Cruise-UA marriage is win-win comeback story


Cruise comeback: Tom Cruise's marriage -- not to Katie Holmes, but to Harry Sloan and United Artists -- is a Hollywood comeback story if ever there was one.

In the best Hollywood tradition, it's a win-win situation for all concerned. For Cruise, of course, it puts a great media spin on his career rebirth after his public thrashing in August from Viacom's Sumner Redstone. But as good as the new deal is for Cruise's public image, it's even better for MGM chairman and CEO Sloan, who's managed to catapult MGM's moribund UA division back into the big leagues without anything having actually happened there.

There are, needless to say, no guarantees that Cruise and his producing partner Paula Wagner will be able to work any magic at the new UA, but the great advantage they start out with is Cruise's ability to command the media spotlight whenever he chooses to do so. In announcing the new arrangement, which reportedly gives Cruise and Wagner a one-third stake in UA with no financial investment of their own, Sloan was positively brilliant in orchestrating media coverage that recalls UA's origins as a studio formed in 1919 by four Hollywood superstars of the time -- Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and director D.W. Griffith.

Most of the media coverage about Cruise going to UA has him seeking independence as a creative artist and that's cited as the rough equivalent of what UA's founders were hoping to achieve in 1919. But if we look back at Hollywood history, that's not quite the case. When the original UA team started their new studio, they already had creative control of the films they were making. They were the superstars of their day and they weren't being dictated to by anyone. They had tremendous independence because of their track records -- just as Cruise has had creative control of his films for many years. No one at Paramount was telling him how to make his movies.

More likely, what UA's founders were trying to do was maintain their creative control for the future because the fledgling movie business was going through some big changes in 1919. Studios were evolving into organizations capable of producing the stream of movies that were now needed to satisfy the demand for product to show in theaters that were springing up across the U.S. The movie business had been taking shape over the past decade and when UA was formed the cost of producing films was rising. Although the UA team committed to each producing five films a year for the new studio, by the time they got into business that was no longer a realistic goal. Hollywood was now making movies that ran about 90 minutes and were much more sophisticated than the short films the industry had made in its early days.

UA's founders probably believed the studios of the time and their bankers would try to exert more control over the product they were making as the investment to make it grew. They understood that owning their own studio would enable them to keep creative control of their pictures. Pickford, Chaplin, Fairbanks and cowboy movie star William S. Hart had come up with the idea for starting a studio of their own while traveling around the U.S. in 1918 selling Liberty bonds to help finance World War I. Hart dropped out of the venture before it was announced and Griffith took his place. Within a few years, Griffith exited UA.

In Cruise's case, the issue appears to be more about money than about creative control. With Viacom having ended the $10 million a year deal that Cruise and Wagner reportedly had at Paramount and with no other studio apparently having been willing to step up to the plate to do an equally rich new deal with them, it's understandable they'd be attracted to an opportunity to, in effect, run their own studio and arrange their own financing. Interestingly, Cruise is not committed to making any number of films for UA, although he could wind up doing some projects there or, perhaps, doing movies for other distributors but insisting that they allow UA to co-finance them.

With hedge funds, private equity firms and traditional Wall Street companies increasingly eager to invest in Hollywood and reap the benefit of the huge upside that hit movies offer, Cruise and Wagner should be able to structure a strong post-Paramount situation for themselves by heading the new UA. Cruise's celebrity status makes him someone that people with big money from less glamorous industries are always eager to hang out with and his track record at the boxoffice over the years is good enough to justify placing new bets on the next films he makes -- provided, of course, that he refrains from the public antics that got him in trouble at Paramount in the first place.

Although Cruise's last film "Mission: Impossible III" grossed over $395 million worldwide, it was a disappointment to Viacom and Paramount, which had grossed about $546 million worldwide with "Mission: Impossible II" in 2000. Redstone maintained that Cruise's unfavorable publicity had cut into ticket sales significantly, perhaps by as much as $150 million. As disappointing as $395 million was to Viacom, it would be a spectacular achievement at the new MGM/UA and Harry Sloane is smart to realize that Cruise could make this happen.

As for the UA founders, they were dealing with very different issues in 1919. At that point Pickford, who had started out as a child star, was 27. Her popularity stemmed from years of playing adolescents or young women in their early 20s. As she grew older and could no longer take on such very young roles, her fans refused to accept her playing anything but "America's Sweetheart," as she was known. In 1919 Pickford was not yet married to Fairbanks. She was still married to her first husband, silent movie actor Owen Moore. It was a troubled marriage and she was already involved with Fairbanks. Pickford and Moore were divorced Mar. 20, 1920 and she and Fairbanks were married Mar. 28 of that year.

Fairbanks, a former Broadway actor, got into movie acting in 1915 when he signed a contract with Triangle Pictures. He was working then under the supervision of Griffith, who had already left the pioneer Biograph Company to set up his own production unit at Thomas Ince's Triangle. Fairbanks became an action movie hero, making hit swashbuckling silent films like "The Mark of Zorro" (1920), "The Three Musketeers" (1921), "The Thief of Baghdad" (1924) and "The Black Pirate" (1926). These were made for Douglas Fairbanks Pictures Corp., his own production company, and were released through UA.

Griffith went on to produce through his own company a movie called "The Clansman" in 1915 that later became known as "The Birth of a Nation." It was the movie industry's first blockbuster and established Griffith as a superstar filmmaker -- in effect, the Steven Spielberg of his day. Unfortunately, Griffith's next film was the epic "Intolerance," which failed at the boxoffice. Produced in 1916 for Triangle, the film told four storylines over a time span of 2,500 years and Griffith hired some 3,000 extras to appear in the picture.

