‘Leapin’ Lizards! $50 million’ screamed the headline of Daily Variety back on June 14, 1993, just over 26 years ago. It was reporting the then record-breaking box office opening weekend for Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, a film that would continue to dominate the box office for most of that summer. As Tom Pollock, chairman of Universal Pictures at the time noted, “This is a breakthrough picture for critics and audiences,” setting records that were “beyond belief.”
Jurassic Park was surrounded by–and easily defeated–blockbuster movies headlined by big stars that summer season. There was Sylvester Stallone in Cliffhanger, Harrison Ford in The Fugitive, Tom Cruise in The Firm, Clint Eastwood in In The Line of Fire, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle, and Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes in Rising Sun.
Also, of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger was back in action cinema for the first time since Terminator 2: Judgment Day, headlining Last Action Hero. Every studio in town wanted to make the next Arnold Schwarzenegger film at the time. It was Columbia Pictures that won out, giving Arnie himself more influence than he’d ever had over any picture. So confident was Columbia about its big summer tentpole movie that–at a time when this wasn’t common–the ads were running the Christmas before. This ad, in fact.
A new Arnold Schwarzenegger action film was a Very Big Deal. It was expected to be, as Columbia teased, “the big ticket for ‘93.”
But of course it wasn’t. Whereas Jurassic Park would storm to over $900 million at the global box office, Last Action Hero struggled its way to just under $140 million–less than a third of the take of Terminator 2. Critically mauled (even if it’s had something of a reassessment in recent times), Last Action Hero would prove to be the first box office disappointment of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career.
But even aside from the quality of the films themselves, the battle between Jurassic Park and Last Action Hero was one of the more interesting marketing battles of ’90s blockbuster cinema. And it was a case of one studio fundamentally outthinking the other.
How Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth
When Universal sat down to first think about promoting Jurassic Park, it realized it had no stars. In fact, it also realized it didn’t need them. It soon knew that the dinosaurs themselves were the main attraction, at a point where CG-created creatures on screen were very much a rarity.
Dinosaurs took time to realize once main photography was completed though, and Universal thus took advantage of the lengthy post-production period it had on Jurassic Park–in sharp contrast to the deadlines Last Action Hero was up against–to tune what it wanted to do. To work out its film, work out its audience, and ruthlessly target it, to the point of including the film’s merchandise in the movie itself.
In a move that would soon be replicated pretty much across the board in blockbuster cinema, Universal devoted a monstrous–again, by 1993 standards, and scarily, it’d be seen as quite cheap now–$60 million+ simply to promote the film (that’s the cost of the film’s negative all over again). It signed up tie-ins with the likes of Hasbro and McDonald’s (Last Action Hero snagged Burger King), and when it became time to cut a trailer, it played its cards very close to its chest.
Appreciating what its trump card was, Universal and Spielberg put together teasers and promos that had one thing in common: they held back on revealing the dinosaurs themselves. They gave you as little as possible of the main attraction as they could. They knew people wanted to see what they had and were determined to tease rather than reveal.
Sure, the dinosaurs were talked about a lot. There was a shot of a dino foot planting in the mud, and you were allowed to see the tamer critters. But Universal held back its money shots, and the anticipation continued to grow. We knew there was a T-Rex attack in there, we just weren’t allowed to see it before we went to the theater.
This was all more of a gamble than it’s often given credit for. It’s easy to forget that Steven Spielberg’s career was in a bumpy patch at this stage. Yes, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade had hit big in 1989, but his subsequent two films had struggled. Always was never intended to be a massive blockbuster but it still failed to find much of an audience in 1989. And then he hit problems with Hook, a film that’s loved by some, but not by the director himself (Hook also had a teaser trailer, showing the director on set, a strategy that had worked for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade).
When Hook underperformed at the box office during Christmas 1991, Spielberg appeared to have lost his magic touch. By the end of 1993, with Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List behind him, he would have recaptured it with some style, setting up his career for the next 20 years.
