Governator ponders pics and prospects

Arnold's impact furthered biz's favorite issues, prod'n incentives

When California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger leaves office today, completing a sometimes triumphant and often turbulent seven years leading the Golden State, he’ll be back where he’s been so many times before in his career: figuring out what to do next.

He professes to be keeping his options open; possibilities include writing books, taking on speaking engagements, as well as continued work on environmental and reform issues. And yes, the options include doing new movies: He’s even cited Fred Thompson as an example of a personality who has gone back and forth between the political and entertainment worlds.

“The list is a long list of things I can do, but nothing I can concentrate on until I am literally, totally out of office,” Schwarzenegger said in an interview with Daily Variety following a Dec. 17 event at LAPD headquarters in downtown Los Angeles. “For me the joy of life is not to know, and you get into it and you kind of figure it out. I love that. I don’t like safety nets. I am not a believer in that. … So you go in there with an open mind and you have to learn very quickly.”

But the end of the Governator’s term is probably not the kind of climax that would have been hatched in Hollywood, or even what was expected when he won the office following a recall campaign of predecessor Gray Davis.

Schwarzenegger has low approval ratings in a state mired in debt and high unemployment. Some of the exit essays from the state’s punditry have been scathing. Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton wrote Dec. 28 that Schwarzenegger “didn’t make the state’s money mess any better. In fact, it has gotten worse.”

Through the prism of those in the entertainment industry, however, Schwarzenegger’s legacy is perhaps viewed more favorably than some critics suggest. It’s not just that he has so many friends in the business, many of whom showed up for a going-away party in Sacramento on Dec. 16, but that he came to support issues important to so many industry activists, such as a landmark climate-change law, and that he refused to defend Proposition 8 as its supporters seek to overturn a federal court ruling.

From a business standpoint, he helped shepherd a program that brought, for the first time, production tax incentives to the state. While they are not as generous as those of other states, they have kept California in the game, state film officials and studio lobbyists say.

And even as the state finds itself on shaky economic footing, Schwarzenegger does not concede his legacy as a reformer, citing historic circumstances as responsible for the $28 billion deficit California faces over the next 18 months.

“The reality is that if we had not had the financial world economic crisis, the biggest in the last 80 years, we would have paid off all of our economic recovery bond money,” he said. “We would have paid off the debt that was created by the previous administration on education. We would have paid off all our money to local governments that the previous administration had rung up. We would have literally been out of the woods with our structural deficit.”

He added that he’s not using the economic crisis “as an excuse, because that is what gave us the opportunities to do budget reform.” If the economy had been strong, he said, “We would not have gotten the budget reforms. We would not have gotten the pension reforms that we did. We would not have gotten the political reforms that we did. All of that happened because people are angry. People are frustrated, which of course has an effect on my poll numbers, but at the same time it has benefited us getting those reforms.”

The dire budget environment of early 2009, ironically enough, helped pave the way for the eventual passage of the production tax incentives. Under the five-year, $500 million program, more than 100 projects have received credits so far, ranging from features like “Dinner for Schmucks” and “Burlesque” to series including TNT’s “Men of a Certain Age” and TV movies, the latter of which had largely flocked to other states and Canada.

Schwarzenegger said the program has translated into billions of dollars in direct spending, but if other states are any guide, future battles lie ahead in expanding or even retaining the program, particularly in the face of dire budget crunches.

Long championed by then-Assembly Speaker Karen Bass and other Los Angeles-area lawmakers, particularly as shows like “Ugly Betty” left California for New York, the incentives were a tough political sell; in some ways, Schwarzenegger found himself constrained by the perception that he was merely looking to help out his friends in Hollywood.

“Impossible, almost,” Schwarzenegger said of previous efforts. “For years both parties had no interest at all. The Democrats have said, ‘Not over my dead body, because what am I going to tell the homeless people out there? That I don’t have money for them but I have money for the Hollywood producers? I can’t do that.’ And the Republicans said, ‘Well, yeah, I am interested in tax incentives. But manufacturing needs tax incentives. Factories need tax incentives.’ ”

“It was the perception and, you know, we fought through that and it came to a point where they needed something, and I just leveraged it,” Schwarzenegger said. “I said, ‘I only can do this if I can be understanding of the situation because it is a good cause, but you also have to be understanding of the situation because that is a good cause, because it does not go to Hollywood producers. It goes to people that were the makeup artists and electricians and set designers and the set builders and the grips. They will get jobs because production will stay in California. So it is a good cause. So I said let’s take care of all these good causes. And so that is how we finally did it.”

Despite Ronald Reagan’s success, Schwarzenegger also fought the perception that an actor couldn’t take a great leap into such a prominent elective office. He said that the next Hollywood figure to plunge into politics won’t be free of such doubts, either.

“Anytime you have an outsider, (there will be) people who question, ‘Is that the right thing to do?’ and ‘Wouldn’t you have to work your way up the ladder and be a mayor first or city councilman or assemblyman or senator?’?” he said. “So it is natural that there would be suspicion or concerns. But I think there was such an economic crisis (in 2003) that it allowed someone like me to go in there, because people were fed up with the typical politicians and the typical kind of infighting that is going on … and they felt that maybe an outsider can do better, with a fresh mentality and fresh thinking and maybe to be more inclusive. So it worked. If it had been another time, maybe it wouldn’t have worked, but then I wouldn’t have jumped in in the first place.”

[No Paragraph Style]Text (Text Styles)Yet a similar “outsider” campaign didn’t work for Meg Whitman — and may have even backfired. Her rival in the race to succeed Schwarzenegger, Jerry Brown, ran one of the most notable ad spots of the midterm campaign, “Echo,” showing that Whitman was reciting the exact same words as Schwarzenegger; the implication was that California had already tried an elective neophyte, and it had not turned out well.

Schwarzenegger doesn’t seem offended by the ad spot’s criticism — “Of course, in a campaign you exaggerate and you embellish on all those things” — but said that it merely capitalized on a “mistake” of the Whitman campaign.

“The ad I found was very humorous, because it was true,” he said. “She was saying my lines. Like I said, I delivered them better. I thought it was crazy to go out and say exactly the same things and to take my playbook. In all fairness, the campaign manager was the same, Mike Murphy. I think that you know in bodybuilding, if someone trained exactly the same as I did, they made a big mistake because I have a body no one else has. Every body is different, even though we have these billions of bodies around the world, but everyone is different. In my encyclopedia of modern bodybuilding, I wrote specifically that you have got to adjust the training to your body. So you can follow my principles but don’t do exactly the same. …So you can use the principles but don’t copy it. So the same is in politics.”

Schwarzenegger, who has done cameos in pics including “The Expendables” during his gubernatorial tenure, said he doesn’t think it would be a problem to return to acting roles, if he chooses to. “It is like bicycling, or like skiing,” he said. “You get on it and you feel like there is no time lapse there at all.”

But there’s one job he has no interest in: chief of the Motion Picture Assn. of America. His name was bandied about during the search process, but “no one has come up to me about that,” he said, adding that he would nevertheless “always be supportive” of the movie industry.

As he left LAPD headquarters with aides Dec. 17, he somewhat whimsically started holding his hands up in the air to frame the building and the sky within his fingers, as if scouting locations. It was a reminder of another possible next move, this one not so outside the norm of the Hollywood career arc: to direct.

Timeline: Arnold’s Tenure