Why Tom Cruise Still Matters in the Film Industry (Analysis)

8:05 AM PST 10/08/2011 by Borys Kit, Jay A. Fernandez
Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images

UPDATED: Tom Cruise's star power gets huge boost from success of "Mission: Impossible--Ghost Protocol," this year's Christmas blockbuster.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.

Tom Cruise would make a great Survivor contestant. Despite his peculiar public image and less-than-stellar domestic box office in recent years, the 49-year-old has three other big studio movies hitting theaters in the next 18 months in addition to Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol: The now-filming One Shot for Paramount, June's Rock of Ages for New Line and the untitled Joseph Kosinski sci-fi epic for Universal. Also,THR has learned that Warner Bros. is talking to the actor for the lead in its big-budget sci-fi war pic We Mortals Are (aka All You Need Is Kill), being directed by Doug Liman.

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There's no doubt that the December success of Ghost Protocol helps Cruise's cause. The film has earned north of $270 million in just two weeks, and Paramount estimates it will ulitmately gross $600 million worldwide--a franchise best.

"The studios are interested in him again," says one producer.

What a turnaround. When Mission: Impossible III opened in May 2006, the actor had been under siege for his over-excited Oprah appearance, his public stumping for Scientology and his anti- psychiatry rant on Today. MI-3's $398 million worldwide gross was nearly 30 percent less than the previous film's global take.

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Paramount soon cut ties with Cruise/Wagner Prods., then Lions for Lambs bombed in 2007 for MGM, where Cruise had taken over as head of its United Artists label, a gig that also led nowhere. Meanwhile, his November 2006 marriage to Katie Holmes seemed only to provoke mass eye-rolling.

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An apology-laden PR offensive erased some of the damage to Cruise's reputation. But while his funny cameo in Tropic Thunder drew praise, Valkyrie and Knight and Day were considered under- performers, at least in the U.S. War of the Worlds was his last unqualified success, with $591 million in worldwide grosses dur- ing summer 2005 -- a lifetime ago in Hollywood terms. So what's behind his sudden resurgence?

One: Need. Movie stars are an increasingly rare breed, and new ones aren't solidifying. Cruise still delivers internationally, as evidenced by the $186 million foreign gross for Knight and Day, and he has the added benefit of looking (and playing) younger than his years. He's also hardworking, reliable and invested. "When you have somebody with that good a track record, there's always the potential for the audience to support that person they've had a long relationship with," says Paramount's Rob Moore, who sees the new Jack Reacher character in One Shot as another Cruise franchise.

Two: Goodwill. "He's good at wooing people," says one studio exec. "He makes it a priority to meet the next generation of execs and is one of the few actors who goes out of his way to shake people's hands to get back in their good books." According to insiders, one person Cruise has gotten close to is Skydance Productions president David Ellison, who is co-financing both Protocol and One Shot and shares Cruise's love of airplanes and flying.

Three: Adaptability. Cruise and his CAA agents have proved to be flexible on dealmaking, meaning he's working cheaper at times -- sources say he's getting just $5 million for Ages -- and structuring deals to lower upfront fees in exchange for backend participation that has greater upside in success.

Four: Commitment. Cruise has always understood what a movie star is and how he’s supposed to behave, and he’s been tireless in playing that role. Excepting the chaotic missteps of 2005-06, he’s always been a smart public figure “willing to do the job of being a movie star,” as one producer puts it. Unlike Russell Crowe or Jim Carrey, who rarely attempt to mend breaks with their fans, Cruise, like friend Will Smith, is a constant, enthusiastic campaigner for his own stardom. That accessibility to the wider world translates to tens of millions in ticket sales.

Cruise is not as big a star as he once was. But his approval ratings among filmgoers seem to have turned a corner, even if he has softer- than-desired traction with the under- 25 demo and some portion of the female audience. "Anecdotally, the polarization you once heard isn't here anymore," says a Hollywood marketing consultant. And his overseas prowess remains strong -- the rest of the world still loves Maverick.

TOM CRUISE'S UPS AND DOWNS

  • Oprah's Couch (May 2005): His public image takes a hit when, professing his love for Katie Holmes, he jumps the couch.
  • War of the Worlds (June 2005) Rebounds with the help of Steven Spielberg as alien invasion movie grosses $592 million worldwide.
  • South Park Parody (Nov. 2005): The "Trapped in the Closet" episode mocks him, and Comedy Central cancels a rerun.
  • Mission: Impossible III (May 2006) His third outing as agent Ethan Hunt disappoints, stalling at $398 worldwide.
  • Exit Paramount (Aug. 2006): Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone sours on him, ending his 14-year relationship with the studio.
  • Enter United Artists (Nov. 2006): He and producing partner Paula Wagner find a new mission ressurecting UA.
  • Knight and Day (2010): American audiences aren't impressed, but the movie more than doubles its domestic gross of $76 million overseas.

UPDATE: This story, which first appeared in October, has been updated to reflect the box office success of Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol.

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