Carolco Pictures

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Carolco Pictures, Inc.
FoundedMarch 30, 1976; 46 years ago (March 30, 1976)[1]
FoundersMario Kassar[1]
Andrew G. Vajna[1]
DefunctDecember 22, 1995; 26 years ago (1995-12-22)
FateBankruptcy, assets and name now owned by StudioCanal
HeadquartersLos Angeles, California[1],
Key people
Mario Kassar
(Chairman & CEO)
ProductsMotion pictures
DivisionsCarolco Television Productions
SubsidiariesOrbis Communications
The IndieProd Company

Carolco Pictures, Inc. was an American independent motion picture production company that existed from 1976 to 1995, founded by Mario Kassar and Andrew G. Vajna.[1] Kassar and Vajna ran Carolco together until 1989, when Vajna left to form Cinergi Pictures. Carolco hit its peak in the 1980s and early 1990s, with blockbuster successes including the first three films of the Rambo franchise, Total Recall, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Basic Instinct, Universal Soldier, Cliffhanger and Stargate. Nevertheless, the company was losing money overall, and required a corporate restructuring in 1992. The 1995 film Cutthroat Island, intended to be a comeback for the studio, instead lost $147 million and brought the company to an end.[2]


Early years[edit]

The company was founded through the partnership of two film investors, Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna.[1] The two were hailed by Newsweek as some of the most successful independent producers.[3] By the age of 25, Vajna went from wig-maker to the owner of two Hong Kong theaters. Then, Vajna ventured into the production and distribution of feature films. One of Vajna's early productions was a 1973 martial-arts film entitled The Deadly China Doll which made $3.7 million worldwide from a $100,000 budget.

Their goal was to focus on film sales, with their first venture being The Sicilian Cross;[4] eventually it went into financing low-budget films. Their earliest films were produced by American International Pictures and ITC Entertainment with Carolco's financial support,[5] and co-produced with Canadian theater magnate Garth Drabinsky. The name "Carolco" was purchased from a defunct company based in Panama, and according to Kassar, "it has no meaning."[6]


Carolco's first major success was First Blood (1982), an adaptation of David Morrell's novel of the same name. Kassar and Vajna took a great risk buying the film rights to the novel (for $385,000) and used the help of European bank loans to cast Sylvester Stallone as the lead character, Vietnam War veteran John Rambo, after having worked with him on the John Huston film Escape to Victory (1981). The risk paid off after First Blood made $120 million worldwide, and placed Carolco among the major players in Hollywood.[7]

On May 15, 1984, Carolco Pictures entered into a long-time agreement with then-up-and-coming film distributor and fledging studio Tri-Star Pictures, whereas Tri-Star would distribute films in North America, whereas HBO handled pay cable TV rights, and Thorn EMI Video, which handled North American home video distribution rights. The first film under the agreement was Rambo: First Blood Part II.[8] TriStar released the majority of Carolco's films from that point on in the U.S. and some other countries until 1994.

The sequel Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), was timed for the 10th anniversary of the United States' exit from the Vietnam War; that event garnered publicity for the new film, which also became a hit.[7] Tri-Star and Carolco would eventually renew its partnership in 1986 so that was enabled to distribute future films like Rambo III, and called for Tri-Star to distribute upcoming Carolco product for a new multifeature agreement.[9]

The release of the two Rambo films were so instrumental to Carolco's financial success that the studio focused more on big-budget action films, with major stars such as Stallone (who later signed a ten-picture deal with the studio) and Arnold Schwarzenegger attached. These films, aimed at appealing to a worldwide audience, were financed using a strategy known as "pre-sales", in which domestic and foreign distributors invested in these marketable films in exchange for local releasing rights.[10] On May 14, 1986, Carolco decided to restructure their corporation into a new structure with Peter Hoffman hired as president and CEO of the studio, and decided to set up subsidiaries and alliances within the branch of the own Carolco movie studio.[11]

Carolco entered home video distribution as well. Independent video distributor International Video Entertainment (IVE) was going through financial difficulties and was near bankruptcy. In 1986, Carolco purchased IVE in the hopes of "turning the company around." The deal was finalized a year later.[12] On December 17, 1986, Carolco had closed a deal with HBO/Cannon Video, bringing Carolco back the rights to the two pictures Angel Heart and Extreme Prejudice for $43 million, and decided was in talks to purchase a small independent production studio, The IndieProd Company, for an undisclosed price amount of $40 million, in order to relicense the pictures to International Video Entertainment, which the company held a controlling interest in the studio.[13] IVE merged with another distributor, Lieberman, and became LIVE Entertainment in 1988.[14]

