Monday, May 11, 2015

Newsploitation: Go to the Head of the CLASS OF 1999

Today’s box office birthday is a mind bender as it reminds me all about time.  Remember when 1999 seemed like such a futuristic date?  Well, we’re sixteen years past that now.  And even more wild is we are now twenty-five years past the release of Mark Lester’s CLASS OF 1999 (1990), the kick ass sci-fi flick that promised man would be battling machine in that year.

A in-spirit-sequel to Lester’s own CLASS OF 1984 (1982), the follow-up took the idea of out of control teens to its futuristic extreme, resulting in a film the Lester described as “WESTWORLD (1973) meets BLACKBOARD JUNGLE (1955).”  The man hired to write it was C. Courtney Joyner, who had already built a sterling genre resume with Jeff Burr’s THE OFFSPRING (1987) and Renny Harlin’s PRISON (1987).  As is often the case in Hollywood, a series of other writers including Abby Wool and splatterpunk writing team John Skipp & Craig Spector worked on it.  As Joyner told Fangoria, “Mark had me do the final draft. So I was rewriting Abby’s rewrite of my rewrite of Skipp & Spector’s rewrite of my script. That’s Hollywood.”   In the end Joyner retains sole screen credit.  The project was officially announced at the American Film Market in February 1988 and was one of Veston’s bigger productions during this period with a budget of $5 million under their newly formed Lightning Pictures banner.

Production began in Seattle, Washington in November 1988 with a cast led by Bradley Gregg and Traci Lin as kind of the Romero and Juliet in a gang wasteland.  Lester also assembled an amazing supporting cast including Stacy Keach (sporting a white wig and contact lenses) and former delinquent Droog Malcolm McDowell (now in charge of delinquents).  Best of all was the trio of Patrick Kilpatrick, Pam Grier, and John P. Ryan as the futuristic robot teachers.  On the technical side, Lester had the great Mark Irwin as cinematographer, Paul Baxley coordinating the hair-raising stunts, gore FX from Rick Stratton, and robot FX supervised by Eric Allard.  It all combined into one explosive package that still holds up today.  Well, except for some of the outfits worn by the punks.  You weren’t wearing tie-dyed tights in ’99?

Unfortunately for Lester’s film, the wheels were about to fall off of Vestron. According to a Variety article on March 15, 1989, the company survived a tumultuous 1986-87 and had a great year in 1988; they drew in a net income of $20.6 million dollars (thanks mostly to the success of DIRTY DANCING [1987] and YOUNG GUNS [1988], the latter which came out via 20th Century Fox but Vestron handled foreign markets and VHS). Just over a month later, an article appeared mentioning that Vestron had hired Merrill Lynch to find investors.  Uh oh.  After that, a negative Vestron story seemed to be a daily occurrence.  A June 1989 headline read “Vestron Expected to Close Pic Wing, Pinkslip Staff.”  In August 1989 they sold their video store chain imaginatively called The Video Store to Supermarket Video and also were denied a $100 million dollar loan.  Not surprisingly, they posted huge 2nd and 3rd quarter losses and by December 1989 they were selling off everything to reduce debt.

Naturally titles in production for Vestron at the time like CLASS suffered greatly. Vestron had originally scheduled the film for a theatrical release on October 6, 1989, but that fell to the wayside with the company in such financial straits.  Lester’s sci-fi sequel was actually a bit lucky in that it was picked up rather quickly (other genre titles caught up in this downfall included Stan Winston’s UPWORLD [aka A GNOME NAMED GNORM] and Anthony Hickox’s SUNDOWN, both of which would sit on the shelf for years).  On March 14, 1990, a Variety article announced that CLASS OF 1999 had been acquired by Taurus Entertainment Company and they planned a theatrical release for the film.  That was the good news.  The bad news was Taurus had seemingly no footprint in the distribution market.  Previous to CLASS their biggest release was BEST OF THE BEST (1989), which they got out on 600 screens to make a total of $1.7 million.  Taurus eventually released the film in 320 locations on May 11, 1990.  With such limited exposure, it did not fare well its opening weekend and came in 13th place with a haul of $767,620. However, it should be noted that the film had the second highest per-screen average that weekend in the top fifteen outside of no. 1 title PRETTY WOMAN (1990).  Had Vestron lived on they probably would have gotten CLASS out onto at least 1,000 screens and it would have done better.  CLASS did stick around for a few weeks and continued to draw in viewers, ending with a final tally of $2,459,895 in the U.S.  This made it Taurus’ biggest grosser…and their final theatrical release.

Where CLASS OF 1999 really took off was on the home video market, which is where I first got to see it.  The film proved popular enough that Cinetel felt the need to make CLASS OF 1999 II: THE SUBSTITUTE (1994).  Unfortunately, even if it is directed by veteran stunt coordinator Spiro Razatos, this sequel is a crushing disappointment when compared to CLASS OF 1999.  

Moments of Clarity:

3 Reactions:

  1. Vestron UK were still going strong in October 89 when this was released here...and they promoted the hell out of it (Billboards, massive Standees in video stores, etc), as was Up World, which wasn't released theatrically, but received a ton of promotion in the national press (I even had a one-sheet poster given away as a freebie in an at-the-time popular kids mag). Vestron UK stuck around until September '91, releasing stuff like "Fear" and "Hider in the House" to theatres. In late '91, the staff of Vestron UK changed the company name to "First Independent", with the release of "Prayer of the Rollerboys" (which also received a big theatrical release) and stuck around until the early 2000's. Apologies if yu already knew this, and for rambling on!

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  2. Matthew,

    Thanks for the info! The US Vestron stuck around for a while too, but in a much smaller fashion. A shame as I would have loved to have seen something like HIDER IN THE HOUSE theatrically.

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  3. More Vestron UK info if you're interested...Vestron UK's theatrical division was run by the former staff of PSO (minus Mark Damon), and they briefly changed their name to "Interaccess Film Distribution", but only released two films under that name (Taffin and The Princess Bride). Vestron UK didn't release nearly as many films as the US parent company (the Orion and Tri-Star films like Lone Wolf McQuade and The Monster Squad were put out by Virgin and Columbia, respectively) and only released 5 Empire films (Dolls, From Beyond, Underworld, Rawhead Rex and The Caller), the first two of which had a decent theatrical run, mainly in cinemas owned by Cannon (funnily enough, most Cannon product was released direct to video, whilst Vestron movies played in their theatres).
    When Vestron continued under the First Independent name, they continued to enjoy success by releasing their horror back catalogue ( Slaughter High, Sundown, Waxwork, Rawhead Rex, Cutting Class etc) under the "First Fright" banner, and re-releasing "Dirty Dancing" repeatedly (I dont know if the record has been broken, but as of the late nineties that film was still the biggest selling VHS tape of all time in the UK).
    I'm assuming that Vestron also had a lot of success in the UK with Dream a Little Dream, as towards the end of their life they seemed to specialise in releasing Corey Haim films, (Dream Machine, Rollerboys, Fast Getaway and its sequel all got theatrical releases. At the end of their life they changed their name once again to "Vestron E", "First Choice" and "First View" before briefly reverting to Vestron UK, then finally to First Independent. Incidentally, Vestron UK's old premises can be found at this address...https://www.google.co.uk/maps/@51.514349,-0.111238,3a,75y,81.3h,90t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1sreJZrS8z9QLqII64d8UQTQ!2e0

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