An oral history of PM Entertainment, a low-budget high-octane American dream
In 1989, a Syrian émigré founded PM Entertainment, producing action movies on a shoestring budget. This is their story, as told by Joseph Merhi, Cynthia Rothrock, Cole McKay and more.
Today, the Sundance narrative has become colloquial shorthand for all American indies of the 90s. It was, however, only part of the story. While the world was looking at Sundance as the indicator of the American indie scene, there was an entirely different picture being ignored, one that fits more in line with the oft-gaudy era it was spawned from. It’s a history full of muscles, explosions, kickboxing, and guns. This is the history of PM Entertainment Group, the low-budget action auteurs of the 1990s.
Founded in 1989 by Syrian émigré Joseph Merhi and Rick Pepin, PM Entertainment’s history offers an alternative look at the face of 90s American independent cinema. Like many of the Sundance filmmakers, Merhi and Pepin built a small empire of high action films that could healthily compete on the market without the aid of studio budgets. Their restrictions became virtues. PM’s story is the rags to riches American dream narrative, only with a hell of a lot more guns and kickboxing. It’s also a story that, with the exception of piecemeal information strung across fan blogs, has gone untold.
“It’s just my life to me, it’s not history.”
Despite releasing over 100 films between 1989 and the early 2000s (when Joseph Merhi and his partner Richard Pepin sold the company), PM Entertainment is not a name the average person, let alone film buff, recognizes. Focusing primarily on low budget straight-to-video action films, PM created a corner in the market, recognizing and meeting the growing demand for American action cinema worldwide. When films like Bloodsport and Bloodfist made kickboxing and martial arts palpable for American markets, PM was quick to follow up with a series of titles including Ring of Fire, its follow up Ring of Fire 2: Blood and Steel, and A Dangerous Place (their failed attempt at creating an in-house star out of the young Ted Jan Roberts). With films like the Traci Lords’ vehicle A Time to Die, the "convicts in space meets virtual reality" sci-fi Alien Intruder, and the less than subtly titled Bikini Summer trilogy, it was clear that PM weren’t attempting art. Rather, they traded glamour for prolificacy and paid no attention to the rest of the film world looking down their noses at them; all the while, they continued to grow until they exceeded their reach.
feature length films were produced between 1989 to 2000 by PM Entertainment, in addition to two television series
When Merhi moved to America, he had nothing to his name. “I didn’t even know how to speak English when I moved to this country. I had to start from the bottom and would take any job that I could get,” Merhi tells Hopes&Fears. It wasn’t long, however, until Merhi found himself in Las Vegas. It would be in Vegas, where he was operating a pizza place with only pipe dreams for a future in film, that he would meet one of his most important collaborators, director Richard Munchkin.
Richard Munchkin (Writer/Director, Ring of Fire): I was living in Las Vegas in the late 70s and early 80s. I had a degree in theater and started out as an aspiring actor. So, while I was living in Vegas, I was taking acting classes and it was in that school that I met Joseph Merhi. In early 1983, we both decided to move to LA within about month of each other to get into the film business.
Joseph Merhi: I knew I wanted to make movies, but I didn’t really know how to do it. So I hired this guy I knew of named Rick Pepin. He owned his own 16mm camera and could operate it. From there it was just the constant desire to be on the set, to make more movies that kept us going.
RICHARD MUNCHKIN: Eventually, Joseph put together a little money and made a little comedy called Hollywood in Trouble, but Joe could just not sell that movie. The problem was that it was a comedy and nobody was interested in comedies, but they all said, ‘If you make an action film, we’d be interested.’ They caught just the beginning of the wave. At the time, VCRs were pretty new and there were video stores on every corner. Companies were starved for content, and the content they wanted was action.
RICHARD MUNCHKIN: Joseph and Rick formed a company called City Lights, which was PM before PM. In the beginning, we didn’t know what we were doing. The first film was called Mayhem, and I think we had a crew of seven people. I was the line producer, wardrobe, art department, and caterer; the boom operator was also the lighting department and the camera assistant. It was really guerrilla filmmaking to the core.
Cole McKay (Stunt Coordinator/Director): When City Lights started, it was operating out of a little two room office, but we were doing these amazing movies with zero budget.
RICHARD MUNCHKIN: Everybody always dreamed of a theatrical release, but in the beginning there was never even a thought about really doing it. We just started cranking movies out. City Lights made about 15 movies before Rick and Joe had a falling out with their third partner Ron Gilchrist. Gilchrist took all the City Lights films and Rick and Joe moved forward to form PM Entertainment. It was right around the time of the last City Lights film, they had stepped up and made their first film on 35mm, so they were just starting to grow.
Every seven minutes
COLE MCKAY: They eventually made a really good deal with HBO Features: the movies of the week. This is back when HBO was buying all kinds of that stuff. We were just rocking.
RICHARD MUNCHKIN: Everything at PM was driven by the market. Rick and Joe hired this guy named George to become their head of sales. George would go to the market and come back and say, "less nudity, more action," and then he’d meet with a buyer from a different country and he would say, "more sex, less violence." So you were just in this crazy world of being told conflicting information constantly. The bottom line was that he was constantly coming back requesting more action, more action, more action. "Can you kill people in different ways? Can we start blowing things up? Can we have bigger stunts." The rule eventually became that somebody had to either be shooting, chasing, or fighting every seven minutes, and, if it was quicker than that, even better.
COLE MCKAY: We did some innovative stuff. I don’t think anybody at that time ever did as many grab strap turnovers—which is a car turnover where you don’t use a cage.
The car turnover kind of became PM’s signature and we always had to go bigger and better. I pipe ramped a Firetruck, a motorhome, and I cannoned an armored car. A normal company could do maybe a turnover a day, we were able to do four of them.
The average PM Entertainment budget was roughly $350,000.
Other action films produced in the same era’s budgets:
Delta Force (1986) 9 Million
Lethal Weapon (1987) 15 Million
Bloodsport (1988) 1.5 Million
Die Hard (1988) 28 Million
Bloodfist (1989) 1 Million
Robocop 2 (1990) 35 Million
The Perfect Weapon (1991) 10 Million
Universal Soldier (1992) 23 Million
Joshua Tree aka Army of One (1993) 9 Million
Death Wish 5 (1994) 5 Million
A clip from Dark Breed
RICHARD MUNCHKIN: The budgets back then were around 350,000 dollars. If Cannon had made something like Ring of Fire, for instance, the budget would have been 2-3 million. Working with really low budgets, as a director, forced me to learn how to shoot really fast. You had to design your day with speed in mind. It wasn’t about "What is the best way to tell the story," it was "how can I shoot 11 pages in one day." It prepared me really well to do television.
COLE MCKAY: What we were doing on our budgets is still outstanding. Universal and these bigger studios couldn’t do that for the same amount of money. I don’t think they would know how. We could do ten films for what they classify as a "low budget film." PM was like a major school. They call Corman and New Condcorde the school of filmmaking, but we were the next step up. When you worked for PM you had to hang on and grin.
RICHARD MUNCHKIN: The great thing about PM was that you could become anything in the company. There were people who went from production assistant to producer in the span of four movies.
COLE MCKAY: I went from stunt man to stunt coordinator to 2nd Unit Director, and, then, actually directed a film for them. Every time we swung the bat, we tried to hit a home run. Everything we did at PM was so innovative. I believe that it helped the history and evolution of filmmaking, but I don’t think anybody will ever give PM the credit and that is really a shame. A lot of the innovative stuff that PM did was being looked at by the industry. We did one chase where two guys are having a fight in a moving half trailer—those modulars—we did this whole fight in PM style, the whole low budget deal, and it was really recognized as a really good piece. But it was PM; you know, “low budget.” Well, then, two years later the same chase — almost verbatim — came out in a [blockbuster action film – omitted] and everybody was like, ‘oh my god that was the greatest stunt sequence ever.’ But if you really look at the time frame, we did it two years earlier, [pause] on their craft-service budget.