On December 24, 1986, Carolco expanded into video retail holdings by acquiring Filk's Video, which was a Woolbridge, New Jersey video store that has been officially opened shortly and that they teamed up with Tom House of the New York-area American Video Enterprises chain, in order to expand the distribution channels of the Carolco material, and it would be simultaneously with Paramount's move into video retailers.[15] On January 21, 1987, they set up a licensing subsidiary to handle various worldwide merchandise of the Rambo series, Carolco Licensing, which would be headed up by Bob Mislrowski, which would handle licensing for characters in motion pictures that was produced by the studio.[16] In the late 1980s, Carolco attempted to buy film distributor Orion Pictures and home video distributor Media Home Entertainment, but the deal failed.[17][18]

In late July 1987, Carolco set up a new overseas division Carolco Films International, by acquiring the overseas rights to the four pictures by John Carpenter and Alive Films, which were the first pickups for the foreign sales operation, which will be headed by former Goldcrest employee and then-future Intermedia co-founder Guy East, and delievered to four years with a budget of $4–5 million, and the first of the titles were Prince of Darkness, followed by They Live, Victory Out of Time, and a fourth title that was to be announced, and expand into producing partnerships with TV systems in Europe and various home video companies and moves into exhibition and television ownership, and the company will look into 3-5 English-language films annually to accomplish the 3-4 in-house productions, and profits generated by Carolco Films International, to be held into production investments that will going to be on hand.[19] The company was then expanded in October 1987 to set up a London office that hired two ousted employees from the ousted Goldcrest studio, Greg Dinner, who will serve as vice president of development at Carolco Films International, and Barbara Booker was named manager of foreign sales administration.[20] In late 1987, the company received a tax shelter agreement with Canadian production and distribution studio Alliance Entertainment Corporation, to finance multiple pictures for Carolco, such as Food of the Gods II, Iron Eagle II and Pound Puppies and the Legend of Big Paw, which was to be released in foreign sales by the Carolco Films International division.[21]

On August 28, 1987, Carolco acquired television syndicator Orbis Communications for $15.4 million and initiated television production and distribution. The company decided to invest money in launching pilots for first-run syndicated series, and as many as eight television movies a year for primetime, and Orbis decided to focus on action/suspense movies, which tend to be the ones most in demand for foreign domestic TV syndication and home video, and Orbis will handle domestic syndication for the movies after two network runs in network primetime, and Carolco to do the honors for its foreign syndication unit, and through its subsidiary International Video Entertainment for home video.[22] They also purchased the former De Laurentiis Entertainment Group production facility in Wilmington, North Carolina,[23] and established Carolco Home Video, with LIVE Entertainment as output partner.

Vajna sold his share of Carolco in December 1989 for $106 million to Kassar[24] due to increasing disagreement with Kassar over the direction of the company. That November, Vajna formed Cinergi Pictures, with The Walt Disney Company as a distribution partner. Kassar's ownership of the company increased to 62%.[24]


In 1990, Pioneer Electric Corporation of Japan acquired a share in Carolco.[25]

Carolco acquired the rights to make a sequel to The Terminator from Hemdale Film Corporation in 1990 (the company already had the television rights to the original film courtesy of a television distribution deal with Hemdale). The company re-hired Terminator director James Cameron (who had worked as a screenwriter on Rambo II) and Arnold Schwarzenegger to star in a multi-million-dollar budgeted sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). It was the highest-grossing film of the year and the most successful film in Carolco's history.[26] Halfway through the year, Carolco entered into a joint venture with New Line Cinema to start Seven Arts, a distribution company which primarily released much of Carolco's low-budget output.[27] In 1991, syndicator Orbis Communications was renamed to Carolco Television, and Hilary Hendler said they wanted to better emphasize the Carolco connection.[28]

