Wagner walks the plank from UA's Cruise ship

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In a move that ends her longtime business partnership with Tom Cruise, Paula Wagner is stepping down from her post as co-owner and CEO at United Artists.

Although she and Cruise were brought aboard to revive UA in November 2006, she encountered difficulties in jump-starting MGM's specialty label. Once she negotiates her exit, Wagner plans to return to producing full time.

Moving forward, though, she won't be partnered with Cruise, whose career is looking as if it needs a makeover of its own.

Wagner's move comes just two weeks after her husband, Rick Nicita, who had been Cruise's longtime agent, exited CAA to join production company Morgan Creek.

With Wagner's departure so closely following Nicita's, many in Hollywood read the power couple's moves as a reflection of Cruise's unhappiness with key lieutenants in charge of his career.

While CAA's Kevin Huvane is now the lead agent at CAA overseeing Cruise's career, the actor has been actively considering projects that have no connection to UA. It's unclear whether Wagner will be replaced at the storied shingle or whether Cruise's role in the company will change. MGM reps pointed out that key personnel — COO Elliott Kleinberg, production head Don Granger and newly hired marketing maven Mike Vollman — will remain in place and steer the ship in the interim.

A joint MGM-UA statement late Wednesday said that Wagner will continue to be a part owner of UA and hold a significant stake in the company's future success.

"Nothing will change in regard to Cruise's involvement with UA, and he continues to have a substantial ownership interest in the company. Furthermore, Cruise and Wagner will continue to work on film projects together."

Wagner and Cruise managed to produce and release just one project together at UA, last year's "Lions for Lambs," which featured Cruise as a Republican operative. It grossed a measly $15 million domestically.

Their second UA project "Valkyrie," in which Cruise plays the anti-Nazi Claus von Stauffenberg, has been bouncing around the release calendar. Originally set to open in the fall, the film was postponed until February. But in the latest twist, it has just been rescheduled for a wide release Dec. 26.

MGM-UA distribution president Clark Woods said the return to a 2008 release date was strictly for commercial reasons.

"We've now completed the movie, and it's fantastic," Woods said. "Until now, we didn't have a movie that was done. But now we have a movie starring Tom Cruise that deserves the best possible playtime."

Cruise, disguised as a vulgar studio exec, also shows up on screens this week in a small role in the new DreamWorks comedy "Tropic Thunder."

Still, the once-reigning superstar does appear to be casting about for a new screen image. He has stepped away from the spy thriller "Edwin A. Salt," which is undergoing a sex change to accommodate Angelina Jolie in the lead role.

Instead, Cruise is considering a comedy called "Food Fight" for Working Title and has entered into negotiations for the thriller "The Tourist," a remake of a French film, which would be produced by Spyglass Entertainment and Canal Plus. Bharat Nalluri is to direct screenwriter Julian Fellowes' adaptation of the 2005 feature, which follows an American tourist used as a pawn in a spy game by a female Interpol agent.

With Wagner leaving and Cruise considering other options, the future of UA as a strong, independent label within the MGM fold is in question for the umpteenth time.

During her brief tenure, Wagner helped pull together projects with heavy hitters Paul Haggis, Steven Zaillian, Christopher McQuarrie, Ron Moore and Guillermo del Toro. She also was instrumental in raising UA's $500 million revolving film fund spearheaded by Merrill Lynch.

But given the underperformance of "Lambs," the recent resignation of marketing head Dennis Rice, the dearth of greenlights and the PR quagmire enveloping "Valkyrie," the studio has had a difficult time engendering confidence.

Political rumblings within the MGM-UA relationship suggest a struggle over financial resources and focus as part of the reason for Wagner's exit. As newly installed chairman of MGM's Worldwide Motion Picture Group, Mary Parent quickly has ramped up executive hirings and snapped up script material; UA's momentum has simultaneously stalled. With MGM's need for production cash to make movies and also pay down hundreds of millions of dollars in debt, some suggest it had begun eyeing the UA fund.

Rice reportedly left his position at UA for similar reasons — resources were hamstrung by MGM needs. Whatever autonomy Wagner, Cruise and company thought they had might have turned out to be a mirage.

MGM still is searching for its own next tranche of financing but strenuously denies it's planning to bite into the UA coffers.

In her new guise, Wagner will produce independently as well as with UA on several projects still in development, including del Toro's "Champions." She and Cruise will retain an ownership interest in the studio — which began as a minority stake of a reported 30% — once she leaves following the completion of the Bryan Singer-directed "Valkyrie."

"I've truly relished working with my longtime partner Tom Cruise to revitalize United Artists, and I am proud of all that we've accomplished in the past two years, reinvigorating the brand and developing such a strong slate of films," Wagner said. "But I always tell my sons, 'Follow your passion' — and I've got to follow that advice myself. As much as I've enjoyed my time as an executive, I have longed to return to my true love, which is making movies, so that's what I've decided to do. I still believe in our vision for UA, and I am confident that Harry Sloan and our colleagues at MGM will see that vision through to reality."

Wagner worked at CAA for 15 years before launching Cruise/ Wagner Prods. with Cruise in 1993. They went on to produce $3 billion worth of global boxoffice revenue from a slate that included the three "Mission: Impossible" movies, "Shattered Glass," "Narc," "Vanilla Sky," "The Last Samurai" and "War of the Worlds." Wagner recently produced "The Eye" and "Death Race," which releases Aug. 22.

Gregg Goldstein in New York and Carl DiOrio in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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