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By Ronald Grover He said he'd be back. And sure enough, come Feb. 8, Arnold Schwarzenegger will once again be fighting the bad guys on the big screen. Fans can see him do what he does best in the oft-delayed action/revenge/terrorist-themed Collateral Damage.
Last we heard of Collateral Damage, squeamish folks at Warner Bros. had yanked the movie from its planned distribution because it was scheduled for release three weeks after September 11. And the last we heard of Schwarzenegger, he was slowly sinking into box-office irrelevance thanks to a streak of less-than-heroic showings for his action films. Think The Sixth Day, the 2000 futuristic movie about clones and assassins that grossed $34.5 million domestically. That's scarcely more than the $25 million Columbia Pictures paid Arnold in salary. That came after the 1999 satanic actioner End of Days, which grossed $66.7 million, well below its $83 million budget.
So when was the last time the 54-year-old Austrian-born hunk starred in a film that did more than $100 million -- the usual measure of greatness for a guns-and-bombs superstar? It was 1996's Eraser -- and with $101 million in ticket sales, it just barely squeaked over the mark.
"LAUGHABLY BAD"? Yet Arnold's flagging career and the tragic events of September 11 may have intersected in a way that could return the former Mr. Universe to box-office dominance. Hollywood, which was reluctant immediately following the attacks to release anything with a military, terrorism, or war theme, has done an about-face. As evidenced by the strong $33.6 million opening weekend for Columbia Picture's military film Black Hawk Down, the moviegoing public wants to see Americans in action. And that's what they'll get in Collateral Damage, with firefighter Arnold hunting down the Colombian terrorists who kill his family.
Ironically, Collateral Damage was one troubled film even before September 11. The movie, say some who have seen it, isn't that good. In fact, one film industry exec I spoke to called it "laughably bad." As a result, it was moved around the schedule, starting out as a July, 2001, release, then being pushed to August and then October. When the Twin Towers went down, Warner Bros. postponed it "indefinitely," hinting at a spring release.
By Thanksgiving, however, the studio had moved it up to February -- a decision reflecting a public mood that seemed to have changed from horror to a hunger for payback. "Folks want to see the bad guys get their comeuppance," says Paul Deregarbedian, president of box-office analysis firm Exhibitor Relations. "That alone may make a hit out of Collateral Damage."
RETURN OF THE ROBOT. Warner Bros. is doing all it can to make sure that the film, which was made for $90 million, is just that. Industry sources say it intends to release the movie in more than 3,000 theaters and has increased the marketing budget to around $30 million. A carpet-bombing of commercials seemed to show up every few minutes during the National Football League playoffs on Jan. 19 and 20. The TV spots have also been all over ESPN, whose audience likely gave the testosterone-laced action flick a warm reception. Warner Bros. executives declined to talk about the movie's marketing for this article.
As for Schwarzenegger, the revival of interest in him and his muscles couldn't have come at a better time. In early December, as folks were again focusing on action films, a bunch of Hollywood studios were bidding for the U.S. rights to distribute his return as the cyborg with a heart in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.
The project had been kicking around for months, while producers Mario Kassar and Andy Vajna looked for the money they needed to make the film, budgeted at a staggering $170 million. Based on the $519 million that Terminator 2: Judgement Day generated worldwide when it was released in 1991, Arnold is looking for a $30 million payday for the third installment.
READY FOR ACTION. And he's going to get it, too. On Dec. 10, according to company sources, Warner Bros. swooped in and paid $50 million for the U.S. distribution rights to Terminator 3, beating out the likes of Walt Disney, Paramount, and Universal. That's a heck of a lot of money for just domestic rights -- and a pretty good show of faith in old Arnold's box-office potential. And he's no doubt raring to go: On top of his $30 million payday, he'll also get some 15% of T3's profits.
The film is scheduled to begin production in April, by which time Schwarzenegger is expected to be completely healed from a nasty motorcycle accident that sent him to the hospital with some broken ribs. But it seems like nothing can keep Arnold out of action for very long. Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Power Lunch column, only on BusinessWeek Online