Carolco struggled for some years to secure the rights to Spider-Man, a property that Cameron was keen to produce as a film. Plans fell through, though Columbia Pictures would eventually produce several Spider-Man films. Toward the end of shooting True Lies, Variety carried the announcement that Carolco had received a completed screenplay from Cameron.[29] This script bore the names of Cameron, John Brancato, Ted Newsom, Barry [sic] Cohen and "Joseph Goldmari", a typographical scrambling of Menahem Golan's pen name, "Joseph Goldman", with Marvel executive Joseph Calimari.[30] (Golan had previously, and unsuccessfully, tried to produce a Spider-Man film for his own studio, Cannon Films.) The script's text was identical to what Golan had submitted to Columbia the previous year, with the addition of a new 1993 date. Cameron stalwart Arnold Schwarzenegger was frequently linked to the project as the director's choice for Doctor Octopus.[31][32] As late as 1995, Internet industry sources such as Baseline Hollywood still listed both Neil Ruttenberg (author of one of the 1990 "Doc Ock" variations submitted to Columbia) and Cameron as co-writers.[33]

Carolco also attempted to make Bartholomew vs. Neff, a comedy film that was to have been written and directed by John Hughes and would have starred Sylvester Stallone and John Candy.[34]

Decline and collapse[edit]

Though Carolco made several successful films through the 1990s, including Total Recall, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and Basic Instinct, the studio was gradually losing money as the years went on. Carolco mixed blockbusters with small-budget arthouse films which were not profitable. In addition, the studio was criticized for overspending on films through reliance on star power and far-fetched deals (Schwarzenegger received then-unheard-of $10–14 million for his work on Total Recall and Terminator 2; Stallone also had similar treatment). Losses of partnerships also threatened the studio's stability and drove it towards bankruptcy.[35]

In 1992, Carolco went under a corporate restructuring, invested in by a partnership of Rizzoli-Corriere della Sera of Italy, Le Studio Canal+ of France, Pioneer, and MGM. Each partner helped infuse up to $60 million into the studio's stock and another $50 million for co-financing deals. MGM also agreed to distribute Carolco product domestically after a previous deal with TriStar expired.[36] In 1993, Carolco was forced to sell its shares in LIVE Entertainment to a group of investors led by Pioneer;[37] it was later renamed Artisan Entertainment, which was bought by Lions Gate Entertainment.

Cutbacks at Carolco also forced the studio to make a deal with TriStar over the funding of the Stallone action film Cliffhanger: Carolco would have to sell full distribution rights in North America, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, and France to TriStar in exchange for half of the film's budget.[38] Although a major box-office success, Carolco saw little revenue from Cliffhanger since it ended up becoming a minority owner in the film.[39] Carolco's attempt to make more of its specialties proved to be more strenuous: the studio had to shelve Crusade, an upcoming Schwarzenegger vehicle based on a script by Walon Green and with Paul Verhoeven attached as director, in 1994 when the budget exceeded $100 million.[38] However, Carolco was able to complete a merger with The Vista Organization in late October 1993.[40]

Carolco attempted a comeback with the big-budget swashbuckler Cutthroat Island, with Michael Douglas in the lead. Douglas dropped out early in its production, and was replaced by the less-bankable Matthew Modine. Geena Davis, cast as the female lead through her ties with then-husband, the director Renny Harlin, was already an established A-lister but was coming off a string of flops. MGM hoped to advertise Cutthroat Island based on spectacle rather than cast. In an attempt to raise more financing for the projected $90–100 million film, Carolco sold off the rights to several films in production, including Last of the Dogmen, Stargate and Showgirls.[41][42][43][44][45] In October 1994, Carolco ran out of funds and Pioneer invested another $8 million.[25] In April 1995, Carolco announced that it was unable to make interest payments on $55 million of debt.[46] In November 1995, Carolco filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Cutthroat Island was released that Christmas and became a box-office disaster.[47] Carolco agreed to sell its assets to 20th Century Fox for $50 million.[48] But when Canal+ made a $58 million bid for the library in January 1996, Fox, which by then lowered their purchase price to $47.5 million, dropped their deal.[49]

A new partnership was formed between Carolco's owner (Mario Kassar) and Cinergi's owner (Andrew G. Vajna) in 1998. The duo formed C2 Pictures and produced Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and Basic Instinct 2, among other films.