There was real fervor surrounding Jurassic Park and Universal’s pre-arranging of its proverbial ducks in order meant it attacked promotion with a clear, confident strategy. It had its simplistic poster design–the now-iconic park logo being the only visual, outside of typography–and the simple tag line promising an adventure 65 million years in the making. A line that sat in theater foyers for months, as we all puzzled over what exactly we were going to get. Anyone who’d read Michael Crichton’s source novel had an idea, but that too played into the mythos of the film: How could they possibly make a film with realistic looking dinosaur attacks in it?
This contrasts well the muddled messages that came out of the Last Action Hero marketing office. Was it a comedy? An action film? Universal was giving a textbook example of how to market a major movie. It teased questions, and gave mere tastes of the answers. Word of mouth and awareness of the movie began to grow, and it was soon predicted to be the other big blockbuster of summer 1993.
The anticipation got to the point where, even in the UK, a half hour special was given out to Spielberg and the Dinosaurs ahead of the film’s release, replacing the slot for one night vacated by the end of the late Terry Wogan’s chat show. This was on prime time BBC One, causing eyebrows to be raised about the Beeb giving basically an ad slot to the movie. But millions of people eagerly lapped it up.
Screenings for exhibitors in the U.S. took place in late May 1993 and did nothing to put the fire of hype out. The word of mouth on the film was ecstatic, and Jurassic Park–remember these days?–made it to the screen with most of its secrets and spoilers still in tact. It was one of those rare moments where the quality of the film, the quality of the promotional work, and the skill at getting the message across without ruining the movie, all came together.
Last Action Hero, however, was increasingly to resort to TV spots showcasing the action of the film’s third act. Only when their clear rival’s action movie was in theaters did Universal really start to release footage of Jurassic Park’s most deadly dinosaurs. We’ll come to that shortly.
How Last Action Hero Fell
Contrasting with Jurassic Park, the eagerness of the press to lap up details of the impending dinosaur invasion was very different to the way the media approached Last Action Hero. Here, there was already in play a feeling that Arnold Schwarzenegger was due a fall, and what better than the first movie on which he took an executive producer credit? With Columbia boss Mark Canton also declaring the year before release that he’d be judged on his summer 1993, success or otherwise, knives were being sharpened.
That said, there was no shortage of fuel for negative headlines outside of Canton and Schwarzenegger. Rumors (proven correct) of script problems dogged the production, and there were genuine concerns that the film would struggle to hit its planned June 18, 1993 release date in the U.S. Given that this date had been earmarked by Columbia boss Mark Canton, and had been trailed for six months, the studio was boxed into a corner. Filming hadn’t even started in earnest until November 1992. This wasn’t the digital era either. Film had to be printed, reels unspooled, edits done physically, and there would barely be the time to do it.
Columbia had a juggernaut, and it had no time to turn it. Not that it realized it didn’t need to. The first public test screening of Last Action Hero took place on Saturday May 1, seven weeks before release day. Columbia high-ups were in attendance, and even Schwarzenegger himself snuck into the back row. There was no shortage of early confidence.
When the test screening crowd were told what they would be watching, the reaction was “whooping and foot stomping,” reported Premiere magazine back in 1993. Notwithstanding the fact that the film wasn’t finished, and was missing key shots in the final third, the screening went ahead. By the time the film ended, the assembled crowd was restless. As one source told Premiere at the time, “The movie lay there like a big fried egg.”
By this stage, Columbia’s marketing campaign was in full swing. Its Burger King promotion was gleefully banging out the message the Last Action Hero was “the biggest movie of the summer.” Action figures had been manufactured. The soundtrack album – which would prove to be a success – was coming.
And then there were the gimmicks. It would be fair to say that most of them were ill-fated.
A giant inflatable 40-foot Arnold Schwarzenegger had been ordered for the Cannes Film Festival and would duly be erected, even though the film wasn’t finished. In fact, according to the Chicago Tribune at the time, the only movie screening Arnold Schwarzenegger himself attended at Cannes that year was that of Mike Leigh’s Naked. Even then, the paper noted that once he was in and past the cameras, he “walked straight out of a rear exit, where he was picked up and propelled back to his suite.”
