1978’s Superman: The Motion Picture was arguably the film that gave birth to the modern day super hero picture. By 1986, however, the franchise was running on fumes. Original director Richard Donner had been forced out of Superman II and Superman III was an embarrassing disgrace. Warner Bros. was having financial issues and couldn’t seem to get any Superman related project off the ground. A Supergirl project had been farmed out to MGM and was an embarrassing disaster. It seemed as though things couldn’t get any worse. That was before Golan and Globus got involved.
Golan and Globus’ Cannon Films was an up and coming production company that mostly produced low budget action films. Its founders wanted to join the big leagues, however, and they saw Superman as a vehicle that could get them there. They made a deal with Warner Bros. in which the companies would each put up half of the budget for the film. Since Cannon Films was not one of the major studios, it could pay its crews much less than Warner Bros. could get away with, adding to the savings.
The biggest obstacle to the production was getting the cast back together again. Gene Hackman had avoided being in Superman III and was reluctant to return for IV. A promise of a huge guaranteed paycheck brought him on board. Christopher Reeve signed on for a relative pittance, though Cannon promised him that the film would have a socially conscious message and that he could make one of his passion projects for them. It seemed that Cannon Films was pulling off what Warner Bros. wasn’t able to do after four years of pre-production.
As it turned out, Cannon would be able to finish the picture, but it wouldn’t be pretty. The film was a laughable mess and a spectacular fraud. Cannon took Warner Bros.’ money, skimmed off the top, then used what was left to make the picture, most of which went to Gene Hackman. Warner’s deal with Cannon Films called for each side to put in $25 Million for a total budget of $50 Million, a modest bump from Superman III’s $39 Million budget. Warner Bros. saw this as an amazing deal because they would not be on the hook for the entire film’s budget. Investigators would later discover that Cannon took Warner’s $25 Million, skimmed $10 Million for other projects and most likely spent just $15 Million. And it was obvious by the hokey special effects.
The debacle would essentially kill the Superman franchise, putting it into an over twenty year tailspin that it still hasn’t quite gotten itself out of.