2015–2017: Resurrection of Carolco brand[edit]

Film producer Alexander Bafer purchased the Carolco name and logo years later. On January 20, 2015, Bafer renamed his production company Carolco Pictures, formerly known as Brick Top Productions. Bafer then recruited Mario Kassar as the chief development executive of the new Carolco.[50][51] However, on April 7, 2016, it was announced that both Bafer and Kassar had left the company, Kassar taking with him one of Carolco's planned projects, a remake of the 1999 Japanese horror film Audition which he was producing. Investor Tarek Kirschen was then inducted as Carolco's CEO.[52] In 2017, StudioCanal and Carolco reached an agreement whereby StudioCanal would have sole control of the Carolco name and logo and the Carolco Pictures company would be renamed Recall Studios. That agreement settled a legal dispute over the Carolco mark brought by StudioCanal.[53][54] The arrangement took effect on November 29 of that year.

Carolco's library[edit]

After its bankruptcy, the assets of Carolco were sold off to other companies, most already sold during Carolco's existence. In March 1996, Canal+ purchased the library in bankruptcy court for a value of approximately $58 million.[55] The ancillary rights to Carolco's library (up to 1995 with certain exceptions) are held by French production company StudioCanal, since its parent company, Canal+ Group, owned a stake in Carolco, eventually buying out its partners.

On September 17, 1991, Multimedia Entertainment acquired selected assets of Carolco's television distribution unit Orbis Communications, which included the telefilm subsidiary Carolco Television Productions.[56]

In 1992, Carolco Pictures licensed television distribution rights to its library to Spelling Entertainment’s Worldvision Enterprises in order to pay off debt.[57] In North America, with certain exceptions, those rights were (and currently still are) held by Paramount Television Studios through Trifecta Entertainment & Media as the successor to Spelling/Worldvision. All other rights in terms of home video were (and for a majority of the library, still are) licensed to Lionsgate under an ongoing deal with StudioCanal. Lionsgate, in turn, licensed those rights in Canada to Entertainment One, although theatrical rights to most of the library were split between Sony Pictures (for Cliffhanger), and Rialto Pictures (for the rest of the library not already retained by its original distributors or passed on to other companies). The video rights to most titles previously released by Lionsgate in North America are now held outright by StudioCanal, and sublicensed to Kino Lorber.

StudioCanal itself held full distribution rights in France, Germany, Australia, Ireland, and the United Kingdom. In other territories, StudioCanal licensed home video rights to Universal Pictures Home Entertainment until StudioCanal's global distribution deal with Universal expired in January 2022.[58]



Release Date Title Notes
March 30, 1976 The Sicilian Cross financing; produced by Aetos Produzioni; distributed by Agora Cinematografica in Italy and American International Pictures in North America
July 9, 1976 A Small Town in Texas financing; produced and distributed by American International Pictures
July 28, 1976 Futureworld financing; produced and distributed by American International Pictures
October 8, 1976 The Cassandra Crossing financing; produced by ITC Entertainment; distributed by AVCO Embassy Pictures
March 23, 1977 The Domino Principle
March 31, 1977 The Eagle Has Landed financing; produced by ITC Entertainment; distributed by Columbia Pictures
August 5, 1977 March or Die
March 30, 1979 The Silent Partner distributed by EMC
May 11, 1979 Winter Kills financing; distributed by AVCO Embassy Pictures
May 30, 1979 The Fantastic Seven financing; produced by Martin Poll
September 1979 The Sensuous Nurse financing