Columbia had also done a deal with NASA to make Last Action Hero the first movie to be promoted in space. Its name was on the side of a rocket being sent into orbit, although as it turned out, said rocket’s launch would be delayed. It would not go into space until the back end of 1993, after which Last Action Hero’s fate had been sealed.
Next? A large inflatable of Schwarzenegger holding dynamite was also ordered and positioned in Times Square, and then quickly removed in the aftermath of bombings that had taken place in the city.
Then, of course, there was the infamous shot of Schwarzenegger, splattered with mud, pointing at a giant model dinosaur with a huge grin on his face. That image would get a lot of use once the box office numbers came in.
Following its preview screening, Columbia came the closest it ever did to delaying the release. Before the May 1 screening, director John McTiernan had only been in the editing suite a few weeks. Now, off the back of the disastrous test screening that kept the Hollywood trades chattering, reshoots of the final act were ordered. He had to shoot those, weave them into the final cut, and establish a consistent tone to the film.
But there just wasn’t time to turn things around.
Universal was of course rubbing its hands with glee at this stage. And it duly prepared its knockout blow against Last Action Hero. For rather than lining up its second salvo of advertising straight away after its initial release, it held them back. It fired them instead just as Last Action Hero headed into theaters. Last Action Hero’s projected opening numbers, even accepting the fast-deflating enthusiasm for the film, were rounded down to about $20 million, but still proved wildly optimistic. It opened at a meager $15 million.
Columbia struggled throughout the Last Action Hero project to settle on a tone for the film, and that ultimately fed the equally uneven promotional messages. It’s easy to pin this on studio interference, on the time scales, and on star power. But all of these factors have resulted in better films in the past. Perhaps the fact that Last Action Hero started life as a smaller film with more of an indie idea behind it didn’t help.
It’s entirely relevant to note that Arnold Schwarzenegger was trying to soften his image just a little at this stage too, and that certainly didn’t help (something that Schwarzenegger has been sanguine about in subsequent interviews). He personally oversaw the poster for the movie, for example, and wanted it to have no guns on it. In fact, in interviews leading up to the film’s release, much was made of the fact that the tie-in toys themselves came with no guns (again, at Schwarzenegger’s insistence). Nice, family-friendly Schwarzenegger action toys, when the next aisle had long sold out of dinosaurs ripping each other’s heads off.
You could argue that Schwarzenegger foresaw where blockbuster cinema was going by effectively asking for a PG-13 action blockbuster. But at that stage, the audience was not ready for it. And nor was the film. A Schwarzenegger film with no guns and little sign of trademark violence? Maybe we’ll go and see that dinosaur film again, seemed the response.
Columbia knee-jerked again in the end, frantically cutting together TV spots that had Arnie waving a gun. But the feeling was the damage was done. By the time the reviews came out and slaughtered the film, Jurassic Park had clearly won the battle, and in doing so, arguably changed the blockbuster movie model, more in favor of CG over movie stars. Last Action Hero TV spots were pushing a film that never really worked out its identity, just as Universal’s dinosaurs were dominating pretty much all areas of the press with a strong, consistent message.
I still maintain that Last Action Hero, while problematic, is a better movie than it’s given credit for. But when it ultimately opened to just $15.3 million in the U.S.–a third of Jurassic Park’s opening, minus change–its fate was sealed. Columbia did have an upside to the summer of 1993, steering both Sleepless in Seattle and In the Line of Fire to success, aided by smart marketing campaigns. But Arnie went back to hard action with 1995’s True Lies, and Hollywood started upping the marketing budgets. Computers soon began to rule the box office world.
And notably, that Jurassic Park logo has remained the centrepiece of each film in the series to date. Arnie, meanwhile, is rarely seen without a gun on the poster of any action movie he’s in…