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'Last Action': Too Many Heroes? : Big-Name Star, Director and Writers--So What Happened?

June 30, 1993|TERRY PRISTIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was built around the world's No. 1 superstar. The studio envisioned it as a huge blockbuster--one of the biggest of all time--and spared no expense to make it. The screenwriters included two of the industry's heaviest hitters.

Yet despite the hype and the high-priced talent involved, Columbia Pictures' "Last Action Hero," starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, seems destined to join the ranks of such world-class flops as "Hudson Hawk" and "Bonfire of the Vanities." Opening June 18, "Action" took in an unimpressive $15 million its first weekend and ticket sales fell by 47% last weekend to $8 million, relegating "Action" to an embarrassingly low fourth-place finish.

But while this summer has had its share of disappointing movies, "Last Action Hero," believed to have cost many millions more than the $70 million the studio has admitted to, has emerged as an especially inviting target. "Why is it that people have turned so viciously against this movie?" speculated one former production chief for another studio. "Because it was made irresponsibly. That has to do with throwing so much money into the pot and not handling it properly."

What went wrong? To many in the industry, just the concept of a boy's journey into the cinematic world of his action-star hero seemed an appealing, if not necessarily commercial, idea. But once Schwarzenegger signed on, prospects for the project soared. Outside observers and sources close to the movie, however, cite a wide variety of problems, stemming both from shortcomings on the artistic side to marketing and other strategic decisions made jointly by Columbia management, headed by chairman Mark Canton, and the creative team, which put the picture into direct competition with the record-breaking megahit "Jurassic Park."

Among the creative factors dooming "Action," they say, was a patchwork script, uninvolving characters, a confusing story and a poor choice of director. The race to meet an impossibly tight deadline added to the movie's cost while giving filmmakers little time for advance planning or correcting their mistakes. The project was also handicapped by a seeming indifference to strict cost controls.

Much of the backlash is attributed to what was seen as premature crowing by Columbia executives and Schwarzenegger, who wore a second hat as executive producer and was paid $15 million--the entire production cost of many movies--and promised a percentage of profits, if any. For Mark Canton, who bought the script shortly after becoming Columbia's chairman in the fall of 1991, it was to be his first big test as studio head.

Said one insider, commenting on the executives' bragging: "Canton and (executive vice president, production) Barry Josephson had their coronation prior to the first frame being shot. I do think that backfired on us."

Columbia executives declined to comment on the movie. "We're in the middle of the release, and we intend to be in the marketplace for the whole summer," said Sid Ganis, president for worldwide marketing and distribution, explaining the studio's silence. Director John McTiernan also refused to discuss "Action," and Schwarzenegger was out of town and could not be reached, according to his spokeswoman.

On the first day of production in October, 1992, syndicated gossip columnist Liz Smith announced that the studio was spending $750,000 on a trailer to be shown at Christmas--the costliest "coming attraction" ever. "The studio figures it will make back that amount within the first five minutes of the movie's opening," Smith wrote. (Columbia has said the trailer's actual cost was far lower.)

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Although "Last Action Hero" sprang from humble beginnings--a screenplay written on speculation by novices Zak Penn and Adam Leff that was auctioned in October, 1991--Columbia executives saw it from the outset as a project for Schwarzenegger, who at that time was entertaining a raft of other proposals. To land the superstar, the studio let him choose his own writer, Shane Black ("Lethal Weapon" and "The Last Boy Scout"), and director, John McTiernan ("The Hunt for Red October" and "Die Hard"), who was reportedly paid $5.5 million. Schwarzenegger and McTiernan had worked together on "Predator."

Six months after the courtship was initiated, Schwarzenegger was still holding out, worried that the relationship between his character, Jack Slater, and the boy, Danny Madigan (Austin O'Brien), lacked warmth. Only after William Goldman, Hollywood's leading script doctor, agreed to spend four weeks rewriting the screenplay to make it "sweeter"--the adjective everyone glommed onto--did Schwarzenegger consent to make the film.

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