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THE LOST 'ACTION HERO'

DID SOMEONE SAY 'FLOP'? COLUMBIA PICTURES SIFTS THE WRECKAGE OF A BLOCKBUSTER GONE BUST

The awful truth didn't become apparent until June 17, the night before Last Action Hero opened on 2,306 screens. Eager to gauge the public's reaction to Arnold Schwarzenegger's latest action epic, Columbia Pictures chairman Mark Canton, marketing chief Sid Ganis, and distribution chief Jeff Blake dropped by a Century City theater where the movie was booked for a special Thursday-night preview. The three men smiled when they saw that two of the three showings were sold out. But when they entered the theaters, they discovered row after row of empty seats. The ''Sold Out'' signs were on the wrong movie. The long lines outside the theater, as it turned out, were for Jurassic Park.

Two weeks into the run of Last Action Hero, the hyperbole surrounding Columbia's blockbuster wannabe looks like so much hot air. Not only has the film failed to challenge the Jurassic juggernaut, but a precipitous 47 percent drop in its second weekend means that the movie is bidding to be this year's biggest belly flop. That's quite a comedown for a film until recently proclaimed-in a $20 million promotion by Burger King-''the biggest movie of the summer.''

For Canton, who convinced Schwarzenegger to take on the self-spoofing role of action hero Jack Slater, the film is the costliest of blunders. Although studio sources still maintain the movie cost less than $70 million, industry sources put the final tab as high as $100 million, plus $25 to $30 million for marketing. While Ganis optimistically predicts, ''We're in this for the long haul,'' his competitors say Hero will soon lose theaters and top out at a meager $50 million, which means that even after foreign and video revenue, Columbia may take as much as a $30 million loss.

In the wake of Hero's grim first weekend, the studio brass fought to put a positive spin on the numbers. But Columbia insiders admitted that the atmosphere was ''glum.'' Said one development executive, ''It's like everyone is sitting shivah.''

What went wrong? How did Last Action Hero turn from a golden goose to a golden turkey? Some theories:

1. The studio was seduced by the packaging. ''They thought all they needed was Arnold,'' says one producer, ''when they needed Arnold in the right movie.'' But former Columbia head Dawn Steel disagrees. ''Mark Canton did his job. With Arnold Schwarzenegger and [director] John McTiernan, I would have killed to have that movie when I was a studio executive.''

2. The script never worked. Many say Hero's in-joke premise was never surefire. ''Movies about truth and illusion have never been rousingly commercial,'' says screenwriter Mike Mahern (Mobsters). ''There are no characters to invest yourself in.''

3. The movie alienated Schwarzenegger's action fans. With its violence softened to ensure a PG-13 rating, Hero, says a source close to the production, ''landed between the cracks-too old for kids and too young for adults. The best thing about Arnold is he's tough and mean. The studio bent over backward to sanitize the movie and they took out its primary appeal.''

''If you're making an $80 million Arnold Schwarzenegger movie and you ignore the R-rated action market,'' says one industry analyst, ''you do so at your peril. It's different than making Kindergarten Cop for $30 million.''

4. The movie was mismarketed. ''I think we got a good bead on the campaign,'' Ganis says of the tricky task of promoting Schwarzenegger in a hybrid parody. ''It seems we told the right story -- it's Arnold and a pal in a fantasy-action situation.'' But ultimately, audiences didn't buy what Columbia was selling.

5. The media was to blame. From Columbia's beleaguered perspective, the press sabotaged the project by exaggerating its problems. In a particularly combative moment, the studio threatened to sever its relationship with the Los Angeles Times when the paper ran a story by Jeffrey Wells (who also contributes to Entertainment Weekly) about a rumored downbeat preview. The Times refused to recant and the studio has, for now, backed off.

Not everyone accepts the blame shifting. ''You can't make a movie a media event, then say that the media is treating you badly,'' says one producer. Adds another: ''Columbia overhyped it from the minute they put the name of the movie on that NASA rocket.''

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