By Ronald Grover
It had the look and feel of a political event. Advance folks fanned out through the cavernous building. The crowds were already forming, eagerly eyeing the free drinks. And the candidate? Well, he was running late -- quite late, in fact.
When he arrived, the light bulbs went off, and the glad-handing began. Reporters, dutifully instructed about where to stand, waited their turn for photo-ops -- and perhaps for the chance to ask a quick question or two, even though they had been told the candidate was pressed for time.
Who's running? Arnold Schwarzenegger. The race? Regaining his title as box-office champ with Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. Then again, it could have been Ah-nuld's long-rumored, but not yet confirmed, launch of a political campaign to be California's next governor. It was hard to tell at the Raleigh Studios off Melrose Avenue recently, but that certainly seemed the intent of Schwarzenegger and his advance team -- to blur the line.
A SLOW FADE?
True, political fortunes have never ridden on whether a candidate has a blockbuster movie. (After all, as an actor, Ronald Reagan is best remembered for starring with a chimp in a B-movie.) But Schwarzenegger is no ordinary actor. He's a star.
So watch those box-office tallies for Terminator 3, slated to open July 2. If T-3 has a boffo opening -- let's say $80 million for its initial five-day weekend -- here's my bet: He won't run for governor. Instead, Arnold the political candidate will slowly fade into a Technicolor sunset, forever remembered for his Hollywood roles.
For all the coyness, his obvious enjoyment of the will-he-or-won't-he game and the behind-the scenes moves, Schwarzenegger would rather stay a movie star than be governor, in my judgment. And who can blame him? Why give up Hollywood, where everyone fawns the minute a big-screen name walks into the room, for Sacramento? California faces a budget crisis of historic proportions -- a $38 billion-and-growing deficit, and Wall Street's money mavens are thinking of turning off the spigot for future loans that would keep the state operating.
Schwarzenegger may not have the luxury of choosing between Hollywood and Sacramento, however. His film career has been on a downward spiral for six years. His last film, 2002's Collateral Damage, did a meager $40 million at the box office. The one before that, The Sixth Day, darkened 2000 with a less-than-muscular $35 million. Indeed, you have to go all the way back to 1996's Eraser to find a film starring the former muscle-building champ that broke the $100 million barrier -- Hollywood's benchmark for the big time.
So just in case, Schwarzenegger is hedging his bets. He has quietly hired political operative George Gorton, who ran both of former Governor Pete Wilson's gubernatorial campaigns. And the Terminator also has spent years preparing for the part of a candidate. He heads an after-school program for kids called Inner-City Games, and last year, he became a vocal advocate of Proposition 49, the successful ballot measure to fund such programs.
I saw Schwarzenegger in action last year, when he was promoting the initiative at the groundbreaking for the California State University at Dominguez Hills' new stadium. He smoothly worked the well-heeled crowd and then spoke eloquently of helping children in need. Very candidate-like. And let's not forget that when he married Maria Shriver, he joined America's most famous political family. True, he is a Republican, but you have to figure he picked up a few tricks from his Kennedy in-laws over the years. By Ronald Grover
HE-MAN OF THE PEOPLE.
More recently, Arnold has been promoting the heck out of T-3. He has hit the talk shows, chatted up Howard Stern, and clowned with Jay Leno that his coming "big decision" would be what to wear for the movie's premiere.
When I caught up with him recently, it was for the launch of a new computer game based on T-3. Even then, he was in campaign mode. Already decked out in pancake makeup for his interview with Entertainment Tonight, he answered questions easily. What did he think of T-3? "It is a movie with values. Kids all love Terminator. They call him Termie. He stands for what is good and honest in mankind." Oh really, Arnold?
Asked whether he was going to jump into the race for governor, the star gave me one of those Terminator-like looks, staring out from under his eyebrows, his voice flattened. "I'll let you know," the 55-year-old Austrian strongman said in his unmistakable growl.
He may well get the opportunity. California seems to be warming to the idea of recalling Governor Gray Davis, just eight months after he narrowly won reelection. The drive, whipped into a frenzy by large donations from a conservative Republican who wants to put his own name on the ballot, has gotten nearly half the 900,000 signatures needed to call a special election, as early as October.
The way the ballot initiative is written, the first vote would be to remove Davis, the second to select from a group of candidates the one who would replace the vanquished governor. Arnold could put his name on the ballot, avoiding the messiness of a Republican primary, and go right to the main event.
Still, a lot may depend on T-3. The early tracking numbers are strong among Hollywood studios, thanks to a huge ad campaign by Warner Bros., which is distributing the movie in the U.S. It could also be because the producers have teamed Schwarzenegger with Kristanna Loken, a 23-year-old former model who plays T-X, a leggy female cyborg. She's the villainess to Arnold's good-guy, T-800. Let's put it this way: Loken will light up the trailers of many 16-year-old boys.
Can she sell enough tickets to make Arnold hot again? The film's producers say they're already working on a script for the fourth Terminator. Schwarzenegger waited 12 years for Terminator 3 to find its way to the screen, as it was buffeted by the bankruptcy of its studio, Carolco Pictures.
Schwarzenegger says he may still have two or three more Terminator films left in him. And why not? He got $30 million for this one, and a piece of the action for all of the associated merchandise. That includes not only computer games but merchandise like a $5,000 leather jacket, even a Terminator pickup truck that Toyota has begun selling. The eventual payout? It's no stretch to think $50 million.
So if Terminator 3 is a huge hit -- as I suspect it will be -- and more sequels are on the way, he'd have to be a party-pooper to set his sights for Sacramento. Right? Most of what can happen in politics is bad. He could lose the election. And even if he wins, he becomes political fodder, and courts possible political disaster.
It's not as if he could follow in Reagan's footsteps all the way from Sunset Boulevard to Pennsylvania Avenue after a stop in Sacramento. The Austrian-born actor is prohibited by law from becoming President. Besides, as former Clinton adviser Paul Begala once observed: "Politics is show business for ugly people." So, any way you look at it, it makes no sense for Schwarzenegger to swap the post-Oscars Governors' Ball for the governor's mansion.
Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Power Lunch column, only on BusinessWeek Online
Edited by Patricia O'Connell