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5 Things You Might Not Know About Arnold Schwarzenegger's Notorious Flop 'Last Action Hero'

Photo of Drew Taylor By Drew Taylor | The Playlist June 27, 2013 at 1:11PM

Last week marked the 20th anniversary of the release of John McTiernan's "Last Action Hero." Ostensibly a spoof of hyper-violent action movies, wherein a young boy named Danny (Austin O'Brien) is magically transported into the world of his favorite action star (Arnold Schwarzenegger, of course), the film went on to become one of the most notorious flops in Hollywood history – an example of the fateful collision of artistic arrogance, unreasonable expectations and a faulty product whose concept never fully solidified. It's a movie that should have been a straightforward send-up of things like “Lethal Weapon” but included jokes about cartoon cats and references to “The Seventh Seal.” McTiernan, who is currently serving a year sentence in federal prison for lying to a federal officer, gravely described "Last Action Hero" to Empire Magazine as "the worst time I’ve ever had in this business.” It was that traumatic.
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Last Action Hero Glory Shot

Execs knew the schedule was too tight from the very beginning
Three months after the project had been announced for production, and the warning signs were already being sounded. In Variety, as part of an announcement that R/Greenberg & Associates, a visual effects firm that, along with Industrial Light & Magic, had helped bring the dazzling visual effects of "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" to life, co-head Robert Greenberg tells the trade, "I don’t think a production of this scope has been pulled together on such a short schedule.” Scheduled to wrap production on March 19, 1993, two weeks before that end date, once again in Variety, it's noted "Last Action Hero" indeed "faces one of the most ambitious and intensive post-production schedules in Hollywood history.” Pre-production, production and post-production were scheduled to all be completed in less than ten months (and this was before an additional several weeks of reshoots was scheduled less than three weeks before the movie was set to premiere). “The movie, from the moment the studio said they wanted to do it until it was in the theatres, was nine-and-a-half months. Which was a month too short," McTiernan told Empire. "In hindsight, we were arrogant, too.” 

The hurried schedule had potentially catastrophic consequences, as Austin O'Brien, who played the young movie fanatic Danny, recalled to Empire. “I do remember that the deeper in we got, John looked more tired, more haggard,” O’Brien told the magazine. “He was great with me — when we got something right he’d turn into a little kid and start jumping around — but there was one day when I got a sense of how under the gun he was. We’d built a New York skyline inside the studio and I was hanging from a gargoyle, wearing a harness. It was so tight that I literally couldn’t breathe, but I was too nervous to say anything and I passed out for a few seconds. People were cutting my clothes off and it got kind of scary. But I do remember McTiernan coming up afterwards and saying, ‘In situations like these, I don’t care what’s happening, you tell me and we’ll fix it. Don’t be afraid. You haven’t done anything wrong, but we cannot afford to stop shooting.’ ” 

It got to the point that gossip columnist Liz Smith, on June 1st (about two weeks before the movie opened), reprinted a press release from the studio that noted, "In a move to cut off the endless string of calls from around the world on the very same tired subject, Columbia Pictures today announced the obvious: WE WILL ABSOLUTELY MAKE OUR DATE ON ‘LAST ACTION HERO.’ ” In the same piece Smith quipped: "The only thing self-evident is that Columbia's lady with the torch is sweating through her gossamer gown." The timetable was laid out: press screenings would start on June 11th, the premiere would be June 13th (a solemn affair from all indications) and the movie would splash across screens nationwide on June 18th. McTiernan later claimed that whole sequences weren't even properly edited, but quickly shuffled from the assembly into the final print because they didn't have time to do anything else. In "Hit & Run," the authors quote someone close to the production who admitted that it was so close that they "shouldn't have had Siskel & Ebert telling us that that the movie was ten minutes too long."

Jurassic Park
There was a "Jurassic Park" reference planned
The big story that summer, was, of course, "Last Action Hero" versus "Jurassic Park." They opened within two weeks of each other and it was seen (at least in the industry and press) as a colossal blockbuster showdown: Schwarzenegger versus Spielberg. Canton, for his part, was convinced that "Jurassic Park" would underperform, as Spielberg's last big movie had been "Hook," a critical and commercial disappointment. There was also the fact that virtually everyone genuinely thought "Last Action Hero" was destined to become a smash. Reading the press materials makes it clear how smug and self-satisfied the entire team was (it's pretty eye-rolling; cartoon Wile E. Coyote is listed as one of McTiernan's "creative consultants"). Supposedly there were many in the "Last Action Hero" camp that begged Canton to push back the release date. It would have served two purposes: one, it would have gotten the fuck out of the way of "Jurassic Park" and two, it would have given the filmmakers more time to refine the movie. Canton refused. Zak Penn, one of the original screenwriters (and later, a cast member), recalled to Empire how he pleaded with his boss. “It was insane,” Penn told Empire (laughing). “I rang him up and said, ‘I want to see 'Jurassic Park' more than Last Action Hero,' and 'Last Action Hero' was my idea!” McTiernan, who described the face-off as "sheer stupidity," admitted to Empire that the showdown was suicidal: “I saw Jurassic Park that summer: it’s a fabulous movie. But the studio tried to set us against each other, which was an idiotic thing to do. Because we weren’t the greatest action movie of all time. We were never supposed to be.” And the press fueled the fire. 

