When Austin Trunick released The Cannon Film Guide Volume I in 2020, he hoped it would find a small audience of people who remembered the films of his video store browsing youth. Much to Trunick’s happy surprise, there were many more people who shared the same love of the action-packed, ninja-star throwing studio.
Fans responded so positively to the first volume, that the second volume recently debuted to more praise, and a third volume to wrap up the Cannon saga is on the way.
We got a chance to speak to Trunick about how he put together The Cannon Film Guides, and his love of all things Cannon, in this exclusive interview.
What was your inspiration for writing the The Cannon Film Guide?
Austin Trunick: I grew up in the video store era and I remember renting a stack of tapes on the weekend with my Dad. Part of my rental staples were the films of Chuck Norris and Sho Kosugi, although at the time I didn’t associate their films and others with one company, because as a kid, you don’t really pat attention to the studio.
When I got older, I became interested in more traditional films and film studies and I was a freelance magazine writer, but I was looking for a subject that I could write about on my own, and I kept thinking about Cannon films. When you begin to read about them, there are some fascinating stories behind the making of these films.
Both volumes I and II of The Cannon Film Guide are massive books and massively detailed. What type of research did you engage in for the guides?
Trunick: I did most of the research at the New York Public Library. They have an amazing archive of trade magazines there like The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. I spent days and days combing over them for information about Cannon and their films. What Cannon lacked in budget, they made up for with their PR game and they would have daily press releases and stories in the trades, even little notices like “this actor is in, this actor is out” of an upcoming production.
I have ten year’s worth of magazines, catalogs, and books in banker’s boxes. It was a long process but I was also lucky that most of the information is from only forty years ago.
You also conducted numerous interviews for the books. Are there any that stick out to you in terms of the insight they provided and/or entertainment?
Trunick: I ended up interviewing over 100 people for the books and one person that provided a lot of information was Sam Firstenberg, who started as a bike messenger for Golan and Globus and ended up directing a number of their films. Sam knew the whole story.
As for entertaining, I would say Wings Hauser, who also provided behind the scenes information, but he also talked about his life experiences, such as meeting Charles Manson and growing up next to Bob Denver of Gilligan’s Island and being chased around by his pet chimp.
Was it difficult organizing this wealth of knowledge from all your research and interviews in the books?
Trunick: As I was writing volume one, it all sort of fell into place. You had the rise of Cannon with films like Breakin’ and Missing in Action, then you had the peak output years from 1985-1987 when the company was the most profitable, and then you had the decline and direct to video era.
One of the genres that became synonymous with Cannon was the ninja movie. How did their many ninja movies help Cannon get on the map?
Trunick: Well, ninjas are awesome! For those who grew up in the VHS era, you probably remember the aisles being arranged by genre, and every video store had an “action” section. The higher shelves where adult eyes would go would be filled with A-list actors and multi-million dollar productions. But those lower, kid level shelves had the ninja movies, and those guys in masks appealed to kids.
I can remember the box cover art for Revenge of the Ninja that had the character jumping out a helicopter, or possibly flying, while throwing ninja stars; it was hard to pass up. Video box art was a huge selling point for those movies, as well as the Sword and Sorcery movies of the time period. The productions never lives up to what was promised on the box. I remember being so excited to see a movie starring David and Peter Paul, who were known as The Barbarian Brothers, and it did not live up to the cover image.
There were rare cases when Cannon was ahead of the curve, and they were with ninjas. I think the first time a film put ninjas front and center was Chuck Norris’ The Octagon, and the mythology surrounding the characters in the West comes mainly from the early Cannon movies.
The Cannon Film Guide Volume II focuses on the height on Cannon’s success. What was the recipe for that success?
Trunick: They were able to film movies cheaply and they weren’t overspending at that point. They also kept the public relation rolling, and in 1986 they took out a sixty page ad in the trades that highlighted 60 potential films, which ended up being about 17, but they were ambitious.
Cannon had three number one openings in 1985 (Invasion USA, Death Wish 3, and King Solomon’s Mines). This was before they started spending more on films like Masters of the Universe, Superman IV, and Over the Top, which didn’t have the same return. In 1985, they could make a ninja movie for $5 million and pre-sell the rights to it around the globe for $10 million before it even hit theaters.
Besides the big budget films, what else led to Cannon’s decline in the later part of the decade?
Trunick: At the time, they were primarily focused on action genre, but their sequels continued to get smaller. Cannon did things a little backwards. When you make a sequel to a hit movie, a studio usually spend more money on the sequel. Cannon spent less. American Ninja was a hit for them, but they cut the budget for American Ninja 2, which featured less expensive local talent and production values. Cannon did the same to movies starring Norris and Charles Bronson, two of their “go-to” actors.
You are just starting to work on Volume III of The Cannon Film Guide, so what are some of the highlights of the Cannon’s last act?
Trunick: It wasn’t all doom and gloom, as they did discover Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Blood Sport became a giant hit for them and made Van Damme a star, but it was just too late for him to save the company. They didn’t expect Blood Sport to be as big as it was, but they quickly put Van Damme in super low budget movies like Cyborg, which are not the films that fans associate with the actor. They were still making films with Michael Dudikoff and some of the last Bronson movies such as Messenger of Death and Kinjite, but they were not financially successful, even with tiny budgets.
This was the era when they were widely known for advertising cancelled or unproduced films. These potential films would appear in the trades with mocked up art, a tagline, and a star’s name attached, many times without the star’s knowledge or a contract. These films didn’t have scripts, plots, or content of any kind.
There are some fun stories in there as well, like the time that Golan and Globus both released competing Lambada movies on the same day after their split, so the family fight spilled over into your local theater.
You mention some of the unmade films. Do any of them stand out to you?
Trunick: Yes, there was one called Pinnochio the Robot, with Tobe Hooper attached as the director and with a script by Alien and Return of the Living Dead’s Dan O’Bannon, starring Lee Marvin. This was supposedly intended for children. There was also a Golem movie with Bronson that was supposed to feature a Claymation-style monster and a Barbie movie that probably would have starred someone like Bo Derek as a Barbie Doll come to life that would give advice to the teenage protagonist.
The first two volumes have received an excellent reception from fans. Were you surprised to see all the love for the books and Cannon films?
Trunick: I am incredibly grateful for the reception, and before writing the books, I thought I was one of the only people who remembered Cannon Films. I probably should have thought better, but I hoped that a dozen people would read and appreciate them.
Seeing the response to the books and Cannon Films on twitter and facebook and having fans being able to share memories about the movies, and where they saw them and who they were with, has been wonderful.