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Arnold Schwarzenegger, A Career In Crisis: Why the ’80s Action Icon Can’t Mount a Comeback

The former Mr. Universe can't find an audience anywhere in the galaxy. "The New Celebrity Apprentice" and Donald Trump aren't doing him any favors.


Paul Drinkwater/NBC

This can’t be what Arnold Schwarzenegger imagined 2017 to look like: Sure, there’s a reality star in the White House, the Chicago Cubs are World Series champions, and his arch-rival (/best celebrity friend), Sylvester Stallone, is a recent Academy Award nominee. Yet for the ex-governor of California, far more confounding is how he became an ex-celebrity.

Schwarzenegger spent his acting life amassing a domestic box office of more than $1.8 billion. That haul came from comedies, like “Twins” ($111 million); science fiction, like “Total Recall” ($119 million) and “Terminator 2” ($204 million); or — his bread and butter — action flicks a la “True Lies” ($146 million) and “Eraser” ($101 million). But one unfortunate connection for all of Schwarzenegger’s films grossing $100 million-plus: They were all made before the year 2000.

Since the dawn of the new millennium, Schwarzenegger’s name above the title has carried less weight at the box office, resulting in drastically lower figures. How he’s identified by a new generation of viewers, as well as what his old fans think of him, is now very much up in the air.

Schwarzenegger’s latest attempt to build clout, “The New Celebrity Apprentice,” isn’t doing him any favors. What may seem like the last refuge for most fallen stars was treated as a calculated risk by the star — a chance to get an easy win when during a long losing streak — and that risk is backfiring. Big time.

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After a string of box office failures, a swing and a miss at artistic credibility with an indie flick, and now a ratings debacle on reality TV, the former Mr. Universe can’t find an audience anywhere in the galaxy. How that happened, and when, if ever, the Arnold America loves will be back are fittingly big questions. But it may be time to start asking one even harder to imagine: Has Schwarzenegger’s career already been terminated?

The Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda Comeback

Arnold Schwarzenegger The Last Stand - 2013 Director: Jee-Woon Kim Di Bonaventura Pictures USA Scene Still Le dernier rempart

When Arnold Schwarzenegger left acting and won California’s gubernatorial recall election in October 2003, he wasn’t exactly at the top of his game. His last leading role came on the heels of back-to-back stumbles: “The 6th Day” (2000) and “Collateral Damage” (2002) grossed just $34 million and $40 million (respectively) in the States, despite $80 million-plus budgets, and neither cracked $100 million worldwide. “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” topped $150 million in the U.S. alone, but the 2003 summer blockbuster carried a $200 million price tag, meaning its $433 global total might have meant breaking even for Warner Bros. (Remember this sequence of events — dud, dud, “Terminator” — for the future.)

Still, the idea that Schwarzenegger turned to politics because he could no longer make a living as an A-list actor seemed a little ridiculous. During the same time period, Schwarzenegger’s yolked ’80s brother-in-arms was faring far worse: Stallone’s starring roles between 2000 and 2005 topped out at $32 million (“Driven”) and resulted in two straight-to-video disasters in “Eye See You” (2002) and “Shade” (2004). Plus, Schwarzenegger’s career has been spotted with misfires. (“Junior” was no “Kindergarten Cop,” just like “Last Action Hero” couldn’t draw the dollars typical of Arnold, the action hero.) So when Schwarzenegger left the governor’s office and started talking about making movies again, few expected what came next.

In his first starring role since “Terminator 3,” Schwarzenegger’s much-hyped return to the silver screen in the R-rated action flick “The Last Stand” grossed almost exactly one-third of “The 6th Day.” Debuting to $6 million domestically in January 2013, his big comeback film — a serviceable B-movie — barely doubled that number by the time it quickly left theaters. Worse yet, it didn’t fare much better overseas, pulling in just $48 million overall. Such low interest indicated that, even in the age of giant global grosses green-lighting domestic productions and aging action stars lengthening their movie star lives overseas, a tried-and-true screen legend had lost his luster in the worldwide market.

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Shifting Tactics

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin Maggie - 2015 Director: Henry Hobson Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions/Grindstone Entertainment Group USA/SWITZERLAND Scene Still Horror

Schwarzenegger followed up “The Last Stand” with a pair of similarly themed flops: First, he joined forces with Stallone for “Escape Plan,” hoping to continue a combination of ’80s star power once-thought profitable thanks to a cameo in “The Expendables” and a slightly larger role in “The Expendables 2.” While the duo proved to be a draw overseas in the prison thriller, pulling in $112 million internationally, “Escape Plan” netted just $25 million in the States. His best movie since coming out of retirement, “Escape Plan” still couldn’t offer Schwarzenegger the escape he needed from box office purgatory. (A sequel has been announced, but Schwarzenegger is, as yet, unattached.)

