Cruise: Star Turned Studio Mogul

Tom Cruise and producing partner Paula Wagner are touting an artist-oriented United Artists. Question is, can they succeed?

In Hollywood, there's redemption, and then there's redemption. For most folks who make or star in films, redemption is having a hit after a real stinker—when, say, Jim Carrey actually makes another movie that someone other than his immediate family wants to see. The other type of redemption is the kind that superstar Tom Cruise and his longtime producing partner Paula Wagner hope to enjoy soon. On Nov. 9, Lions for Lambs, a political flick starring Cruise, hits theaters. It's the first in an expected long line of films produced by the duo through United Artists, the company they jointly own with MGM.

Will it be a hit? Who knows. The gods of Hollywood can be cruel. But the fact that Cruise and Wagner are in business making films again speaks volumes about human determination, the power of an A-list superstar, and, well, mountains of money. You may recall that 15 months back the two were bounced from Paramount Pictures, where they had made films for more than a decade. Sumner Redstone, chairman of Paramount's Viacom (VIA) parent, even threw some less than generous words Cruise's way. There was talk about Cruise's quirky behavior at the time, and the very clear intimation from Redstone that the actor's antics were costing his company money.

Well, Cruise and Wagner are back. And while Wagner is clear that she's "not looking backward," she seems eager to show the world that she and Cruise can not only make flicks for a studio but run one themselves. In their case, it's the venerable—if all-but-comatose—United Artists (UA) studio, which the duo agreed last November to run for its longtime owner MGM.

Cruise's Presence: Star Power

Cruise and Wagner, whose producer credits include hits such as Mission: Impossible and The Others, are part-owners of the studio, which MGM Chairman and Chief Executive Harry Sloan clearly wants to bring back from its all-but-moribund state. He's given Wagner, who is chief executive, near complete decision-making control, she says. She and Cruise read scripts, make marketing decisions, and generally run the place like a small independent studio (BusinessWeek, 11/7/06). (Under the terms of their deal, MGM distributes the films for United Artists.)

Listen up, Sumner. Wagner and Cruise are way ahead of schedule in putting out their first flick. A new studio chief generally takes about 18 months or so to get a movie into theaters but the new UA will have one before audiences in just about a year. Lion for Lambs, Wagner says, was darn near a finished product "with a script that Tom and I loved, and a great director [Redford]." All it needed was the green light, which Wagner gave soon after announcing their deal to take over at UA. Wagner says the studio intends to do things in a financially prudent manner, so it no doubt helped that the film cost a fairly modest $35 million.

Of course, it also helps to launch a studio when you have Tom Cruise as a partner. He not only plays a lead role (with Redford and Meryl Streep) in the political tale of war in Afghanistan, but will also star in UA's second flick, Valkyrie. In the Nazi-era film, which just finished shooting in Berlin and is scheduled for release in June, Cruise plays the role of a German military man who tries to assassinate the führer.

Merrill Lynch-Arranged Financing

The game plan for Wagner and Cruise is to make four to six films a year. "We're going to make action films and comedies; we have no limits," Wagner says. It sounds an awful lot like the UA that was created back in 1919. Like the current version, that UA was headed by some box office bigwigs—Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks, who (along with director D.W. Griffith) were tired of how they were being treated by Hollywood.

Like those folks, Cruise and Wagner own a piece of the "new" UA along with MGM.

And like their predecessors, Cruise and Wagner are already luring some profile filmmakers to UA, with promises that they'll respect their artistic vision. "The concept is that this is an artist-driven company," says Wagner, who worked for years in Hollywood as an agent before going off to make films with Cruise, perhaps her best-known client. The company's third film, the story of Vietnam's My Lai massacre called Pinkville, is being directed by Oliver Stone and will star Bruce Willis.

Having a heavy hitter like Cruise on board no doubt helps attract other stars. It also helps that they have some cold hard cash that Cruise played a part in securing. Wagner says she and Cruise made the rounds, with the superstar luring standing-room-only crowds during a road show that eventually signed on 15 institutional investors. They ponied up a total of $500 million in financing arranged by Merrill Lynch (MER) in July. A word of caution: The UA of old was never terribly successful. By the time it was up and running, film budgets had skyrocketed, the talkies all but ended the careers of Pickford and Fairbanks, and Chaplin didn't make many films. It limped along for years.

Top Guns Brought In

Clearly, that's not the way that Cruise and Wagner envision the next era of their professional careers, and they're preparing to come out of the chute with everything they've got. Ads for Lions for Lambs, aimed primarily at the guys and young adults, blitzed NFL telecasts and even surrounded Meet The Press. To nurture younger viewers who could gravitate to its antiwar themes, the studio is preparing screenings and talks on college campuses with Redford and some of the stars.

Make no mistake, Cruise and Wagner are back. They have hired some top guns to help them create a studio, including highly regarded Hollywood lawyer Elliott Kleinberg as the studio's chief operating officer. Former Disney publicity chief Dennis Rice is handling marketing. They can be lean because they operate out of MGM's Century City high-rise headquarters, and MGM handles most of the distribution and marketing chores. Cruise can still make flicks for other studios. And the duo can still create films through their own separate company, Cruise/Wagner Productions, with overhead costs covered by money from Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder. But UA is clearly their main attraction. And even if they won't say it, you know that they sure hope Sumner Redstone is paying attention.

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