Mario Kassar is a man who needs no introduction to action fans; his work with partner Andrew G. Vajna helped to disrupt the indie film business, with their company Carolco enjoying a more-than decade long run that saw the likes of First Blood, Terminator 2, Basic Instinct and Cliffhanger all made outside the studio system.
Kassar recently sat down with Deadline and discussed the glory days of the company and what he’s working on right now.
I’ve posted some highlights below but you can check out the dull conversation over at Deadline.
DEADLINE: First Blood was the real game-changer for Carolco that took you from a sales company to a production company. How did that come about?
KASSAR: A good friend of ours gave us a book to read called First Blood. It was amazing. In those days, the studios were selling properties that were on their shelf to get back all the wasted money they had spent on different writers for different stars with nothing happening to those projects over the years. We contacted a business affairs person at Warner Bros. called Jack Freedman. Of course, they calculated the numbers and asked for the whole thing with the 13 different screenplays they’d written for Dustin Hoffman, Paul Newman, Harrison Ford et cetera. I called my banker and told him I was writing this big check and had acquired all the rights. When I had arrived in LA I had met a few people, one of whom was a big attorney called Jake Bloom, and his partner Tom Pollock, who were also good friends to some stars. After much discussion, we all agreed the only person who could play the part was Sly Stallone. Jake was his lawyer. Then we met Ron Meyer, who was at CAA at the time, and was always a gentleman. And there was Sly’s business manager Herb Nanas. After some negotiations, and the usual Hollywood runaround, we agreed to a deal. Of course, we overpaid him, but you have to remember we were the new kids on the block and this was like an initiation fee that had to be paid. Then we made a deal with Ted Kotcheff.
After First Blood became a big hit we became a public company and one thing followed the other. I always followed my passion and my taste in movies. I never cut corners and always made sure we delivered what we promised. I don’t believe you can cheat the distributor. In those days they had a kind of trust. There was no Internet. Now when the movie is shooting you hear about every problem going on. Before, they didn’t even read screenplays!
DEADLINE: You were basically making studio films—Terminator 2 had a $102 million budget back in 1991—in the independent sector. How did you manage to make such expensive films so regularly? What was the secret to your business model?
KASSAR: When we went public, we had an output deal with Tristar for domestic for a percentage of the budget, no matter who was in it. The business was absolutely different back then. First of all, the networks used to pre-buy. Then there was VHS. Also, there was Canadian tax money that helped, and we raised a few dollars from going public. Although, I never liked being public because aside from having access to the funds, you spent your days reading legal papers or signing documents and you got lost in the Wall Street kind of business. It basically took a lot of your creativity away. Now, of course, you would hire people to help you with that, but at the end of the day you’re still supposed to know what’s going on and regulations, conditions et cetera.
So we had domestic in place. We would secure the foreign sales and discounting. I would run the number for foreign, and all I had to do really was deliver my foreign sales which I was very good at. The business has changed a lot since then, but at the time, we could get up to $10 million,—sometimes even more—from Japan for one movie.
Our films were all expensive because we never cut corners. We got the stars. Andy and I were the foreign guys who would pay and do the big ones that studios were scared to do because, you know, studios like to run numbers. If you run numbers through the computer you never make a movie in your life, because you never make any money unless the film is a fucking Jurassic Park. So I would only run the numbers for foreign; I knew what I was getting for the US through the Tristar deal, I had my video company giving me another output. I was sometimes at 110% above the budget before I started shooting, so I had no problem with the numbers, but when we go over-budget as an independent company, everybody makes a big deal out of it. You never know when a studio goes over-budget because they hide all of the numbers. They would always tell you it cost $90 million. In reality you don’t know if it’s $100 million or $200 million or God knows what.
We were the only ones making big studio movies independently and for the foreign distributors this was heaven. They could not get those movies otherwise. Now the problem is, because of Marvel, every big name—people like Robert Downey Jr, who I worked with—has deals for the next five, six years and is tied up to the studios.
DEADLINE: Why do you think you were able to get the top stars like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger? The studios could have paid the money too.
KASSAR: But the studios were never doing what we were doing. Those actors were never treated by the studios the way we treated them. They are like big babies. They want to fly private jets. The list of perks, I don’t have to tell you; it was three pages from bodyguards to special food, butler, special house… whatever. With the contracts they got more money than with the studio, and a perk list that the studio probably wouldn’t give. Now, after us, the studios gave them everything they wanted and more, but we started that. We treated them royally. We paid them royally. We knew what they meant for foreign and we travelled them around the world to promote the movie. Sly and Arnie were the two big action stars that everyone wanted to see in the ’80s. It was perfect. The other thing is with the deals we made with them, when they made a deal with the studio they had a gross participation. Because we were making the movie independently, our participation was different than the studio so we could live with it. We didn’t mind paying a bit more with the money and the perks because at the end of the day it all worked perfectly with everybody.
DEADLINE: What are your plans now?
KASSAR: I’m working on two or three movies now. I’m doing a small film in Asia with the team from this great Indonesian film called The Raid. We have the actor from that film and I was asked to come and produce it. It’s called Foxtrot Six and it’s like a mini Expendables. Also, I bought the rights to a Japanese cult movie called Audition. I’m almost there. It’s taking me a long time because it is kind of hard to do this movie but I’m not going to do it unless I know I’m doing it right. And I have something called Bot, written by Tedi Sarafian, who wrote Terminator 3. I’m not thinking too far ahead.