He then tried his hand at more hardcore thrills in “Sabotage,” but the 2014 David Ayer police corruption mystery landed with a heavier thud than “The Last Stand”: $10 million domestic and only $7 more internationally. An abhorrent, lazily slapped together movie packed with gruesome violence and little purpose, “Sabotage” could have been career suicide for a younger lead. For Schwarzenegger, it just marked a shift in tactic. Though he took another small role in “The Expendables 3,” his next starring role purposefully distanced the bulky Austrian from the action genre. Schwarzenegger wasn’t going to be a movie star anymore. He was going to act.

“Maggie” was an independent production unlike anything he’d done before. As Wade Vogel, a father to a daughter who’d been bitten by a zombie, Schwarzenegger wasn’t on a crusade to kill as many of the undead as possible and save mankind in the process. He was locked in a moral crisis over what to do with his kid; asked to care for her well-being with his emotions instead of his muscles. While the film was met with mixed reviews, many critics gave credit to Schwarzenegger for a surprisingly layered turn.

And yet…even with a lower standard for success, “Maggie” wasn’t a hit. After premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival, the film grossed just $187,112. It appeared that America wasn’t interested in an artistic Arnold, either.

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So he went back to his roots — again. In what was billed as a reboot of the “Terminator” franchise — that, problematically, followed another would-be reboot of the “Terminator” franchise, the 2009 McG-directed “Terminator: Salvation” — “Terminator: Genisys” marked Schwarzenegger’s return to the franchise that made him a star. Again, he was a cyborg sent to save the Earth. Again, he donned the leather jacket and sunglasses. Again, he promised he would be back.

Fans, for a while, seemed into it. With a solid cast consisting of Jason Clarke, J.K. Simmons, Matt Smith, and “Game of Thrones” star Emilia Clarke all supporting Schwarzenegger, as well as hot indie executive producer Megan Ellison (who was originally supposed to produce and fund the film through Annapurna Pictures), “Genisys” seemed like the right move to restore the franchise to its triumphant early roots — and Schwarzenegger to his own.

But awful reviews and stiff competition from “Jurassic World” doomed the complicated time travel odyssey at the box office. It never recovered from a weak July 4, 2015, opening weekend, grossing $27 million (and finishing third behind “Jurassic World” and “Inside Out”) before tallying just $89 million domestically. “Terminator Salvation” made $125 million and got better reviews.

An argument could be made for Schwarzenegger’s presence helping to boost the international box office: “Genisys” pulled in $350 million to “Salvation’s” $246 million. But plans for more “Terminator” films connected to the new characters and (crazy) timeline were scrapped. Now, the future focus of the franchise seems to be John Cameron, the original director, rather than Schwarzenegger, the original star.

Still, the 2015 film is Schwarzenegger’s last starring role to date. Well, his last starring role at the movies…

A Desperate Gamble

THE NEW CELEBRITY APPRENTICE -- "In Here You Call Me Governor" Episode 1501 -- Pictured: (l-r) Tyra Banks, Patrick Knapp Schwarzenegger, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Trident Executives John Ghingo, Katie Williams

“The New Celebrity Apprentice” was supposed to do for the “The Celebrity Apprentice” franchise what “The Celebrity Apprentice” did for “The Apprentice”: revitalize a flailing franchise. When Donald Trump stepped in with the “Celebrity” tag, his tenure as host started off well enough. The new iteration of an old show pulled in an average of nearly 10 million viewers in his first season (the seventh season of “The Apprentice” series), even if it had dropped to just over 6 million average viewers during his last stint (Season 14).

As Vulture pointed out in a thorough analysis of the “Celebrity Apprentice” ratings, the show hasn’t been a huge hit in a long, long time. But it did help extend the reality show beyond its expected termination date. Ratings for the first four seasons of “Celebrity” were higher than the final season of “The Apprentice,” even if they never achieved the same gargantuan levels of the franchise’s first two seasons.

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Broadcast TV has been on the decline since the reality show premiered. “Celebrity Apprentice” may not have bucked that trend, but the decision to switch from civilian to celebrity contestants proved wise. The thinking with “The New Celebrity Apprentice” followed a similar logic to its predecessor: With a bigger star in the boardroom, an updated title, and a slew of celebrities, NBC had to believe its third version of the same reality show could succeed at least as well as the second.

So far, it hasn’t. Averaging just over 4 million viewers a week, “The New Celebrity Apprentice” is the lowest-rated entry in the franchise. Only one season comes close: a traditional “Apprentice” wedged between seasons of “Celebrity Apprentice” in 2010, which pulled in almost 4.7 million viewers. By “Celebrity” standards, Schwarzenegger’s iteration is more than 1.5 million in the hole — and dropping.

