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.
The movie was seemingly doomed from the beginning, with an unrealistic production (and post-production) schedule, an ambitious but poorly planned marketing campaign, and a foolish screening schedule (supposedly a test screening held two months before release went so disastrously that the studio had the comment cards destroyed). But if you’ve never seen the film before, there’s a perfect opportunity just around the corner: on Saturday night the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles will be hosting a 20th anniversary midnight showing of the movie.
Three notes: Most of the information referenced in this piece was compiled with the help of filmmaker Charles Hood, who scoured the Academy library in Los Angeles for any and all tidbits about the tumultuous path “Last Action Hero” took to big screen infamy. Equally invaluable were a pair of books with chapters on this very movie — “Hit and Run” by Nancy Griffin and Kim Masters, and “Fiasco” by James Robert Parish. Also, this article is best read while listening to the AC/DC song “Big Gun” from the official motion picture soundtrack, on repeat.
William Goldman convinced both McTiernan and Arnold to sign on (or is it the other way around?)
In Claudia Eller’s “Dish” column in the August 4,1992 issue of Variety recounts how Schwarzenegger and McTiernan wooed William Goldman, the Academy Award-winning writer and novelist behind “Marathon Man” and “The Princess Bride,” to come on board the project by issuing a conference call (along with Columbia chairman Mark Canton). At this point both Schwarzenegger and McTiernan were keenly interested in the project but not totally sold (its summer 1993 release date was looming). So the three got on the phone with Goldman (along with Head of Production Michael Nathanson, Executive Vice President of Production Barry Josephson and Arnold’s agent) and convinced Goldman to sign on, even though he was initially uninterested. According to the “Dish” report, Goldman said that he would only sign on if he could make the movie more in the “tone of his classic buddy pic ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ than a super, kid-in-awe actioner.” The report quotes a source in the Goldman camp as saying, “Bill’s point is the two characters had nowhere to go. Now he’ll give them problems and conflict – they’ll have character arcs and he’ll make it a much more interesting, three-dimensional picture.”
As recounted in a fascinating, hyper-detailed New York Times article called “Five Writers + One Star = A Hit?,” released right before the movie’s debut, “Last Action Hero” started as a spec script by Adam Leff and Zak Penn called “Extremely Violent,” which was later heavily revised by Shane Black (whose scripts had partially been the inspiration for “Last Action Hero”) and his writing partner David Arnott (it was this draft that initially attracted McTiernan, who said he was drawn to the Black/Arnott draft’s “wacko sense of humor”). Goldman was picked because he had rewritten Schwarzenegger’s “Twins” earlier and the two had a relationship. What’s so amazing about Schwarzenegger and McTiernan officially signing on, less than a week after the initial “Dish” report, is that they were now locked onto a project fueled by the promise of a Goldman draft (even if that draft was fucking awful). Like so much of “Last Action Hero,” their involvement was predicated on a sunny, misguided optimism (and the aforementioned hubris) that is simply stunning. Goldman changed a number of things – he revised the demonic projectionist, turning him into a kindly best friend of young protagonist Danny, and made the script’s secondary villain its prime antagonist. Supernatural elements that laced the script, like a phone call Danny places to his dead father, were eliminated and Danny’s age was lowered from 15 to 11, differentiating it from a similar relationship Schwarzenegger shared with Edward Furlong in “Terminator 2: Judgement Day.” According to McTiernan: “Goldman gave Arnold a character to play, and he excised 150 toilet jokes.” For his four weeks of work, Goldman was paid between $750,000 and $1 million. Goldman wasn’t even the last writer to get a crack at “Last Action Hero” – at least two more, Carrie Fisher and “Hunt for Red October” writer Larry Ferguson also made adjustments, and at some point Black and Arnott were brought back to try and synthesize all of the various elements into a semi-cohesive whole. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men…
It was probably the most poorly marketed movie ever
Sure, it was widely known that “Last Action Hero” opened the same summer as the unstoppable juggernaut known as “Jurassic Park” and that, comparably, it faltered, with an ad campaign that was muddled and confusing. But digging deeper and you understand that it was a chronically fucked up campaign from the very beginning and that the advertising failed the movie on an almost cellular level. This cannot be overstated. Like everything associated with “Last Action Hero,” the marketing people were ambitious, trying for bold new directions that would create maximum impact… and missed the mark completely.
Take, for instance, the giant inflatable Arnold that they erected in Times Square (which had yet to become the squeaky clean tourist Mecca and still contained at least trace elements of its signature sleaze). It was a cartoon-y balloon version of the action superstar and in his right hand contained a fistful of dynamite. The problem was that the 75-foot balloon was erected three days after the original World Trade Center bombing. It was quietly deflated and put back up a day later, this time with his badge replacing the sticks of dynamite. Even more ambitious was a plan, launched at around the same time as the balloon (March 1993) to advertise the movie on a space shuttle. According to the Los Angeles Times, it cost Columbia somewhere in the neighborhood of $500,000 for the privilege. In May the specifics were broken down by Box Office Magazine: “A Conestoga 1620 rocket will lift an 1,800 pound COMET-1 FreeFlyer to a 300-nautical-mile, low-Earth orbit, with advertising for the film emblazoned on the main fuselage and booster rockets and the payload (which will orbit for a minimum of two years). Columbia will also sponsor a 900-phone number program which will allow customers to call in and eave a message that will be sent into space.” Sounds pretty cool, huh? Except that it didn’t exactly work out that way. Later that month NASA confirmed that the rocket carrying the “Last Action Hero” ad had been delayed. Again. It was supposed to launch in May, then June, and it eventually launched in August. The film’s release date was June 18th. By August everyone had forgotten about the movie (if they ever knew about it to begin with). Reports of the actual rocket launch and the subsequent advertising campaign that followed have never surfaced.
In a retrospective feature in British magazine Empire, McTiernan summed it up: “The advertising campaign was terrible. It did seem that if they hadn’t overhyped the movie, it would have been easier to sell it.” What makes this even more astounding (as recounted in “Fiasco“) is that in August 1992, Canton had hosted a conclave on the Sony studio lot, featuring executives from 70 divisions of the Sony empire. (Sony had only recently purchased Columbia a few years prior, from soda giant Coca-Cola.) The movie was supposed to be the definition of synergistic magic, Canton announced, with Sony video games being developed around Arnold’s “Last Action Hero” character, a soundtrack album released on a Sony record label and the company’s new digital sound format (Sony Dynamic Digital Sound) accompanying its theatrical release. This wasn’t a single movie; this was a movement. And Canton saw it as a multi-picture franchise, one that could rival the “Batman” and “Lethal Weapon” franchises at his old home Warner Bros. (publicly he expressed interest in getting a sequel ready for the following summer). He failed on all accounts.
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.”
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.
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.