How can a man who has had such a successful career until now make such an evidently foolish mistake? Because as a movie star, Schwarzenegger has been shielded from contact with anything but suppliants, sycophants and protectors for the last 25 years. The actor is all show biz and while it seems that he is listening to some seasoned political consultants, it seems just as likely that his regular publicists and managers are shaping his gubernatorial campaign.
This could be a disastrous mistake when it comes to dealing with the press. The show business press (or "journalists," as they are inevitably referred to) are a highly massaged bunch, seduced and, once in a while, coerced by experienced publicists into going alone with cleverly devised publicity campaigns.
Everyone seems to be aware of that to one extent another. What most people dont realize and what may turn out to be a serious Schwarzenegger problem is that actors are just as manipulated and prepped by publicists as the press is. Both sides are engaged in a dance choreographed by experts who stand aside and pretend that theyre just watching a spontaneous event unwind.
This leaves Schwarzenegger completely unarmed in the face of a state political press corps which, unlike their Washington, D.C. brethren, has not been tamed by the big checks of corporate speaking engagements and access to government insiders. While its relatively easy for Schwarzenegger to schmooze TV reporters (and Fox News has turned itself into All-Arnold All-the-Time as far as its California coverage goes), the print press will be far more aggressive and inquiring than anything the fading star has ever encountered.
I spent over ten years interviewing mostly directors, but also many stars and actors, often on the junket circuit which is where Schwarzenegger did most of his print-press interviews. I never interviewed him (I was introduced to him, enough to register his charisma), but I was on the junket of Total Recall (1990) in order to interview director Paul Verhoeven.
Junkets, 95% of the time, take place in hotels, and this one was in a studio favorite in Beverly Hills. With several other reporters, I was sitting in a so-called hospitality suite waiting to be called into one of the rooms where various actors and Verhoeven sat all day conducting their interviews. A friend with whom I was chatting, and who was waiting to interview Schwarzenegger, was approached by the actors personal publicist (that is, a publicist who works exclusively with the actor, not for the studio or for an agency that works on films) who shoved a piece of paper in front of him. It was a legal form pledging the writer not to sell the interview to any publication other than the one he was representing on that particular day, thereby cutting of any additional free-lance outlets this writer might have found.
The publicist said that she wanted to make sure that Schwarzenegger wasnt overexposed. Now, to realize how laughable this was, remember that this was right after Twins and that at the very moment we were sitting there, the actors face was on the cover of GQ, Esquire, and heaven knows how many other magazines. The arbitrary nature of the demand, and its last-minute timing, had all the earmarks of a pure show of power.
Although I enjoyed interviewing many directors, I hated the atmosphere of junkets, as do many writers who have to partake of them. Lately theyve been described as almost pure bribes: Studios hand out free trips to Los Angeles (or New York or even some exotic location) to newspaper and TV press, and, in return, they get adulatory coverage. Theres more than a little truth to that, but its more complicated.
Some minority of newspapers do accept the free airline tickets studios offer for their reporters to fly in and interview a movie’s actors and/or director (actually, two studios will usually join forces and "piggyback" two movies on one weekend). More will accept the free hotel. Of course, there are unscrupulous writers who accept per-diems from the studios and even abuse room service to the point where the studios get mad. All this is very, very bad.
But a high percentage of the writers show up on their newspapers’ dime, yet still produce copy similar to their unethical colleagues. And that’s because of everything else that happens. At a junket, writers fly in from all over the country and stay at the same hotel. Once there, the people they are staying with are people they see all the time at other junkets, and the feeling is that of a reunion of old "campaigners," battle-tested veterans out to do a job. They swap old war stories, only these are about the time this star cried, or that one got angry and left the table, and so forth and so on. A feeling of being on the inside of something special is nurtured from the night before anything begins.
That first night, they’ll see the first of their movies after being driven in a bus to a theater. There are roped-off seats roped off just for them (exclusive of even other members of the press) and, as they well know, even if the bus is late, the movie won’t start without them. After the screening, they’ll trade opinions confident that they’re forming a "critical consensus" that will becomes conventional wisdom.
The next day, as the junketeers eat a hot buffet breakfast prior to the beginning of their interviews, publicists will be sure to ask each and every one of them what he or she thought of the movie. None of the publicists will argue, but just nod his or her head and agree enthusiastically if the opinion is positive, or say "that’s interesting" if it’s less than positive. In the hospitality suite, stories will make the round about funny things that happened during the shoot and, on a TV set, promo tapes featuring studio interviews with the actors, will play non-stop.