On the set
RICHARD MUNCHKIN: Ring of Fire is a great story. Joe calls me into his office at the beginning of December 1990. At the time, they were making more money and their films were getting bigger. So he calls me into his office and says, "We want you to do a kickboxing movie and we want to shoot it in February." So I say, "Yeah, I’d love to, can I see the script?" He responds, "Yeah. Right after you write it." Now this the beginning of December and we are supposed to shoot in February. I had already scheduled a two-week trip to Chicago to spend the holidays with my family. So I called my brother and told him to rent every kickboxing moving that he could find, because we had to write a script during the two weeks that I was home for Christmas. We didn’t have time to really do it, so we just stole from the best and did Romeo and Juliet with kickboxing; West Side Story but instead of the dancing, it’s kickboxing.
Joe had already hired Don "the dragon" Wilson for Ring of Fire, before I even wrote the script. But every Asian actor in Hollywood showed up at my door to audition, whether they were called or not. They came and they said, "The word is out that you are making a movie where the hero is an Asian doctor who gets the white girl."
PM were always reactive instead of proactive. You know, they saw Don Wilson did Bloodfist for Roger Corman and it made money, so they said, "Let’s get Don Wilson." Cynthia Rothrock did some movies for another company, so they said, "let’s get Cynthia Rothrock."
Cynthia Rothrock (Actor: Guardian Angel, Martial Artist): When I started training, there was the big fallacy that "women couldn’t do martial arts." It was believed that you had to be big, strong, and look like a man. I think that it was during my time in films that I helped women to get involved in martial arts. They would see me in my films and see that I was not big and strong but could still do it. I became a role model for people. When I started doing films in Hong Kong, they had a different mentality and liked me being the lead. In the first couple of films I got offered when I came to America, they would always cast me as the partner that helped the guy and, in the end, I would always need the partner to come in and save the day. At that time, they thought that women in the lead roles of action films wouldn’t sell. Van Damme, Segal, and Chuck Norris—they all got big movies but I was doing the same thing and never could get a big movie. I think it was because I was a woman.
RICHARD MUNCHKIN: PM never had any desire or care about social good. It wasn’t about promoting female action stars or Asian American action stars. It was always about the bottom line: can I sell it? I had discussions about this thing all the time with them and they always said the same thing, "Women don’t sell. Nobody wants to see a woman action star."
Steven Williams (Actor: L.A. Heat): Racism was there and we still have that issue, in America and the industry, but I had already been the male lead actor on a television show, so it wasn’t cutting edge or anything to hire a black male lead for L.A. Heat. Number one, it’s about me. It’s about Steven Williams, who happens to be a black actor. Number two, this is still the most racist motherfucking country on the planet and racism runs rampant in this industry, especially for black males. That’s just a fact, I am not bitching or complaining about it, it is just a fact. But I had already been the star, I had already been on 21 Jump Street… and I am a special kind of cat. I don’t know if they really consider me black in this industry; I don’t know if they consider me at all in this industry. My work is outstanding and I have a track record that is a monster yet, still, I am not Denzel or Samuel and not even a well-paid television star. But I am a working actor and I am still blessed in that sense, and I appreciate every opportunity that I get. I just want to work.
CYNTHIA ROTHROCK: I feel like in both film and in competition, I had to be better than the average person. Now, they have a women’s grand championship, but I’ve never in my life competed in a women’s championship, I had to compete against the men. I pushed myself harder because if I was only a little bit better, I wouldn’t win; I had to be phenomenally better. That inspired me to train really, really hard because I did have to prove myself. I remember that I was once asked to be on the cover of Karate Illustrated because the editor really wanted to put me on, but the owner said "women and minorities don’t sell." The editor fought for me to get on and the cover sold out. Later, I was at a bar with a top karate guy after a tournament, and he asked me "How did you get on the cover of Karate Illustrated, did you sleep with the editor?" And I responded, "no, is that how you got on?"
