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Cruise plots his comeback

Much is riding on United Artists' film 'Valkyrie.'

By Richard Siklos, editor at large
Last Updated: December 24, 2008: 2:23 PM ET

Tom Cruise eyes comeback in 'Valkyrie."

LOS ANGELES -- The movie "Valkyrie" opens Christmas day and it might not be worthy of much mention were it not for the complex plot involving intrigue, betrayal and high stakes. We speak not of the movie itself, of course, but rather the back story of Tom Cruise and United Artists, the mini-studio the mega-star has had ostensive control over since last year.

Cruise needs no introduction. He's the star of many a film going back nearly 27 years and, according to his own web site, his "films have earned in excess of six billion dollars worldwide -- an achievement to which no other actor has come close." Translation: Cruise = $$.

This was the thinking when Cruise was approached by Harry Sloan, the CEO of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, after Cruise parted ways with Paramount Pictures, where he and his former partner, Paula Wagner, had a long-standing production deal. The parting made big headlines thanks to Cruise's supposed firing by Sumner Redstone, the tycoon who ultimately controls Paramount. Cruise's camp said he was headed for the exit of his own volition already. In any event, the flap compounded a wave of bad publicity for Cruise related in part to his championing of Scientology and a much-publicized bout of couch-jumping on the Oprah Winfrey show.

When he landed at UA it was fascinating on all sorts of levels. For one it was a storied brand dating back to its inception nearly 90 years ago as an alliance among Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and D.W. Griffith. Yet it had been lying dormant under the latest iteration of MGM, itself a once-storied brand that had become a kind of a transient beast in Hollywood that had been owned and sold by Kirk Kerkorian several times and, since 2006, has been acquired by a consortium of buyout firms and Sony, which largely coveted access to its large film library. Since then MGM might be better known for making headlines than films were it not for the two James Bond films it has released with Sony.

Equally fascinating was the idea of Cruise as a movie mogul. He and Wagner made 13 films together over the years, but people familiar with their performance said that if you stripped out the films like "Mission Impossible" that Cruise himself didn't appear in ("Elizabethtown," "Shattered Glass," "Narc" among them) their financial track record was middle of the pack. Plus, the duo usually averaged around one film a year, and UA raised $500 million in financing on the promise of doing some 20 films. Cruise and Wagner were given around a third of UA's equity -- with Cruise getting more -- and MGM holding the rest. Cruise has never held a title or been paid by the company, but the idea is that his interests and the studio's would be closely aligned under this structure. He has the right to green light films up to a budget of $60 million, beyond which MGM would need to give a thumbs up.

Beyond those initial parameters, it's never been fully clear what the plan at UA was -- but it's safe to say it has not proceeded accordingly. The first UA release, "Lions for Lambs," had the cachet of being directed by Robert Redford and co-starring Meryl Streep and Cruise. But due in part to its anti-war theme, it was largely ignored and ranks as Cruise's first big miss. Wagner left after several months, and no UA projects beyond "Valkryie" have yet gone into production.

Meanwhile, "Valkyrie" took a beating in Internet buzz over the course of its $75 million production, poked for everything from Cruise's Nazi character's eye patch to his speaking in a straight American accent. But the film is in the hands of the highly-regarded director Bryan Singer, who made "X-Men" and "The Usual Suspects."

Still, the biggest question surrounding "Valkyrie" isn't whether it's good, bad or ugly but whether it ought to have been made in the first place. What is the appetite for Nazi thrillers right now? If this were not UA, Cruise and MGM, it's a question that would be shrugged off at a lot of other studios. And people with knowledge of UA's game plan said the movie is not make or break for them. Meanwhile, MGM has pulled out all the stops, spending lavishly to promote the film. Cruise, meanwhile, put a feather back in his cap with his small role in the comedy "Tropic Thunder," for which he earned a Golden Globe nomination. Whether or not "Valkryie" does well, UA and Cruise still have a far better shot at succeeding in their comebacks than Cruise's Nazi co-plotters do in achieving their mission. To top of page

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