By Ronald Grover Arnold and Maria probably weren't the only ones doing high-fives when the California election returns came streaming in on Oct. 7. Billionaire Phil Anschutz was no doubt doing his own victory lap in Denver. The press-shy dealmaker who made his fortune in railroads, telecommunications, and most recently the movie-theater business had made one of Hollywood's most outrageous bets -- and Schwarzenegger's victory just may help it pay off.
Anschutz spent $105 million to make a film based on Jules Verne's 1872 novel Around the World in 80 Days through Walden Media, which is a unit of Anschutz Co. The film, which stars Jackie Chan and British comedian Steve Coogan as two travelers seeking to circle the globe in two short months and 20 days, just happens to feature one Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Indeed, this movie could mark the last time the muscled actor will be seen on the big screen -- for some time to come at least. "It's somewhere between a cameo and a featured role," says Walden CEO Cary Granat of Schwarzenegger's part, a Turkish prince the travelers meet somewhere along the way.
D.I.Y. PRODUCTION. If the Terminator as Turkish royalty sounds like a stretch, how about this: Unlike other film-production companies, which line up a U.S. studio to distribute -- and help pay for -- its films, this big-budget extravaganza was funded out of Anschutz' own pocket, a spokesperson confirms. But that's soon to change, says Granat. The film is now being edited, and according to the Walden CEO, already plenty of studios are interested.
He credits the fact that the film, which Walden is shooting for a PG rating, is the kind of family fare that has found an audience in recent hits like the Harry Potter series. And several of the studios don't have a major production on next summer's schedule yet. This could fit the bill. As for Schwarzenegger being in it -- well, that can't hurt. If it was a plus before, it's a big bonus now.
That's a nice turnaround for Anschutz from a few months back, when no one in Hollywood seemed eager to take on the flick. Earlier, Paramount Pictures (VIA) had problems with the film and backed out, leaving Anschutz to foot the entire bill -- unthinkable in a town where no one uses his own money. At the time, Paramount was said to be expecting stars like Hugh Grant and Adam Sandler to play small roles. Didn't happen. Walden says only that there were "creative differences" and that those two actors were never signed up.
SOLID CONNECTIONS. Now, says Granat, the production has recouped about 60% of its funding from overseas distributors. It still needs a large U.S. distributor, as much to help pay off the rest of Anschutz' advance as to provide the $50 million or so in advertising that will be needed to make it a hit. A Paramount spokeswoman says the studio is interested in talking with Walden now that the project is complete. And Granat says he's certain to show it to Disney (DIS), the studio for which Walden made this year's kiddie hit, Holes, as well as to all the other major studios.
Why did Schwarzenegger say, "I'll be the Turk"? He says he was talked into playing the character of Prince Hapi by fellow action star Jackie Chan. It didn't hurt that Around the World's producer, Hal Lieberman, also happened to have produced Schwarzenegger's last starring film, Terminator 3. So in July, a few weeks before announcing his gubernatorial ambitions, the actor flew to Berlin for a few days of shooting.
He won't be alone as a cameo. The movie also has walk-on roles for Kathy Bates as Queen Victoria and brothers Luke and Owen Wilson as Orville and Wilbur Wright. Virgin Air founder Richard Branson has a small role, as do John Cleese and Rob Schneider.
STATEHOUSE PLUG? So assuming a studio picks up Around the World -- and I'm betting one will -- that raises an entirely different issue. You know that Schwarzenegger's face will be plastered all over the movie's promotional material -- his small role notwithstanding. But can Walden count on the governor to plug his latest movie? You might think he'll be too busy balancing California's budget and solving the electricity crisis (see BW, 10/27/03, "Choose Your Weapon, Arnold").
Then again, this is the guy who announced his candidacy on The Tonight Show. A premiere in Sacramento? Don't rule it out. Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Power Lunch column, only on BusinessWeek Online