teen comedy), but their true love and success came from exploitation movies with lots of sexual scenes and even more violence.
Lesson #2 - Be relevant to your time
Writing is a reflection of the context of its author, and so is movie making. Menahem and Yoram (I’ll call them “the Cannon guys” from here on) were inspired by popular culture and current events. In many occasions they tried to be first to market with their chosen topics, be it break dancing, lambada (yeah, remember that?), martial arts, ninjas, the hippie movement, etc.
Lesson #3 - Mix and mash of popular topics and proven tropes
Something Cannon guys succeed most at was taking and mixing (ie. appropriating) other people’s ideas. If good artists steal, these guys should be crowned kings of artistdom (yeah, I made that term up and I’m sticking to it).
The Cannon guys used and abused every film trope and idea they could lay their hands on: Flashdance, The Exorcist, Laurence of Arabia, Blue Lagoon and Tommy, are all movies that can be found copied (“homage” is too euphemistic here) all over the Cannon catalog.
Cannon assembled parts of other movies and formed a disaster. They were the ultimate movie remixers.
Lesson #4 - Start with low budged
You don’t need a $100 million to make a movie. These guys didn’t even need $1 million. Many of their earlier movies were produced on a budget. I am a firm believer that constrains (economical or otherwise, are the best fuel for creativity).
Lesson #5 - Have impactful cover art
Ah, here. Cannon would like you to judge a book by its cover. They sold movies by the pound. Movies that hadn’t been produced, casted or even written for that mater. And they sold them based only… on a movie poster. It kinda drives home the power of a good cover, doesn’t it?
Lesson #6 - Produce as quickly as possible
If there is something Cannon excelled at was producing movies at lighting speed. Some years they got to produce over 30 films, getting close to a movie a week. If you think that producing a book is hard work, imagine a movie! Ok, they had a crew to produce all that work, but they did manage to create movies like there was no tomorrow, and that takes us to the next point.
Lesson #7 - Build a catalog of work
Menahem was obsessed with building an extensive catalog. Their goal was to produce cheap movies as fast as possible, to build a body of work in as short amount of time as possible. Some of the movies of such large catalog would become successful and their profits offset the costs of the rest of the movies. This was easy since the production costs were so low. By having a large catalog they could “package up” their flops with their successes and make money even with the movies that were complete failures.
Lesson #8 - Distribute at large
This might seem obvious but once you have a hit, run with it. Take it to every market you can sell it to and keep the dollars rolling.
Lesson #9 - Make sequels to bank on previous success
Same as above. You know you have a hit, cash on it by leveraging its name and releasing a sequel (or two or three like they did). Almost every hit Cannon released was followed by a sequel and, as we saw in lesson #5, the production was done as quick as possible to bank on the relevancy of the previous hit.
Lesson #10 - Be bold, be relentless and, over all, be a dreamer
Lastly, it should come without saying, but one can’t drive a business like Cannon did without being a bit deranged. Crazy is good (you know it is), but more than crazy, one can’t produce over 30 movies a year without being somewhat delusional and having a crazy amount of confidence.
Menahem and Yoram weren’t great at movie making, but their confidence pushed them to produce true icons of cinema1.
Always remember that hard work beats talent every time.
“We are motion picture makers, and the world knows about it, sometimes we make better films, sometimes we don’t make such good films, but we do make film.” —Menahem Golan
Reflect on the successes and failures of those that came before you. Take all that hard work, and go out there and hustle your ass.
“Ok, we fucked up, what’s next?” —Menahem Golan
Their confidence also drove them to bankruptcy, but that was mostly due to the fact that they weren’t good at accounting either.↩