Kathleen Kinmont (Actor: The Art of Dying, CIA Code Name: Alexa): The first film I did for them was The Art of Dying, which was [pause] weird. It was kind of a glorified snuff film. It was interesting because Wings Hauser was directing and starring in it, and he did a fine job but he maybe wasn’t seasoned enough of a director to do both. That’s a really hard thing to pull off.
Wings is a lot like his name suggests. He’s like an ex-Vietnam guy, a bit unpredictable. To give you an example, in one of our sex scenes, he all of a sudden on set really wanted to shoot it in a kitchen and have the camera framing his back and bare ass. So Wings just pulls down his pants to his ankles and has the makeup girl apply makeup to make him look good, while we all sit around waiting to shoot the scene watching. That is what it was like on set.
CYNTHIA ROTHROCK: PM Entertainment put me in the lead, they were one of the few companies at that time that said, "Yes, Cynthia can sell as the lead." I was grateful that they had the foresight to say yes, and, obviously, they were looking at my track record too. I think that one of the biggest reasons that women weren’t selling was because they would get women — and even today you still see this — that look really hot and young but can’t fight. When you have someone that looks OK but can really fight, that is the package that's really going to sell. PM saw that.
COLE MCKAY: Joe (Merhi) was an amazing producer. He was really good at funding and financing, and he directed a number of the films as well. But Rick (Pepin) came from a filmmaking background, so, with Rick, the stories seemed to feel a little bit more real. Joseph’s stuff was primarily wall-to-wall action. Joe’s films were amazing, because it was like being part of a machine. Both guys had a great working relationship because they really complimented each other.
RICHARD MUNCHKIN: In my film The Deadly Bet, I think there were 15 fights in the ring over the course of that movie, and that doesn’t count fights that weren’t in the ring. They gave me a script that was only 42 pages long and the last 25% of the movie was summed up in one line: he goes to a big fight and wins. It was a factory: more fighting, more action, bigger stunts.
Actors who have worked with PM Entertainment
C. Thomas Howell
Billy Dee Williams
Anna Nicole Smith
A clip from Deadly Bet
CYNTHIA ROTHROCK: PM hired a guy who was an actor in Mexico — he was something like a Vanna White — to fight me because he told the producer that he could do all this stuff. He did one kick for them, and they were like, "yeah, that’ll do." But when he gets on set and is working with Richard Norton, he starts to go like, "ah, don’t hit me that hard." Richard laughs and just says, ‘Cynthia is going to hit you harder.’ So when I get there he tells me not to hit his face but he didn’t know how to move. So every time I went to punch him, he kept coming in closer. I think I tagged him just a hair on the nose but nothing serious. Everything was fine until I get home that night, and I receive a call from one of the producers telling me that the guy called back and wants 250,000 dollars because I broke his nose. I was shocked because I hardly even touched him, so we tell the guy that and immediately he goes, "will you give me 25,000 dollars?" So we told the guy to take a hike. He threatened to tell people that Cynthia Rothrock beat him up, and we just responded, "do you really want that known that you are such a big guy and that Cynthia Rothrock beat you up?" I think he even went down to 2,500 dollars at one point.
JOSEPH MERHI: We just tried to grow with each film. If on the 26th film we had three minutes that could rival a Universal Studios film, I was happy, and the next film we’d try to get four minutes worth. That’s how we worked.
KATHLEEN KINMONT: PM Entertainment always hired cool people and the sets were pretty small. Like 30-40 people overall, which was great, and there really was never the budget to have any more people involved.
RICHARD MUNCHKIN: In Ring of Fire 2, we were going to do the biggest stunt that PM had ever done at the end of the film. The idea was to blow up a building. So, at the end of the movie, Don is on the top of this car with a bag of explosives, and what he is supposed to do is throw the bag of explosives in the car before the car sails off the side of a hill and crashes into the roof of a building, blowing the entire building up.
