Arnold On the Auction Block

Michael Fox October 31, 2006

There’s a certain amount of perverse pleasure to be had ogling geeky pictures of A-list actors and actresses “before they were stars.” It’s a reassuring reminder that we were all once nerdy high schoolers or inexperienced apprentices before our paths diverged and they graduated to $300 haircuts, drunken driving arrests, cosmetic surgery or Third World adoption tours. The entertainment value of those cheesy photographs is enhanced, perhaps, by the shuddering embarrassment we imagine celebs feel when confronted with the evidence of their pre-Olympian, ordinary-Joe days. But some movie stars take a more calculated and proactive approach. Consider Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose methodical ambition has been accompanied by a systematic erasure or rewriting of his past. I’m not talking about his Austrian father’s behavior during World War II, whatever it may have been, but Schwarzenegger’s Hollywood career. In 1977, the bodybuilding competition documentary “Pumping Iron” launched his face and physique in the United States. Just 14 years later, his action-hero career peaking with the release of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” Schwarzenegger bought the “Pumping Iron” rights, outtakes, and stills. They had served their purpose, thank you very much. Now comes another opportunity for the $800 million man (as his net worth is estimated) to dip into his pocket and acquire a relic of even earlier days —the low-budget 1970 travesty, “Hercules in New York.” As it happens, you have just as good a shot at owning what Ron Merk calls “the Arnold Schwarzenegger collectible of all time, with an income stream.”

“If you don’t have fun with this movie, you could vomit,” says Merk, a veteran production and distribution executive now based in San Francisco who first got involved with the picture nearly 25 years ago. “It’s a terrible movie. Schwarzenegger was not an actor when he did this movie. He was Mr. Universe. The billing was ‘Arnold Stang and Arnold Strong in ‘Hercules of New York.’” But for someone who was not an actor he acquitted himself pretty well. The muscles go a long way toward convincing us he’s Hercules.”

Merk was working for a L.A. distribution company in 1982 that was invited to buy “Hercules in New York.” Aware of the upcoming release of “Conan the Barbarian,” they made the deal and never looked back. Schwarzenegger’s stardom and the arrival of home video combined to make “Hercules” a very lucrative property-even with the star’s dialogue dubbed by an actor without an impenetrable Austrian accent.

The film changed hands about eight times in the ensuing years, but Merk was always connected with it. Schwarzenegger’s lengthy reign as an international star made the flick a cult curiosity well beyond the U.S. In 2000, Merk went back to the production elements, located the original location recording, and a deal was struck for the film to be remixed and re-released with Schwarzenegger’s voice restored. It’s not quite the same as finding the missing reels of “The Magnificent Ambersons,” but it is an interesting footnote to film history.

The owners of “Hercules in New York” have decided to sell the film, which continues to earn between $40,000 and 50,000 a year, and have retained an auction house to handle the transaction through eBay. The auction opens Nov. 7-which coincides with the day Schwarzenegger faces the voters in his bid for a full term as governor-and closes Nov. 17.

Merk is hoping to net $500,000 from the sale, with 25 percent of the proceeds going to the Metro Theatre Center Foundation that he and his late partner Chris Holter set up. The Foundation has funded several cash awards to Bay Area filmmakers, through the STAND program at Film Arts Foundation and the Chris Holter Youth Media Scholarships administered by BAVC (Bay Area Video Coalition) and LYRIC (Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center). The foundation recently announced the $2,500 Chris Holter Humor in Film Award, to be presented for the first time at next year’s 50th San Francisco International Film Festival to the director whose work (short, narrative or documentary) “provides the most humorous and life-affirming portrayal of the human condition.” (The award will have the side benefit of tipping off moviegoers that entertainment is as much a part of a serious film festival as heart-rending documentaries from Africa and existential thrillers from Europe.) With the foundation’s share of the “Hercules in New York” auction money, Merk says, “We’re going to expand all these awards to higher levels and create new awards to remember and honor Chris.”

Holter, a San Francisco native, was also a teacher and a filmmaker. After years in distribution, he and Merk co-wrote and co-produced their own movie, the 2000 animated film “Marco Polo: Return to Xanadu.” What kind of person was Holter? “When he walked in a room, everyone behaved,” Merk recalls. “He just brought out the best in people.”

The fact that a chunk of the proceeds from the sale of “Hercules in New York” will go to a charitable foundation is unlikely to affect Schwarzenegger’s decision whether or not to bid on the film-assuming he’s even aware of the impending auction. Similarly, the fact that the actor briefly considered purchasing the movie many years ago is also irrelevant. “When we first had the film,” Merk recalls, “there was some interest from Schwarzenegger about acquiring the rights. Some of the TV rights had been sold and so he couldn’t get all the rights, so he walked away.”

The truth is that Merk does not expect the high bidder for “Hercules in New York” to be named Arnold Schwarzenegger. But that doesn’t mean he holds the former strongman in anything less than high regard. “Schwarzenegger is a great example of the American dream,” he declares. “He has risen to the very top of the entertainment business and politics. You’ve got to give the guy credit for getting where he is. He’s a very bright, personable guy.”

If Schwarzenegger sees no need to buy and bury the unflattering first chapter of his movie career, it’s because he’s reached a stage where it couldn’t possibly hinder any of his goals. Anyway, he has more recent embarrassments from which he has studiously disassociated himself. Don’t forget that Schwarzenegger was a founding celebrity investor in Planet Hollywood, with Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis and Demi Moore.