Studio: Tom Cruise a lock for 'M:I-4'

But Paramount watching 'Knight and Day' closely overseas

Never in his decades of stardom has Tom Cruise been more delicately poised than he is right now.

Paramount is pulling together a fourth "Mission: Impossible." There's no question the studio intends to make another installment in the valuable franchise.

"We absolutely are excited about having Tom Cruise star in this movie," is how Paramount vice chairman Rob Moore put it Tuesday.

But the studio also is monitoring the overseas performance of Cruise's latest film, "Knight and Day," to see whether the star retains his longtime hold over foreign audiences. If that film should gross less than $200 million overseas, some industry observers think Paramount will consider recasting the Ethan Hunt role. At this point, it's too early to say how the film will do, though Fox executives are predicting a solid performance.

Meanwhile, Cruise is actively looking at other possible roles. He attended a table read this week at the Saddle Ranch eatery in West Hollywood for a Sony project to be produced by Will Smith's production company, Overbrook Entertainment. The film in question, "Paper Wings," is set in urban cowboy world, and Saddle Ranch had the right ambience for the read because it features a mechanical bull.

Chances are that before he mounts a bull, Cruise will reprise his role in "Mission: Impossible 4." But disappointing boxoffice for "Knight," a Fox release, has Hollywood wondering whether Cruise is still connecting with the American audience or whether the film's timing and marketing campaign were to blame for its lackluster grosses. Such questions are the backdrop for Paramount's scrutiny of the boxoffice receipts overseas.

"It all depends on whether Tom Cruise brings in foreign bucks," said one executive not associated with the project.

A former studio chief suggested that Paramount might not face any downside in recasting the role in "M:I-4," at least not domestically.

" 'Mission: Impossible' is a brand," he said. "It didn't have anything to do with Tom Cruise in the beginning."

And there is a precedent in the form of the Bond franchise for successfully recasting starring roles. Meanwhile, star power in general seems to be waning: Sony recently decided to reboot its lucrative Spider-Man franchise with a little-known actor.

At this point, "Knight's" performance abroad is very much a question mark. The film's release was delayed in many countries until after the World Cup. It will open in key markets this weekend, including Australia, Brazil and Spain.

It already has opened solidly but not spectacularly in China, pulling in $4.8 million on 1,158 screens in its first weekend, and in India. Given its cost and hype, "Knight" is not at this point setting the overseas boxoffice on fire, but key openings in the larger European markets and in Japan are still ahead.

At this point, the film needs to pull in better than $200 million and hopefully closer to $300 million overseas to silence the doubters.

Paramount hopes to have a script for "M:I-4" pulled together within weeks so that production can begin by the end of the year and the film could be in theaters for the 2011 holidays.

But Paramount wants to set a budget "more consistent with a first movie than a sequel," per another source. The goal is to keep the cost at or below $140 million -- significantly less than the third installment's $165 million-plus.

Obviously that means the studio is leaning heavily on Cruise to be flexible about his deal. Paramount is not offering any gross participation, and Cruise surely won't be expecting anything like the $20 million upfront fee that he commanded when business was better for him and for Hollywood. But for Cruise at this moment with this film, money is not the central issue.

"Everybody will do their best to make it work," said one of his representatives. Alluding to the blowup when Sumner Redstone dismissed Cruise after "M:I-3," the rep added, "No one wants a repeat of what happened last time."

At this point, Cruise's reps are determined to protect the star. Even before "Knight" turned in a disappointing domestic opening of slightly more than $20 million, a furious game of spin and counterspin was under way.

In what clearly has been a strained relationship with the star's representatives, Fox marched out marketing chief Tony Sela to take the blame for the film's opening in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.

That has not quelled a furious attack from Team Cruise, which blames Fox generally and co-chairman Tom Rothman in particular for the film's soft domestic performance.

Team Cruise points out that the star pulled in better boxoffice for MGM's "Valkyrie," a film that should have been more challenging to market than a popcorn movie like "Knight and Day."

Cruise's reps said Rothman engaged in micromanaging, leading to delays in responding to prerelease research indicating that the movie was not alluring to audiences. And they question a number of marketing decisions, including why the studio never updated a teaser poster that didn't show the faces of Cruise and his co-star, Cameron Diaz.

The Cruise forces said the release date also was a mistake. They believe the film should have opened in late July. As it was, "Knight" was moved away from a July 2 release date that would have put it opposite the "Twilight" sequel "Eclipse." The studio and the actor's reps were worried that Cruise's film would open far behind that behemoth and that Cruise (and Diaz) would be cast in unflattering contrast with the young vampires and werewolves. As it turned out, the film opened in third place, behind "Toy Story 3" and "Grown Ups."

A Fox source said though the studio has acknowledged issues with the ad campaign, other criticisms amount to "Monday-morning quarterbacking."
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