A clip from Ring of Fire 2
They had pyro guys out there for an entire week, prepping the building. What was sort of typical of PM’s pennywise, tomfoolishness was that we had only one car and that car had to do all of the driving and stunts, and then had to be used to drive into the building and blow it up. In a normal movie, you’d have a duplicate car, right? So we did all of the driving stuff, and when it came time to sail it off the hill into the roof of the building, the car wouldn't start. They had every person that knew anything about a car working on it because it had to be done before the sun went down. No matter what they did, they couldn’t get it to start, but there was no way we weren’t shooting it that day. They eventually decided to push the car with a truck down a hill and, when the car reached enough speed, the truck would jam on the breaks and the car would enter the frame and, hopefully, then sail onto the roof of the building. If you look at the movie, what ended up happening was that the car comes off this hill and goes down into the dirt nose first, and then just kind of falls against the wall of the building and the whole place blows up. In my mind, it just looks terrible, but we saved the money of having to get a second car.
CYNTHIA ROTHROCK: I would do all of my action stunts but there was some horseback riding in Guardian Angel that I had a double for. I remember when I was going in for ADR, I saw that in one scene the wig fell off the girl and I said something about it, and they just responded, "that’s OK, we will put some noise in and no one will even catch it." I never felt unsafe with PM. Sometimes, when you get a little nervous about performing a stunt it is because you don’t really trust the stunt coordinator but I felt totally safe with Cole McKay, I never once felt that I was in danger.
STEVEN WILLIAMS: L.A. Heat ruined me. It ruined my fucking body. They let us do shit that actors aren’t supposed to do. They are supposed to have stunt men doing that shit. We were pulling 16 hour days, running, jumping, fighting and throwing our bodies all around. I jumped from four stories during that season; I jumped from a four-story building man, it was insane. So I’ve got some physical issues happening now: bad knees, bad back, compressed spine and shit. That is shit you get when you do stunts, especially when you do stunts and you are not a stunt man.
COLE MCKAY: I never loved going to work more, in any other aspect of my career, than when I used to go to work with PM. It was amazing. I loved the opportunity to do it bigger and better than everybody else. We’d get put down all the time. You know, "Eh PM, Low budget; they’re loose; nobody can compete against them." Well, they couldn’t compete against us because they didn’t have the passion that we had.
STEVEN WILLIAMS: In 1997, I was called for a meeting about L.A. Heat, I think it was a Friday. So I go in and meet with PM and Wolf Larson; we are given scripts, we read them, and I think we signed the contracts on the spot and went to work Monday morning, having just met. And, I think it went on to be one of the best campy shows ever on TV. It was a fun show. We were just tossed into this wonderful experience.
RICHARD MUNCHKIN: L.A. Heat was the craziest show in the history of television because they had a library of 50 plus movies and everyone of the movies had a big stunt in it (a car blowing up, a helicopter stunt) that they could pull and use in the episodes. So they were able to make this television show with incredible action pieces for not a lot of money.
COLE MCKAY: We learned to be so efficient. We were able to do so much stuff on the fly and it was always good. If you look at L.A. Heat, we would shoot those episodes in five or six days. We were knocking these things out, and look at the action, it was just wall-to-wall. We would never lose a stunt.
STEVEN WILLIAMS: We did lose a stuntman named Paul Dallas during a high fall; he lost his life. Not to put any disparaging stuff on any of the people who for worked for us — we had a wonderful crew and production staff — but a few mistakes were made. So there were a few motherfucking close calls that we can laugh about today. Wolf and I used to joke, "Hey Wolf, are you sleeping with the producer’s girlfriend? No? Then why they trying to kill us everyday?" So, yeah, there were a few instances that were close that we can laugh about today because we are safe and sound.
