Can Tom Cruise's Valkyrie Save MGM?

Valkyrie, the $75 million Nazi thriller, is MGM's most pricey film since private equity backers bought the studio in 2004. A lot is riding on it

In case you missed all the billboards and guest spots on television, Tom Cruise has a new movie coming out. There was the Toothy One, grinning in the wee-morning hours at Today show host Matt Lauer, offering before their sit-down interview to get doughnuts for the newscaster that our man Tom three years back demeaned as "glib" for asking those pesky questions journalists sometimes ask. But this is the new Tom Cruise. He appeared the next night on Late Show with David Letterman, poking fun at himself in a Top 10 list that included the Scientologist's belief that "all emotional and physiological disorders can be cured with Vicks VapoRub."

Chalk one up for Tom's handlers, who have returned the once-popular star from whatever alternative universe he had been inhabiting. And none too soon. Cruise's next film, the Nazi-themed thriller Valkyrie, in which the star plays a German officer leading a plot to kill Adolf Hitler, sure as heck needs the audience to be booing the Führer instead of Cruise.

MGM, which is releasing the flick through its United Artists unit, desperately needs the film to show that it, too, is back from the same dark place as Cruise. This is a studio with hefty debt, a steady steam of box-office bombs, and a revolving door in the corner office that saw Cruise's producing partner brought in to run the United Artists studio with Cruise and then getting the boot less than two years later.

Distant Third

So does Valkyrie save MGM? I have my doubts. MGM won't share its internal numbers but among the five major flicks that open on Dec. 25, Cruise and his eye patch (did I forget to mention he wears one throughout much of the film?) make Valkyrie the third most eagerly awaited movie by fan site Rotten Tomatoes with a 62% wanna-see factor—roughly tied with Fox's doggie comedy Marley & Me and ahead of only Walt Disney's (DIS) Adam Sandler kiddie flick Bedtime Stories (40%). It's well behind Brad Pitt's aging-backwards fantasy The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (77%), which online ticket service Fandango says is outselling Valkyrie 4 to 1 in advance sales.

I'm sure that MGM would be thrilled if Valkyrie opens the four-day holiday weekend with anything over $15 million, which is roughly what the Jim Carrey comedy Yes Man did during this past two-day weekend, when much of the country was hit by snow or cold weather. Because holiday flicks tend to gross about six times their opening weekends, that would give MGM a nifty $90 million or so. But wishing so may not make it happen. This is a film that I figure is destined for $60 million. An all-American star like Cruise doesn't translate to a German Nazi-turned-assassin-saboteur all that easily. And, heck, in this film the villain wins, until the Allies arrive anyway, and that's after the fadeout.

A disclaimer: I didn't get a chance to see the entire flick, sitting through a pretty rousing 20-minute segment of tanks rolling and airplanes flying that the execs showed me a year or so back. But reviewers who have seen the movie are generally mixed, at least according to those at Rotten Tomatoes, where the reviews averaged a 5.8 out of 10. Even United Artists bankers came away from a screening some months back shaking their heads a bit, I'm told. Cruise came along to help sell the film, not a bad way to soften up the crowd. But one banker told me, "It's awfully hard to sell this as a thriller when you know the ending."

Thank Heavens for Bond

O.K., so maybe bankers don't make the best film critics. What they do know is that it would be great for them if MGM could launch something akin to a winning streak. It owns a half-interest in the James Bond flick Quantum of Solace, with Sony (SNE).

That film is a bona fide monster, having grossed more than $161 million in the U.S., and is headed toward $550 million worldwide. And MGM has a likely hit coming in February with another Pink Panther comedy starring Steve Martin, also jointly produced with Sony. The prior Panther flick grossed a hearty-if-not-spectacular $82 million in 2006, and more than $158 million worldwide.

But with a budget of around $75 million (naysayers claim that it's closer to $90 million), Valkyrie is the most expensive film that MGM has made since private equity backers bought the studio in 2004 and installed as its CEO Harry Sloan, a Hollywood veteran with a history of successes to his credit. The boobirds have been circling MGM for months, waiting for something like a train wreck of this size to predict its demise. What we do know is that MGM has a pile of debt— $3.7 billion from its acquisition—and is paying north of $250 million a year in interest payments on that. Could MGM use a hit? Does Tom Cruise jump on couches?

I'd like to say that Sloan has another success on his hands, thanks to Cruise and Valkyrie. I just don't see it. Fact is, it has very little buzz among women, and that can be a killer for any film. I live in a house with three of them, and I couldn't drag one of them along with me to see the film unless I offered a trip to Nordstrom (JWN) in return.

No Chick Flick

MGM knows it has a women problem, I figure, and has been counterprogramming its ads like crazy. It's filled the airtime at male-centric places like ESPN, Comedy Central, and late-night talk shows. I get it: Competing movies on Christmas like Fox's (NWS) dog-centric flick Marley & Me, starring Jennifer Aniston, will play heavily to women. Same goes for Benjamin Button. So MGM is spending less than its competitors—maybe $35 million in ads compared with the usual $50 million for Christmas time—and targeting the guys.

A good strategy? Perhaps, but it would help if there were a good film to go along with it. MGM insiders say the movie gets great word of mouth from those who have seen it (studio folks usually say stuff like that). Then again, if the film were great, the studio wouldn't have moved it in and out of release slots three times in the past year. So, you figure that MGM is hoping that Cruise's sparkle, charm, and charisma have returned to give the film the pizzazz it needs to help build a case that the studio is on the rebound. That remains to be seen. But at least Matt Lauer seems to like ol' Tom again.

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