Can Paramount Launch a New Tom Cruise Franchise Now?

6:00 AM PST 09/18/2012 by Kim Masters , Daniel Miller

Handling the Vanity Fair fallout: "You're not going to see him everywhere" promoting "Jack Reacher."

When Tom Cruise wrapped up his divorce from Katie Holmes in less than two weeks in August, Paramount had reason to hope the dust would settle by the time the star started promoting his crime thriller Jack Reacher, out in December.

Then came the October Vanity Fair cover story -- a detailed look at purported auditions for a new mate following Cruise's split from Nicole Kidman in 2001. The story by Maureen Orth included allegations that the Church of Scientology recruited Iran-born actress Nazanin Boniadi, manipulated her into breaking up with her boyfriend and transformed her appearance, all to make her fit for Scientology's prince -- and then abruptly dropped her when she displeased Cruise and inadvertently offended church leader David Miscavige. Though Boniadi had been forbidden to reveal what had occurred, the article says, she confided in a friend. The church then allegedly punished her through forced labor, such as cleaning a toilet with a toothbrush. In a scathing eight-page letter to Vanity Fair, Scientology denied all these allegations: "Scientology is a new religion and its beliefs are not as well known as those of more ancient history. That does not excuse you or Ms. Orth for being ignorant." But the church apparently hasn't moved forward with any litigation against Vanity Fair.

The Vanity Fair article would appear to have created a new kind of problem for Cruise: In the past, there always has been a question as to whether the star was even aware of some of the darker allegations about Scientology. Former Scientologist Tory Christman, for example, has said that she was assigned to keep "entheta" off of John Travolta's "lines" -- that is, to prevent negative news from reaching him. (A spokesperson for the organization denies this practice.) But the Vanity Fair story connects some of those allegations to the most intimate aspect of Cruise's life: his quest for a wife. Cruise's attorney Bert Fields wrote THR to say: "Even if you believed Orth's story -- which no intelligent person should -- even she doesn't claim that Tom knew what she claims the church was doing. So please don't write that her article shows Tom's involvement in this claimed conduct. It doesn't."

While members of Cruise's team say the star is aware of the article, they do not know whether he has read it. But one insider reveals he has dismissed it as yet another media attack on his religion, saying, "I've been dealing with people doing this for 30 years." According to Cruise's publicist, Amanda Lundberg, the article included many "lies designed to sell magazines," and the star feels no need to respond publicly.

Lundberg says the story of the wife auditions is a fabrication: "Does he meet people at the church? Yes. Do others meet people at their church or temple? Yes. Is this scandalous? Of course not."

Lundberg says the only audition involved in Cruise's first meeting with Holmes was for Mission: Impossible 3 at Cruise's offices on the Paramount lot (arranged by his then-producing partner). And she denies that Cruise ever forced his religion on Holmes. "He has a right to believe what he wants to believe," says Lundberg. "Do I think fans care about it? No. Do I think he owes anybody an explanation? No. He has a job to do, and he does it better than anybody. He has nothing to apologize for."

In the past, however, Cruise did have fences to mend with the media and his fans following his War of the Worlds-era spinout in 2005: the couch-jumping on Oprah, the tense encounter with Matt Lauer on Today, and that viral video in which he affirmed his dedication to Scientology. But a well-executed charm offensive during the Valkyrie press tour in 2008 put Cruise back on track. This time, says a key member of the star's team, there is no apology to make, no action to take -- such as the interventions his agents and publicists held with him in the past, explaining that his actions were harming his career. "You can talk to somebody if it's their behavior," says this person, "but he didn't instigate this. He just wants to go to work. That's what he lives for."

As for Paramount, the studio is left again to hope the media frenzy dies down. But knowing that any reporter who gets near is likely to touch on radioactive topics, a studio executive says that as far as publicity goes, "You're not going to see him everywhere."

That doesn't mean Cruise won't throw himself into promoting Jack Reacher, in which he plays a drifter who violently rights wrongs. "With every movie he makes, it's always, 'When do you need me?' " says Lundberg. On Reacher, she says the star shot 35 consecutive days -- sometimes working more than 20 hours straight -- to keep the movie on schedule while also making himself available for a grueling 16-day overseas tour for Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Few stars would be willing to tackle that schedule -- nor would they be expected to.

Cruise plans to tour Europe and Asia to support Reacher. But in the U.S.? Maybe a couple of late-night shows (Letterman always has been welcoming) and appearances at events. No magazine covers, no morning-news shows, no soul-searching interviews with Diane Sawyer or Katie Couric. Although his role in June's Rock of Ages was small, Cruise did more domestic press for that film -- including interviews with People, Playboy and W -- than he'll do for Reacher.

The studio can get some coverage by providing a prepackaged interview with Cruise and film clips to entertainment shows, but that's hardly the same as having a star of Cruise's wattage out in front in the U.S. and will make launching Reacher as a franchise that much harder.

Which leads one former Cruise associate to conclude that though the star and his team might not realize it yet, Cruise might be at a crossroads. "I have never known anybody who loved being a movie star more," says this person. "I would tell him to choose: You either have to be at the top of Scientology because that's where your passion lies, or you have to be a movie star. The two are not compatible. … You can't manage a movie career and a freak show." (Lundberg is appalled by that assessment: "By calling someone's religion a freak show, this person is, by definition, a bigot.")

Despite the perception that Scientology again might be a threat to his career, there are no indications Cruise is evaluating his relationship with the church -- though several former Scientologists hope he will. They believe Cruise's public persona will have to take additional hits before he seriously considers leaving the organization, especially given that he has remained atop Hollywood's A-list while weathering Scientology-centered scandals. "I think it would have to get worse than it is now," says Mike Reppen, a former Sea Org member from 1973 to 1998 who in February was formally expelled by the church for forwarding an e-mail critical of Miscavige. (Scientology spokespeople have, in the past, told THR that ex-Scientologists who have criticized the church are "defrocked apostates" who are not telling the truth; the church did not respond to THR's queries by press time.)

There is precedent for Cruise having serious issues with the church. Several former Scientologists say Cruise effectively left in the 1990s -- he didn't renounce his faith but instead distanced himself from the organization. According to Marty Rathbun, who left the church in 2004 after 22 years and who for several years worked closely with Cruise as his auditor, the star came to church facilities for only one auditing session from 1993 to 1996. "He just stopped showing up," says Rathbun.

According to Rathbun, Cruise returned to the fold in 1998 for one week of rigorous auditing but apparently was more interested in his marriage to Kidman, with whom he filmed Eyes Wide Shut from October 1996 to January 1998. According to sources, production of the sexually explicit Stanley Kubrick film about a doctor grappling with infidelity drove Cruise away from the church. Things changed when he and Kidman divorced in 2001 and Rathbun got a call from Cruise, saying he needed help. Rathbun says he counseled Cruise over a two-year period, effectively bringing him back to the church. A spokesperson for the organization says it does not comment on parishioners but adds that "Mr. Cruise never left the church, effectively or otherwise."

The question, according to Rathbun, comes down to Cruise's life as a movie star. If Cruise senses he is slipping from what already is a precarious perch -- after all, he is 50 and has outlasted many other A-listers -- he might be more inclined to evaluate his relationship with the institution to which he has remained so loyal. "He will always be able to make movies," says Rathbun. "But is he going to be able to make movies with total and utter control and with the budget to do whatever he wants? Because that is Tom Cruise."

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