Writers from the biggest newspapers will get one-on-one interviews with actors for from ten minutes to 30 minutes (usually the latter, though I got only 10 with Michael Douglas once). But everyone else, and sometimes even the biggies, have to do what are called "round tables." These are, quite literally, round tables, where six, seven, or even 10 interviewers are seated, with one empty chair left for the interview subject. Actors and, usually, the director, are then rotated through the empty chair at, generally, 20 or 25 minute intervals. These occasionally turn into disasters when the table is dominated by a loudmouth gossip writer.
Its important to keep in mind that the writers are not free agents. They have been sent by frequently clueless editors with some bright story idea. Since all these editors are generally clueless in the same way (they all read People and Entertainment Weekly for their entertainment story ideas), theyve all assigned the same story. So the writers are generally all asking roughly the same two or three questions and following them up the same way.
On the other side, the actors arent exactly talking off the tops of their head. Before the junket, theyve spent time with the publicists talking over the movies marketing campaign. Theyve been told the type of audience the campaign is aimed at, and what themes and even phrases will get its attention. Theyve been rehearsed and, like good performers, they go out and do their best to deliver to this small, select, but attentive group.
Everyone on each side knows, to one extent or another, what’s going on. If you’re lucky enough to get a one-on-one interview, you can usually get past to baloney, especially if you’re willing to slice it for the first few minutes. Then the actor can relax and open up, tell some stories and so forth. But even in that situation I’ve seen actors of both genders freeze up and become terrified when the questions have gone off reservation. They stammer, their eyes start looking around the room for help (we’re alone). I’m talking about household names here. You just have to soothe them by going back to the "regular" questions. There’s no point, after all, in knocking them dumb. You have to turn in something to your paper.
Meanwhile, back at the tables, there is at least one reporter at each of them, sometimes two or three, who will want to knock the actor off the party line and get him or her to say something anything original. Often this means something that is not entirely praiseworthy of the movie. Not negative mind you; just not ringingly positive. The actor will answer as little as possible, or dance around it. Finally, if the interrogator persists, they’ll be a little knowing smile and a joke about how "I can’t answer that they’ll kill me" or something like that.
And everyone chuckles.
That smile and that chuckle is a way of acknowledging and denying that everyone is a whore. Its a reciprocal admission that, yes, we could all use our brains and conduct actual interviews on a free range of subjects about this movie but, on the one hand, we have editors who have these dumb story ideas and, on the other, we have a script we have to follow. Moreover, publicists have cocooned us in this cozy atmosphere where we all feel like buddies and have agreed not to ruffle each others feathers. (Publicists had a lot to do with those Entertainment Weekly and People stories, too).
Amazingly, stars such as Bruce Willis wont deal with these lions of the press because he thinks theyre too tough. Hell only do TV now. And the entertainment print press looks down on TV press for being such pushovers, so just imagine how Schwarzenegger has been handling them for years.
In their recent coverage, newspapers have reported how "smart" Schwarzenegger is. He is smart, but it’s show business smart. For a long time, he picked the right projects. Until suddenly he didn’t anymore. He may have had a hand in devising his marketing campaigns and sticking to the script. But he was sticking to a script and he apparently doesn’t realize that the writers he was talking to were sticking to a script, too.
To think in the same show biz terms Schwarzenegger might, hes picked another bad project and devised a particularly terrible marketing campaign.
The project is bad because what little audience he has left is now going to be utterly fractured. He had already lost his action fans, who had grown up and not been replaced by younger ones (my teenage kinds typically couldnt care less about him). His running for governor, to stick with the show biz thinking, is much like Sylvester Stallone making Rambo: First Blood Part 2" (1985). It made him the darling of young, in-your-face action fans and people still upset about Vietnam, but it utterly alienated the rest of the film audience. The first group is notoriously disloyal and the second isnt really a filmgoing audience. In less than three years, Stallone was basically a has-been.
The marketing is bad because this time the press wont be cooperating. First of all, Jay Leno isnt the press, no matter what Schwarzenegger thinks. He already got a somewhat rude awakening when he went on the morning talk shows, always a friendly forum for his movie promotions, and found himself pressed on specifics. Suddenly the big strong man went deaf. The big surprise will come when the print press writes articles even when he doesnt give interviews and he finds himself forced to talk to them even when they wont sign agreements to re-sell their interviews.