RICHARD MUNCHKIN: I didn’t come into the series until the second season. They would shoot these things in six days. So I did my episode and then they brought me in to have a meeting with the producer, Sherry Bowls, and Rick Pepin. So I sit down for the meeting and they tell me, "We’ve looked at your episode and this is the first episode anyone has ever shot where we did not have to go out and shoot pickups to make it cut together." And I thought, "Wow, you are on episode 40. That doesn’t sound that good." So they wanted to offer me the role of inhouse director, to shoot every other episode on a salary. The problem was the salary was less than they paid me to shoot the single episode. So I said,
"you know, in most companies when you do a really good job, they offer you more money, not less."
COLE MCKAY: L.A. Heat was a great deal for me because I would stunt coordinate a show, and then I would prep and 2nd Unit direct a show, and then I would prep and direct an episode. So I was pretty much involved with just about everything that was going on.
STEVEN WILLIAMS: To this day, I do not know why L.A. Heat only lasted two seasons, but I think it was the inexperience of the company. From what I witnessed — and I don’t get involved in a lot of the business, I am an actor, pure and simple — but I think it was their inexperience in dealing with television. They were used to dealing with the movie industry, and normally the straight-to-video portion. So I don’t think they knew how to sell a television show. The show had a great foreign first run, number one, so all of Europe was into that show long before America was even aware of it. I think that when they went to sell it to the American market they had no clue as how to do it. Somebody fucked up somewhere because it was a very popular show and a fun one.
Select PM titles not mentioned:
Repo Jake (1990)
Night of the Wilding (1990)
Maximum Force (1992)
Intent to Kill (1992)
Magic Kid (1993)
Forced to Kill (1994)
Deadly Target (1994)
Executive Target (1997)
Can’t Stop Dancing (1999)
COLE MCKAY: I was shocked when PM stopped. I don’t know why they sold. I was probably more surprised than anybody. There was always speculation that they were trying to do bigger films but couldn’t compete. We just couldn’t compete against bigger studios. I wish I knew the real story but I just really don’t know. It was an amazing run. We did more stunts in one week than most companies would do in one year. Even today, I will go into places and they will look at my resume and go, "Oh my god PM, you were there!" It was a blast.
KATHLEEN KINMONT: It was the whole home theater thing, and the transition from tapes to DVDs that did them in. All of a sudden, they had to start competing with a great deal of other 30-40 million dollar films. Plus, I think they were just burnt out. It’s hard work. It’s like working in a restaurant; really long hours and I don’t think they could keep up the steam any longer.
RICHARD MUNCHKIN: Eventually, the movie studios figured out what was going on. So the studios started making low budget action movies, but what was low budget for them would have Dolph Lungren in a 10 million dollar budget. By that point, PM had moved up to the 1-2 million dollar range, but suddenly the studios were cranking out these films and PM couldn’t compete. The buyers wanted stars. They wanted action but they wanted stars. PM just didn’t have the money to compete anymore, and they were able to sell the company and cash out. I think they were happy to do that.
Today, Merhi splits his time amongst his many endeavors, none of which involve film directly. Calling from his home in L.A., he graciously boasts that he is a busy man and has over 22 projects currently in the works. But, in hearing him talk, you don’t get the sense that he is a man that lives to work (although his lengthy track record might dispute that): “If I wake up one morning and I decide that I don’t want to work, I don’t. I will just cancel all my meetings right there,” he is proud to proclaim over the phone. His intentions do not seem aggressive or even pompous; in fact, Merhi comes across as a happy man, a man who feels very fortunate to have lived the life he has lived.
He doesn’t regret anything he’s done, although he admits that if he had to do it again he’d probably do it differently. Before concluding our interview, Merhi imparted me with one final thought: “I love this country because it has granted me every opportunity I’ve had in my life. If you get anything out of my story, it should be inspiration. If I, an immigrant who didn’t even know how to speak English, could come to America and make films, with the technology today anyone can do it. My story should inspire you to follow your dreams.”
Edited and produced by Mike Sheffield