Release Date Title Notes
March 28, 1980 The Changeling distributed by Associated Film Distribution
August 15, 1980 The Kidnapping of the President financing; distributed by Crown International Pictures
September 5, 1980 The Agency financing; distributed by Jensen Farley Pictures
September 9, 1980 Suzanne financing; distributed by 20th Century Fox
September 15, 1980 Shōgun financing; distributed by Paramount Pictures
December 14, 1980 Tribute financing; distributed by 20th Century Fox
February 1, 1981 Caboblanco financing; distributed by AVCO Embassy Pictures
March 23, 1981 The High Country financing; distributed by Crown International Pictures
April 1981 The Last Chase financing; distributed by Crown International Pictures
July 30, 1981 Escape to Victory with Lorimar; distributed by Paramount Pictures
September 25, 1981 Carbon Copy financing; produced by Hemdale Film Corporation and RKO Pictures, distributed by AVCO Embassy Pictures
December 18, 1981 Your Ticket Is No Longer Valid financing
February 12, 1982 The Amateur produced in association with Tiberius Film Productions; distributed by 20th Century Fox
October 22, 1982 First Blood distributed by Orion Pictures
January 1985 Superstition with Panaria, distributed by Almi Pictures
May 22, 1985 Rambo: First Blood Part II first film under distribution pact with TriStar Pictures
March 6, 1987 Angel Heart distributed by TriStar Pictures
April 24, 1987 Extreme Prejudice
October 23, 1987 Prince of Darkness with Alive Films, Larry Franco Productions and Haunted Machine Productions; distributed by Universal Pictures
March 18, 1988 Pound Puppies and the Legend of Big Paw with The Maltese Companies; distributed by TriStar Pictures
May 25, 1988 Rambo III[59] distributed by TriStar Pictures
June 17, 1988 Red Heat
November 4, 1988 They Live with Alive Films and Larry Franco Productions; distributed by Universal Pictures
November 11, 1988 Iron Eagle II distributed by TriStar Pictures
December 2, 1988 Watchers with Concorde Pictures, Centaur Films, Rose & Ruby Productions and Canadian Entertainment Investors No. 2 and Company; distributed by Universal Pictures
January 13, 1989 DeepStar Six distributed by TriStar Pictures
April 7, 1989 Pathfinder subtitled version of a film made in Norway
May 19, 1989 Food of the Gods II distributed by Concorde Pictures
August 4, 1989 Lock Up distributed by TriStar Pictures
September 29, 1989 Johnny Handsome
October 27, 1989 Shocker with Alive Films and Universal City studios; distributed by Universal Pictures
December 22, 1989 Music Box distributed by TriStar Pictures


Release Date Title Notes
February 23, 1990 Mountains of the Moon distributed by TriStar Pictures
June 1, 1990 Total Recall
August 10, 1990 Air America
September 21, 1990 Narrow Margin
November 2, 1990 Jacob's Ladder
December 19, 1990 Hamlet Foreign distribution with Warner Bros., Icon Productions, and Nelson Entertainment
February 8, 1991 L.A. Story distributed by TriStar Pictures
March 1, 1991 The Doors with Bill Graham Films and Imagine Entertainment; distributed by TriStar Pictures
April 25, 1991 The Punisher home media and television distribution[60] in North America only, distributed by New World Pictures and 20th Century Fox internationally
July 3, 1991 Terminator 2: Judgment Day with Lightstorm Entertainment and Le Studio Canal+; distributed by TriStar Pictures
March 20, 1992 Basic Instinct with Le Studio Canal+; distributed by TriStar Pictures
June 26, 1992 Incident at Oglala distributed by Miramax Films
July 10, 1992 Universal Soldier[61] with Centropolis Entertainment; distributed by TriStar Pictures
August 21, 1992 Light Sleeper New Line division Fine Line Features
December 25, 1992 Chaplin with Le Studio Canal+; distributed by TriStar Pictures
May 28, 1993 Cliffhanger
August 26, 1994 Wagons East last Carolco film to be distributed by TriStar Pictures.
October 28, 1994 Stargate with Le Studio Canal+, distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
September 8, 1995 Last of the Dogmen with Savoy Pictures
September 22, 1995 Showgirls with United Artists and Chargeurs[62]
December 22, 1995 Cutthroat Island distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, last film to be released by Carolco

Seven Arts Pictures[edit]

Release Date Title Notes
September 14, 1990 Repossessed distributed by New Line/Seven Arts
September 28, 1990 King of New York distributed by New Line/Seven Arts
February 1, 1991 Queens Logic distributed by New Line/Seven Arts; with New Visions Pictures
May 10, 1991 Sweet Talker distributed by New Line/Seven Arts; with New Visions Pictures
May 17, 1991 Dice Rules distributed by New Line/Seven Arts
August 23, 1991 Defenseless distributed by New Line/Seven Arts; with New Visions Pictures
September 20, 1991 Rambling Rose distributed by New Line/Seven Arts
October 25, 1991 Get Back distributed by New Line/Seven Arts; with Majestic Films and Allied Filmmakers
November 1991 The Dark Wind distributed by New Line/Seven Arts; with Le Studio Canal+
June 21, 1992 Aces: Iron Eagle III distributed by New Line/Seven Arts


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Further reading[edit]