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Cannon Films was one of the most interesting studios of the 1980s. The company began life as a small film distributor in the late 1960s, but by the time it was purchased in 1979 by cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, Cannon was in dire straits. The two had a fascinating plan for their new venture: They would basically purchase tons of scripts for little money and make a lot of low-budget films under the theory that even if seven out of 10 project bombed, the three that succeeded would make enough money to pay for all of the others.
Their approach worked during the early 1980s, as a string of low-budget action films became major hits, most notably their series of Chuck Norris films (with Norris’ Rambo-esque Missing in Action likely being their biggest). However, by the end of the decade, the cousins began to experience what you’d likely call Icarus syndrome: They became so successful they tried to get closer and closer to the sun. They began spending more and more money on their films, financing them at least partially through the junk-bond market. With bigger budgets, films that failed suddenly had a more significant impact on their bottom line. They took over production on Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, and although they cut the budget dramatically from, it was still their biggest film to date — and it failed spectacularly.
By the end of the decade, with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission investigating the company’s finances and the junk-bond market collapsing, things were bleak. It was during this time they had begun making a sequel to their film Masters of the Universe, based on the toy line from Mattel. Similarly, they had the rights to produce a movie based on Spider-Man. They began an ambitious plan to do both a Masters of the Universe sequel and a Spider-Man film, directed simultaneously by Albert Pyun. Things fell apart, though, and through bizarre circumstances, those two films instead became 1989’s Cyborg, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, the last film produced by Golan and Globus under the Cannon Films label. Read on to see how it all happened!
The original Masters of the Universe starred Dolph Lundgren as He-Man, and it was typical of most Cannon Films productions in its low budget (it actually cost more than a typical Cannon film, it was just a lower budget than what most other companies would have spent on a similar project). It was still a pretty good film, and even though it appears to have actually slightly lost money for Cannon, they were confident a sequel would do even better at the box office. Lundgren, though, did not want to do the sequel, so surfer Laird Hamilton was cast as the new He-Man.
Meanwhile, though, Cannon’s rights agreement with Marvel required Cannon to release a Spider-Man film by 1990, so they came up with a clever approach. Writer/director Albert Pyun explained how it would work:
The concept was to shoot 2 weeks of “Spider-Man” first. The section of Peter Parker’s story before he was bitten. Then we would shoot 6 weeks of “Masters 2″. The actor cast to play Parker would undergo a streneuous 8 week workout regimen supervised by a fitness professor at UCLA, Dr. Eric Sternlicht to build size and muscle mass. After shooting “Masters 2″ we would resume shooting “Spider-Man”.
Pyun doesn’t recall who was cast as Peter Parker. The projects were to be filmed in Wilmington, North Carolina, where they created all of the sets and costumes for Masters of the Universe and the New York City sets for the early Spider-Man sequences. Pyun estimated the budget for Spider-Man was roughly $6 million (the largest he had ever worked with), while the one for Masters was about $4.5 million. Mattel had submitted all of their approvals, and production was ready to get under way.
Then, two weeks before filming began, the bottom fell out.
Cannon had bounced its licensing checks to Marvel and Mattel, and negotiations fell apart, as the studio had little money to spend. Suddenly, neither film was going to be made. Pyun was left sitting there with all of these sets and costumes but unable to start filming. However, he had an idea. Cannon was already in the hole about $2 million on the two projects, so why not just make a different film that would incorporate the sets and costumes but wouldn’t require licensing fees? Cannon agreed. and Pyun spent the weekend putting together a script for a new film called Cyborg.
I wrote a first draft of what became “Cyborg” over a weekend and brought in a young actor — who wanted to be a screenwriter — to do polishes. His name was Don Michael Paul and he has gone on to write and direct “Half Past Dead” and Harley Davidson and the “Marlboro Man”.
Pyun wrote the script with Cannon star Chuck Norris in mind for the lead role, but instead he was given Jean-Claude Van Damme, who starred in the Cannon-financed film Bloodsport the previous year. Naturally, Pyun had to re-write the lead character (originally an over-the-hill ex-Army Ranger), making him the mercenary character Van Damme eventually played. Pyun recalled that the budget, with Van Damme’s salary included, was roughly $500,000.
The film was a modest hit, taking in more than $10 million at the box office. It has become a cult classic in the years since. However, from an ingenuity standpoint, it was clearly a major success.
The legend is…
Thanks to Albert Pyun for the information, courtesy of a great interview with Nicanor Loreti in La Cosa Fantastico. Pyun, by the way, is selling a director’s cut of Cyborg. You can e-mail him at email@example.com if you’re interested in purchasing a copy.
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Be sure to check out my Entertainment Urban Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the worlds of TV, Movies and Music!