The Los Angeles Times, in a piece timed to the movie's release, said that the entire town had a "dark obsession" with "Last Action Hero," and of course quoted an exec who compared the two movies: "This is as bad for the business as 'Jurassic Park' is good." At the time McTiernan claimed to Screen International that someone from within the system was responsible for the bad press, but was quick to point out that, "it is not anybody to do with Universal and 'Jurassic Park.' " When "Last Action Hero" opened against the second weekend of "Jurassic Park" -- the biggest second weekend in the history of cinema at the time -- the Variety headline read, "Lizards eat Arnie's lunch!" The third weekend for "Jurassic Park" and the second for "Last Action Hero" was heralded as "make or break." It broke, and the movie out-grossed by "Sleepless in Seattle." 

What's so fascinating is that the "Jurassic Park" vs. "Last Action Hero" mentality was a complete invention of the press. "Last Action Hero" had long staked out its weekend in June, with Universal moving "Jurassic Park" to June 11th much later. There seemed to be room for both. In fact, the "Last Action Hero" team had at one point tipped its hat towards Spielberg's dino-blockbuster in a pretty blatant way. According to a Variety report three days before the movie premiered (but after the initial critics' screenings), a supposed cameo was planned where Sam Neill would show up in the infamous tar pits scene in his paleontologist attire from "Jurassic Park." It's unclear if this was ever shot or if it was filmed but simply didn't make it into the final movie.

Last Action Hero Macbeth
It's impossible to tell how much it actually cost
Trying to figure out how much "Last Action Hero" cost is something of a fool's errand. In May of 1993, Box Office Magazine cataloged all of the endorsements and product tie-ins the movie had already received: Burger King paid $12 million to have its products advertised, Mattel plunked $5 million into toys, and 25 other companies contributed too. There were pinball machines, comic books and trading cards by the Topps Company. T-shirts, beach towels, calendars, and sleepwear was also produced. Costly reshoots, overages, and ludicrous salaries supposedly pushed the budget past $85 million (a number that sites like Box Office Mojo now regularly report as historical fact). In a Drama-Logue interview published the first week of July 1993, McTiernan claims that one number that was published (in Entertainment Weekly) was a deliberate mislead to identify a leaker. “There is a lot of bullshit," McTiernan said. "We made up the goofiest number we could: $120 million. The bet was that before the movie was out somebody would report it for real. Some writer from Entertainment Weekly did last week. He was only wrong by about a factor of two. We are officially somewhere between $60 and $65 million. It turns out we are $2 ½ million under the last budget I was willing to sign. The process of being willing to sign mean, ‘I will be responsible for delivering a movie at this budget.’ In the negotiating process there is a point where you say, ‘I won’t go any further. This is the last one.’ We came out under that one.” 

Its total domestic box office haul was $50 million, which is fairly close to the $65 million number McTiernan bandied about (it made something like $137 million worldwide). The problem was that the movie was so expensive to advertise (see above) and that Schwarzenegger was given veto power on everything, including changing one poster design because he wanted to make his hair flutter (seriously), which ate up both time and money. The studio claims that it lost $26 million on the project but that might have been creative bookkeeping. While common place now, "Last Action Hero" was one of the first major blockbusters to make more money overseas than it did domestically. Maybe most fascinating (and hilarious) is the fact that in August of that year (the same month the rocket and 900-number scheme was taking off) producer Steve Roth might have used money from the production to solicit prostitutes from infamous Hollywood madame Heidi Fleiss' escort service. While he had a limited role in the movie -- after securing the property for Columbia (he was warring with sister company TriStar), Roth supposedly taking a step back when McTeirnan and Schwarzenegger boarded the project -- it still remains that part of the giant budget of "Last Action Hero" maybe went to a bunch of last action hookers. Schwarzenegger, who was also an executive producer and not spared the details when it came to the movie's financial returns, "guaranteed" that with the tie-ins it would always make its money back -- and a profit. And as "Hit & Run" points out, Columbia alone had much bigger bombs. "Geronimo," "l'll Do Anything" and even "Lost in Yonkers" ended up losing more money for the studio than "Last Action Hero." But none of them had the juicy behind-the-scenes intrigue or the megawatt star that furnished Arnie's blockbuster.

On July 3rd, several weeks after it debuted to the box office equivalent to a tumbleweed rolling across a dusty western plain, the Los Angeles Times made note of the film's poster, which had mysteriously mutated since the movie had opened. It had initially been advertised as a kid's movie, without any guns present and a font reminiscent of the 'Indiana Jones' films. Gone was Danny, the obnoxious kid, replaced by a very large gun. But it wasn't happening. In a 2001 Movieline interview, McTiernan described the personal fallout from "Last Action Hero:" "I went home and didn't want to talk to anybody for a year and a half. Stayed in Wyoming and did the hay. I had to lick my wounds." Schwarzenegger was particularly wounded. "To be rejected so soundly — it sort of broke his heart,” said McTiernan of Schwarzenegger (to Empire). In the years since, though, a steady cult following has grown around the goofy and charming and immaculately shot "Last Action Hero," populated by those devoted to pop culture, sarcastic humor, and big fucking guns. 

This article is related to: Features, Arnold Schwarzenegger, John McTiernan, Feature


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