Arnold Schwarzenegger Risks Termination at the Box Office
This story first appeared in the Feb. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
He'll be back. But does anyone care? In the wake of the U.S. box-office failure of The Last Stand, Arnold Schwarzenegger's first starring vehicle in nearly a decade, doubts are being cast about several of his upcoming movies. And some are questioning whether the former California governor has any future as an action star.
Last Stand was supposed to herald an action-hero comeback for Schwarzenegger, 65, who sought to join peers Sylvester Stallone, Liam Neeson and Bruce Willis as Hollywood's apparently ageless wonders. Instead, it has turned into a referendum on whether The Governator can recover from personal scandal and a longtime absence from the silver screen. The film's mixed reviews and dismal $7.2 million gross over the long Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend -- a 10th-place finish -- put big pressure on his upcoming projects.
"All eyes were on this movie, and appropriately so," says box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian. "If you want to mount a comeback, this is not the way you want to start. But in Hollywood, you get several chances. If I were him, I'd get Terminator 5 on the fast track."
It's difficult to gauge whether audiences -- especially women, who made up just 40 percent of the R-rated Last Stand's audience -- stayed away because of Schwarzenegger's separation from Maria Shriver following the disclosure that he had a child with their housekeeper. Arnold's recent book, Total Recall, sold a poor 21,000 copies in its first week in release in October. But Lionsgate and sister company Summit won't have much time to ponder Schwarzenegger's weaknesses and strengths as they gear up to market his next film, The Tomb. Opening Sept. 27, the action thriller stars Schwarzenegger opposite Stallone as prisoners who mount a bold escape. Then comes Ten, due in theaters in January 2014, which features Arnold as the commander of an elite Drug Enforcement Agency squad that steals from a cartel. Open Road Films is distributing the film, directed by David Ayer and also featuring Sam Worthington, Terrence Howard and Mireille Enos.
"If they work, he's fine," says one agent. "But if they follow the trajectory of Last Stand, he's done."
In the meantime, Schwarzenegger has several big projects looming -- including Terminator 5. The revival of the franchise is being mounted by siblings Megan Ellison and David Ellison via their respective Annapurna Pictures and Skydance Productions. Earlier in January, they set Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier to write the script, signaling that the project is a go. Schwarzenegger also is attached to Universal's Triplets -- a follow-up to the 1988 comedy Twins -- and The Legend of Conan.
"Let's face it, you put Arnold in a Terminator movie, and it will open at No. 1," says Dergarabedian. "I'm not going to count him out yet. In the case of The Last Stand, it came down to the movie. It opened in a very competitive marketplace, and the concept wasn't that appealing."
Lionsgate had hoped that Last Stand would mirror the The Expendables franchise, which features a parade of older actors, including Stallone and Willis. Schwarzenegger made a cameo in the first film and played an expanded role in the sequel, which grossed $300.4 million worldwide in 2012. He even was featured prominently in the marketing.
But Last Stand -- a $45 million-budgeted tale about a washed-up sheriff who becomes embroiled in a drug war -- didn't have The Expendables' kitsch. Moviegoers between 35 and 49, the demo that feasted on Schwarzenegger's action films of the 1980s and '90s, gave Last Stand a C+ Cinemascore, the lowest grade of any age group. Lionsgate tried to lure younger moviegoers by casting Johnny Knoxville in the movie, but it still was seen as a Schwarzenegger film, with only 28 percent of the audience under age 25.
"There's an entire generation of young people that was wondering why the governor of California was starring in a movie," says one studio observer.
Many believe Schwarzenegger -- who earned between $8 million and $10 million plus backend for Last Stand, a big fee but down from his $20 million-plus salary in his prime -- might have greater success overseas, where star power can have more weight and audiences love action. The Jan. 20 premiere of the film in Cologne, Germany, easily overshadowed the premiere of Denzel Washington's Flight in Berlin on the same night in local media. "He's Back" was a common headline.
"There is an appetite for these kinds of films -- look at the success of The Expendables," says Andreas Klein, head of Splendid Films, which is distributing Last Stand in Germany (Lionsgate did about $25 million worth of foreign sales). Splendid also released Expendables and its sequel, which grossed $215.4 million overseas, compared with $85 million domestic.
Others disagree, pointing out that Tom Cruise's recent Jack Reacher underperformed overseas. (Like Schwarzenegger, Cruise's image also has been impacted by personal drama.)
"Just because Arnold Schwarzenegger is in it doesn't mean it's going to be a big hit," says one international buyer. "He's risky."