THE NEW CELEBRITY APPRENTICE Tyra Banks, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Patrick Knapp

All that being said, television has changed even in the two years between Trump’s last season and the new version. We’re about to enter the fifth straight year where none of the big four broadcast networks average more than a 3.0 rating among adults 18-49, and most series are down in the ratings from year-to-year. So the question isn’t necessarily how does Schwarzenegger stack up against Trump, but how does he compete with his timeslot competitors?

The short answer: poorly. On Mondays at 8pm, Schwarzenegger is facing off against “Kevin Can Wait” and “Man With a Plan” on CBS, “Gotham” on Fox, and “The Bachelor” on ABC. The only show that “New Celebrity Apprentice” is outpacing so far is “Gotham”… and “Gotham” has won the 18-49 demo during the last two weeks (the series’ only head-to-head match-ups). “Kevin Can Wait” is pulling in more than 8 million viewers in its first season, essentially doubling up Schwarzenegger’s numbers, while its partner in the 8 o’clock hour — Matt LeBlanc’s “Man With a Plan” — is also topping “Celebrity” with a 6.5 million average.

And that’s the good news. When you compare “The New Celebrity Apprentice” to reality shows instead of scripted series, the numbers look worse. “The Bachelor” is crushing Schwarzenegger on Monday nights, pulling in more than 6.7 million viewers on average, and it nearly doubled NBC’s demo numbers last week. When you remember “The Bachelor” isn’t even TV’s highest-rated reality show, well, anyone with a weak stomach should skip to the next paragraph. “The Voice” pulled in more than 10.7 million viewers twice a week in 2016. When the Monday and Tuesday airings are combined, “The Voice” outpaced Schwarzenegger’s “Apprentice” numbers five times over.

“The New Celebrity Apprentice” is ranked third in ratings among NBC’s unscripted series, fourth (behind “Dateline”) in total viewers, and there are only five unscripted series on the network. It trails “The Good Place” and “Superstore” — the former of which is said to be on the bubble for renewal — putting it in 11th place overall for NBC out of 17 series. In terms of viewership, it’s 15th.

READ MORE: 12 TV Shows to Watch During Times of Political Unrest — IndieWire Critics Survey

Hasta La Vista?

THE NEW CELEBRITY APPRENTICE -- "Scissors And Some Creativity" Episode 1507 -- Pictured: (l-r) Patrick Knapp Schwarzenegger, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lorissa's Kitchen Executive Lorissa

The very idea of an Arnold Schwarzenegger TV show — any Arnold Schwarzenegger TV show — doing this badly would have been hard to imagine even a few years ago. Frankly, it’s difficult to believe the level of disinterest now. So what went wrong?

Politics, for a start. Pairing a Republican ex-governor with a show formerly helmed by a hugely controversial political figure has done more damage than expected. When he was announced to be the new host, no one thought Trump could win the presidency. It was September 2015, long before anyone thought that Trump even had a shot at the nomination. But he did, and it stuck Schwarzenegger in a bad position. Be it because of his near-record low approval ratings leaving office or that viewers can no longer see reality TV as a “fun” indulgence (or at least this reality TV), the politics aren’t playing.

Yet Schwarzenegger himself isn’t free from controversy. Aside from his work in office (his tenure as California governor is widely considered a disappointment), Schwarzenegger’s pubic image shifted because of a private affair. Before his film career was resurrected, reports surfaced confirming Schwarzenegger had an affair while married to Maria Shriver. He had a son out of wedlock, 14 years prior to the split. Considering Shriver’s good-standing as a philanthropist, reporter, and ties to the Kennedy family (she’s John F. Kennedy’s niece), it’s easy to assume the public sided with Shriver during the divorce. Perhaps they’re showing it at the box office and in the ratings.

True to trend pieces populating the internet, the muscular macho masculine ideal Schwarzenegger represented in the ’80s isn’t what’s worshiped in the new millennium. But the past is in the past, and a culture shift shouldn’t be his No. 1 concern right now. It’s his connection to Donald Trump. Despite Schwarzenegger’s repeated condemnations, fans may identify him too closely with the new president, given his political party, arguable ineptitude in office, and ugly actions outside of it. Playing into the parallels by taking over for Trump on “Celebrity Apprentice” appears to be damaging him even further. Audiences don’t want to watch Trump 2.0, especially if he’s being played by one of their former heroes.

Whether “The New Celebrity Apprentice” is cancelled or renewed, it’s become abundantly clear that what’s best for Schwarzenegger is to drop this dud. Unlike the movies, TV keeps going, and the longer he stays on the air as a surrogate Trump the longer it will haunt him. Early approval ratings for the new president indicate what most knew soon after the election: Most of America voted against him, and more and more are turning on him every day. If comparisons to Trump are damaging Schwarzenegger’s image now, think what it could look like in four more years.

For the first time Arnold Schwarzenegger’s long, booming, box office career, it may be best that no one’s watching. It could be his only chance to come back.

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