How 1990’s Total Recall was on the verge of failure

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With weeks to go before the release of Total Recall, the film was in trouble – and here’s how it was turned around.

Whilst Arnold Schwarzenegger had built up an escalating career in action cinema in the 1980s, it was perhaps 1990’s Total Recall that confirmed him as a major movie star. The film came off the back of his success in the comedy Twins, that we discussed in a previous podcast episode here. And in a summer where other big movies spluttered at the box office a little – Dick Tracy, Days Of Thunder, Another 48 Hrs and Gremlins 2: The New Batch­ all fell below expectations – Total Recall absolutely delivered.

The hard-edged action sci-fi film, from director Paul Verhoeven – his second US film after RoboCop – became the hit blockbuster of the summer, grossing $119m in the US at a point where that was an enormous amount of money. Of that year’s summer releases, only Ghost made more cash, whilst the likes of Die Hard 2 and Back To The Future Part III were in its rear view mirror.

But, whilst the movie was an expensive one to make, Total Recall was no sure-fire hit. Sure, Schwarzenegger had been enjoying gradually more and more popular hits – Predator, Commando, The Running Man and Red Heat for instance were all successes – but not at a movie star level. In fact, Twins was the first of his films to cross $100m at the US box office, dwarfing the take of his-then most commercially successful film, Predator (that grossed just shy of $60m in the US).

Separately, as Schwarzenegger had been building his career up, the Total Recall script had been bounding around Hollywood, and he’d had his eye on it since the mid-1980s. Eventually, though, production company Carolco snapped up the rights, and have the financing to pursue the movie. And unlike traditional Hollywood studios, it wasn’t put off by the idea of a $50-60m movie with Schwarzenegger in the lead role.

A bit of context. At this stage in movie history, Die Hard 2 was costing around $75m to make, a staggering amount for the era. And an amount that led to articles in the trade press as to whether a film costing that much cash could ever make its money back. That’s factoring in that Die Hard 2 was a sequel, with an American movie star – Bruce Willis – in the lead role.

Total Recall, then, was a flat-out gamble, set for release in high summer, and funded all-but-independently from Hollywood.

And in the build up to its release, it was in trouble. The film was shooting in the middle of 1989, when Twins hadn’t yet proven just what a draw Schwarzenegger could be at the box office. Furthermore, in pre-world wide web times, awareness of the film was low. What was it? Who would want to watch it? And should it be in the midst of high summer on the release schedule?

Schwarzenegger acknowledges these challenges in his cunningly-titled memoir, Total Recall. And revealingly, he also gives an insight into how troubled those behind the scenes were when the promotional campaign for the film kicked in.

“The trailer we had playing movie theatres in anticipation of he movie’s release was really bad”, he reflected. “It was too narrow. It didn’t convey the film’s scope and weirdness.

Here’s the original teaser trailer for the film…

Bluntly, off the back of that, nobody had a bloody clue (although we do love it, in truth). The context again is important: the Schwarzenegger name was not without value at the box office, but he wasn’t at global megastar levels.

Schwarzenegger, then, was involved in the promotional of the film, and also wanted to know how well that trailer was tracking. The answer: not well. He explained that the marketing team was registering ‘awareness’ and ‘want to see’ numbers that suggested Total Recall was in significant trouble.

To directly quote his memoir, “An awareness figure in the low to mid-90s means that your movie will probably open at number one and make at least $100 million at the box office. For every percentage point below that, you might gross $10 million less, which is why studios and directors often tweak their movies at the last minute”.

After weeks of trailers, and with the marketing effort well underway, Total Recall had a tracking awareness number in the mid-40s. Only 10% of percent were declaring it the first choice of film they wanted to see.

At the heart of the problem was a disconnect between the filmmakers, and the studio distributing the picture. Whilst Carolco was funding the film, it still needed a traditional studio to put the film into American cinemas, and TriStar was handling those duties. As a result, TriStar was also putting together the publicity campaign for the film, against the backdrop of it being taken over by Sony Pictures (a deal that had finally been completed by the middle of 1990).

It got to the point where there were just weeks to go before the July 1990 release of Total Recall, and that awareness number simply wasn’t budging.

Schwarzenegger thus got in touch with the new head of Sony Pictures, Peter Guber, who was ultimately in place by this stage. Guber was running the studio with Jon Peters, and Schwarzenegger persuaded the pair to sit through a screening of the finished movie, and then watch the trailer afterwards. It was a pivotal turning point in the film’s fortunes.

“The movie looks like a $100m movie”, Guber observed, “but the trailer makes it look like a $20m movie”. Schwarzenegger thus persuaded him not to wade into the TriStar marketing department and ask them to sort it out, but to engage an external company to take over the movie’s promotion. A company called Cimarron/Bacon/O’Brien pitched for and won the business, and swiftly put a new trailer and promotion spots together. Remember, this was weeks before the film’s release.

Now the film being sold looked like this…

The tracking transformation was pretty much instant.

Within two weeks, the awareness number had gone from the mid-40s to 92%. And that, ultimately, was reflected in the box office takings. When the movie opened, it smashed the record for a non-franchise film at the box office. The R-rated action sci-fi movie pulled in $28m, on its way to Schwarzenegger’s then-best ever gross of $119m in the US alone. Crucially, the film did big business across the planet too.

By that stage, Arnie was well placed to take advantage of his box office power as well. Kindergarten Cop was ready to go just five months later. And even as that film headed into cinemas, production as well underway on Terminator 2: Judgment Day. And that film too would enjoy rather a lot of success..

We’ll have more on Total Recall in a future episode of the Film Stories podcast…

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