Commentary: UA's grand design is unraveling under Tom Cruise

Putting talent in charge of a motion picture company doesn't work

Sitting behind glass at MGM's high-rise headquarters in Century City is the 1919 contract signed by Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith when they created United Artists. It's displayed like a holy grail -- a shout-out to the company's storied past as well as a possible blueprint for its future.

Two years ago, when MGM chief Harry Sloan decided it was time to restore the UA label, he cited that contract as he announced he was entrusting UA to the care of Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner, the actor's longtime producing partner.

"Partnering with Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner, we have the ideal creative foundation from which to reintroduce the United Artists brand," Sloan said, "brand" being the buzzword of the moment throughout media circles.

"Tom and Paula are the modern versions of the iconic founders of United Artists -- Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith -- and our partnership with them reaffirms our commitment to providing creative talent with a comfortable home at United Artists and a dedicated distribution partner in MGM."

In the short term, it was a shrewd move. Cruise might have been coming off a bruising battle with Sumner Redstone, but he possessed the power to command headlines. The media loved the ready-made story line: Creative talent was back in control of UA. And by last August, Merrill Lynch was able to line up $500 million in financing, enough that UA could make as many as 15-18 films over five years.

One year later, the grand design is unraveling. Together, Cruise and Wagner have released just one film, "Lions for Lambs," which proved a boxoffice flop, while a second, the Bryan Singer-directed "Valkyrie," is waiting in the wings for a Dec. 26 release, a potentially problematic date since a Nazi thriller doesn't exactly sing out happy holidays.

With the future of the "new" UA seemingly in doubt, Sloan said Cruise "is in the middle of one of the greatest careers our industry has ever seen and one that will continue at the top of United Artists Entertainment."

What has gone wrong? Was Wagner simply too slow to greenlight projects? Had Sloan put obstacles in her way in hopes of transferring UA's production funds to MGM? Was Cruise, after the failure of "Lambs" and all the tsuris surrounding "Valkyrie," having a midcareer crisis that left him second-guessing his partner?

Whatever weight each individual factor deserves, UA's own past suggests a larger reason why the venture appears to be going south: Putting creative talent in charge of a motion picture company simply doesn't work.

When Pickford and her pals joined forces in hopes of seizing more control of their careers, their intentions might have been admirable, even if one Metro exec at the time cynically cracked, "The inmates are taking over the asylum."

The problem, though, is that each in the quartet was ultimately more interested in the needs of their individual careers than in fulfilling the demands of their company. UA's founders couldn't make movies fast enough to feed its distribution pipeline. Griffith soon dropped out; other stars and producers were brought aboard. But UA became an also-ran, eclipsed by the major Hollywood studios.

In the 1950s, however, that all changed when Arthur Krim and Robert Benjamin took over the company from Pickford and Chaplin and turned it into the first "virtual" studio. Instead of investing in soundstages and real estate, they bet on filmmakers, identifying independent producers and directors who could be trusted to bring in pictures at a price.

Working with such producers as Sam Spiegel, Stanley Kramer, the Mirisch brothers and Joseph E. Levine and directors like John Huston, Otto Preminger, Billy Wilder and Richard Lester, UA suddenly was surfing the zeitgeist. From the '50s through the '70s, it turned out such singular titles as "The African Queen," "Marty," "The Apartment," "West Side Story," "A Hard Day's Night" and "Annie Hall" -- not to mention the Bond, Pink Panther and Rocky movies.

The "first" UA foundered because it was so closely built around talent. It set the pattern for such later companies as First Artists (founded by Barbra Streisand, Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier) and the Directors Co. (created by Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola and William Friedkin). Such ventures all dissipated without fulfilling their promise because the artists involved were more interested in seeking out the best possible projects -- wherever those projects were based -- than in simply fulfilling contractual commitments to their joint venture.

By contrast, the "second" UA prospered because, though it was certainly talent-friendly, the talent it served wasn't ultimately in control.

In relaunching UA, Sloan cited the wrong model. Instead of pointing to the original UA, now preserved under glass, it should have looked more closely at how the unit was run during its glory days in the '50s, '60s and early '70s.