The Greatest (and Worst) Power Lunches in Hollywood History

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Meeting the Terminator

It seems implausible now, but there was once a time when a studio could force James Cameron to take a lunch. In 1982, Orion and Hemdale, the studios backing The Terminator, set the young director up on a lunch meeting with a rising European actor whom executives thought might boost their $6 million sci-fi film’s foreign box office potential: Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger’s agents wanted their client, who was transitioning from body building to acting, considered for the role of Kyle Reese, the heroic warrior from the future ultimately played in the movie by Michael Biehn. Cameron thought that was an absurd idea given Schwarzenegger’s size and background. He planned to attend the lunch to appease the studios but intended to pick a fight with Schwarzenegger to make the whole thing go away.

Instead, that lunch became the start of a decades-long bromance that would change the course of both men’s careers. Schwarzenegger charmed Cameron with his gregariousness and enthusiasm for the script and, although he was supposed to be lobbying for the hero role, couldn’t stop talking about the villain. “I spoke much more enthusiastically about the Terminator character, about how he has to handle weapons, to be always like a machine,” Schwarzenegger told me when I interviewed him for my book, The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron. As Schwarzenegger talked, Cameron began sketching the actor’s face on a notepad he’d brought to lunch, noting his sharp jawline and cheekbones. As the lunch wore on, the men discovered they had a lot in common — both are immigrants, Cameron from Canada and Schwarzenegger from Austria, both liked motorcycles, and both project a truly preposterous level of confidence in their own abilities.

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Arnold Schwarzenegger (left) and James Cameron in Cannes in 1990.
Arnold Schwarzenegger (left) and James Cameron in Cannes in 1990.

A Hemdale executive was supposed to pick up the tab for lunch, but his credit card didn’t work, and Cameron had no money, so Schwarzenegger ended up paying. After they said their goodbyes, Cameron called the studio to tell them to forget the idea of Schwarzenegger playing Kyle Reese. “It’s not going to work,” Cameron said. “But boy, he’d make a hell of a Terminator.” The studios and Schwarzenegger closed the deal the next day. — REBECCA KEEGAN

Alex Gibney (Documentary Filmmaker)

I was having lunch in Newport Beach, California, with the man who was bankrolling the company I was working for — Offline Productions (Slam, Whiteboyz, The Huntress). An elegant slice of the upper crust, who allegedly owned a stake in Chateau Mouton Rothschild, the investor had promised to show me and my partner/boss, Marc Levin, a path to a profitable future. He introduced us to a woman named Nancy, who might partner with us to solve all our problems. She told us that she was the daughter of Lucky Luciano and, on her mother’s side, a direct descendant of Christ. As I stared into her eyes, and she rambled on about the pope kissing her ring, I had the feeling of leaving my body — and all my prospects — behind. As I floated off to the place where all movies go to die, and looked longingly at the salade Niçoise shrinking below me, I recall hearing my investor say, ‘I’ve got to go, but I’ll leave it to you to sort things out.’ “

Alex Goldstone (Partner at Anonymous Content)

“When I was a baby manager, I was invited out to lunch by a very successful independent film producer. During the course of the meal, he kept on ordering drinks. Pretty soon there was a wall of empty glasses surrounding him, so the waiter had no place to put the bill except right in front of me. What I later found out was that this was his M.O. and his way of scoring a free lunch.”

Alex Yarosh (Partner, Head of the Talent Department, Gersh)

I was on a call with a studio executive thanking them for their support in a client getting the lead of a major film franchise. They had navigated the whole system and really championed the client in getting the gig, going against the grain and director’s vision, and really made it happen. A real campaign. I said, ‘It would be great to get together and break bread, I can’t thank you enough for what you did.’ The executive said — joking, I believe — ‘Well, do you have to come [to the lunch]?’ I said, ‘Well, no, not really. I could send you a gift card and you can go without me.’ ‘OK, great.’ So I sent the gift card to the executive, who was embarrassed once it showed up. We ended up lunching months later, but it cemented a very long, fruitful relationship.”

The Most Epic Hollywood Lunch of All Time

Never in the history of Hollywood has there been a more sought-after lunch invitation than when Nikita Khrushchev visited Los Angeles on Sept. 19, 1959, near the height of the Cold War, four days after meeting with President Eisenhower at Camp David. It’s ironic that a town which had been so jolted by the Red Scare — the blacklist was still in effect — clamored so hard to dine with the Soviet premier, who just three years earlier had said of capitalist countries, “We will bury you.” But once Khrushchev expressed an interest in seeing Tinseltown, the State Department arranged with 20th Century Fox chief Spyros Skouras for him to visit that studio (Skouras had attended the Soviet Film Festival in Moscow the previous month), sparking what The New York Times described as “one of the angriest social free-for-alls in the uninhibited and colorful history of Hollywood” (invitations were ultimately coordinated by the MPAA to assure equal representation from all major studios).

In the end, the Saturday afternoon gathering in Café de Paris, Fox’s commissary, was described by THR as “almost certainly the greatest spectacle ever staged in a motion picture studio,” noting that “some 300 film luminaries were present to surround the 100-odd members of the troupe from Moscow.” Marilyn Monroe was flown in from New York and told to wear her tightest dress. Squab, wild rice, Parisian potatoes and peas with pearl onions were served. And Skouras and Khrushchev each gave speeches (the latter, whose arrival was greeted with a standing ovation, spoke for 45 minutes about a variety of topics, including his disappointment that security had advised him against visiting Disneyland). Then Khrushchev was led to a soundstage to observe the filming of a risque dance number for the musical Can-Can (Fox didn’t usually film on weekends but paid overtime to put on a show for him). Newsreel footage shows him looking on with delight, though he later told the press he found it “very tasteless.” — SCOTT FEINBERG

This story first appeared in the Aug. 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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