"Intolerance" cost about $2 million to make, which was a staggeringly high amount of money then. In fact, it was the most expensive movie ever made at the time. After its failure Triangle went bankrupt, which is what happened to studios in those early days before Hollywood could count on revenues from things like DVD or television as a safety net for theatrical failure. Surviving versions of "Intolerance" run anywhere from 176 to 197 minutes and show how by the time UA was founded the industry was already making big movies. Hollywood was no longer a business based on the short, inexpensively produced one-reelers that the industry had started out making.

Earlier in this career Griffith directed many short quickly cranked out films for the Biograph Company in New York from 1908-13. On April 19, 1909 he screen tested the very young Mary Pickford for a role in a nickelodeon film called "Pippa Passes." Although he didn't give her that part, Griffith was so taken with Pickford's potential in front of the camera that he signed her to a deal that paid her $10 a day -- $5 per day was Biograph's going rate at the time for actors -- against a weekly guarantee of $40. So essentially Pickford had Griffith to thank for launching her movie career.

Pickford had complete control over every aspect of the making and releasing of her movies starting in 1916 when she was working for Adolph Zuckor's Famous Players (which evolved into Paramount Pictures). By 1918 Pickford had moved to First National and had a deal to make three movies for $675,000, a huge sum then, which would translate to $10 million or more today. That deal gave Pickford half the profits of her films and complete creative control over making them, including final cut. By 1919 Pickford was Hollywood's biggest female movie star and the first actress to be paid over $1 million a year.

Charlie Chaplin was the biggest male movie star of the day and the first male actor to earn over $1 million a year. By 1919 Chaplin had already built his own Hollywood studio on La Brea Ave. in Hollywood. He developed his famous Tramp character in one-reel silent films at Keystone Studios from 1914-17, moved to the Essanay studio in 1915 and then went to Mutual Film Corp. where from 1916-18 he produced a dozen two-reel comedies. At that point, Chaplin definitely already had artistic control of his films.

So nobody was pushing any of the UA founders around in 1919 -- just as no one was pushing Tom Cruise around until Sumner Redstone decided he'd had enough of Cruise's wacky promotional appearances. While there's no question that Redstone was turned off by Cruise jumping on Oprah's TV couch to declare his love for Katie Holmes and by his verbal sparring with Matt Lauer on "Today" about Brooke Shields and the perils of taking medication for post-partum depression, there also were issues involving money that probably mattered even more. Given Cruise's rich deal at Paramount, the studio was going to make a lot less money on "Mission: Impossible III" than Cruise would. That combined with Redstone's feeling that the picture's boxoffice gross had suffered because of Cruise's diminished appeal to female moviegoers was enough to scuttle renewing Paramount's deal with Cruise on the same terms.

By cutting Cruise loose, Redstone may well have done Cruise a favor and he almost certainly did a big favor for Harry Sloan. Until the Cruise deal materialized there wasn't much that MGM could have done with UA. The "classics" or specialized film distribution business is overcrowded these days with established companies like Focus Features, Miramax Films, Sony Pictures Classics, Fox Searchlight Pictures, The Weinstein Company and Picturehouse all competing for a limited pool of talented independent filmmakers' pictures. So there was little or no point in reactivating UA as the specialized label it was before it wound up in mothballs.

And with Sloan already hard at work getting MGM back in action as a major studio, there wasn't a prayer of also turning UA into a major. But the concept of UA as a superstar-driven mini-major with four or five mainstream appeal pictures a year released and marketed worldwide via MGM is a very good one that could work. And that, by the way, could even allow for replacing MGM's roaring Leo the Lion with a snarling Tom Cruise from time to time.

Filmmaker flashbacks: From June 9, 1988's column: "It's films like MGM's 'Willow' that prove that Hollywood insiders don't always know what will do business. Despite the fact that few people outside of MGM/UA and Lucasfilm expected 'Willow' to work, the picture has indeed managed to take root quite nicely at the boxoffice.

"'It's always been a picture, quite frankly, that we thought in its fourth week, once the kids are all out of school, would probably be better than in its first week,' MGM worldwide marketing president Greg Morrison told me.

"'Willow's' origins were years earlier than people realize. 'It's an idea George had come upon even before 'Star Wars,' as I remember,' points out MGM chairman and CEO Alan Ladd, Jr. 'He, of course, (first) did the 'Star Wars' series and the 'Indiana Jones' series and he finally committed this one to paper. He gave it to me and I thought it was terrific. We made a deal and that was it...'

"Although there were those who predicted 'Willow,' which Ron Howard directed, would be weeping when the summer competition arrived, last weekend saw it perform very well against two holdover sequels and two openings...Why were so many people in the industry negative in their prognosis for 'Willow?' 'I think probably wanting just to take a shot at George in a way,' Ladd speculates.

"'Also, this genre of a costume picture makes a very easy target in our industry,' adds Morrison. 'There have not been that many films in recent industry history that carry the sword-and-sorcery tag that have done any business. So it was a very easy target. However, the reason why the film is so pleasant and so popular with people is that it carries a lot of the 'Indiana Jones' adventure side to it. That's what George always set out to do.'"

Update: "Willow" opened May 20, 1988 to $8.3 million at 1,024 theaters ($8,105 per theater), a solid launch in its day. It went on to gross $57.3 million domestically, ranking as the year's 14th biggest film. 1988's top grossing movie, by the way, was also an MGM title -- "Rain Man" with $172.8 million.

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel