Tom Cruise’s stewardship of United Artists restores a venerable but moribund film outfit to its roots as a Hollywood shingle run by superstars looking to control their own careers.
United Artists owner MGM announced Thursday that Cruise and producing partner Paula Wagner have been put in charge of the film company founded in 1919 by Charles Chaplin, Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks.
It’s poetic symmetry that United Artists, generally mothballed amid recent corporate changes at MGM after a short period as an art-house film banner, should come back in the hands of a Hollywood giant.
“The truth is that the name United Artists has been relatively meaningless for decades. It’s just been a corporate name with no vestige of its original significance,” said critic and film historian Leonard Maltin. “Tom Cruise is one of the most powerful stars in the world. He’s making the same move that his forebears did 85 years ago.”
The move comes after Cruise and Wagner’s fallout with Paramount Studios, which severed its 14-year producing deal with the pair in August. Sumner Redstone — chairman of Paramount’s parent company, Viacom Inc. — had blamed Cruise’s odd antics over his romance with Katie Holmes and his Scientology preaching for undermining box-office returns on the actor’s summer release, “Mission: Impossible III.”
There was little doubt that a star of Cruise’s caliber would find safe haven elsewhere. After all, even at 44, Cruise still has the boyish charm and rakish grin that helped make the star of “Top Gun,” “Risky Business” and “War of the Worlds” the most durable audience draw of modern times.
The question was whether he still had the clout to maintain the same degree of control he enjoyed at Paramount, a deal that allowed him and Wagner to develop films there but left Cruise free to star in projects for other studios.
Wagner, who will be chief executive, and Cruise will have full control over United Artists’ film slate, expected to be about four films a year, according to MGM. They will be part owners of United Artists, able to make anything from $100 million action flicks to lower-budget films, with Cruise free to pick and choose among films at rival studios.
Wagner said she views it as an “opportunity to take a brand that is classic and bring it into the present. It has such an illustrious past, we have a tradition to respect and uphold and at the same time help and nurture this brand to evolve into something for the future.”
Following in founders footstepsThe power Cruise and Wagner will hold harks back to the origins of United Artists, whose founders wanted the freedom to create without big studios pulling the strings. The company’s early releases included Chaplin’s 1920s and ‘30s classics “The Gold Rush,” “City Lights” and “Modern Times”; Griffith’s 1924 epic “America”; Fairbanks’ 1920s action adventures “The Three Musketeers” and “Robin Hood”; and 1929’s “Coquette,” which earned Pickford the best-actress Academy Award.
“These were the box-office titans of their day giving the public what they wanted in terms of the huge popcorn pictures but also being able to express their artistic side and get movies made that mattered historically,” said Tom O’Neil, a columnist for the awards Web site theenvelope.com.
“Now we have to wonder, can Tom finally win his Oscar now that his film destiny is totally in his own hands?”
For all the actor’s commercial success, Hollywood’s ultimate honor has eluded Cruise, a three-time loser at the Oscars after nominations for “Born on the Fourth of July,” “Jerry Maguire” and “Magnolia.”
The last United Artists movie Cruise appeared in, 1988’s “Rain Man,” won Oscars for best picture, co-star Dustin Hoffman and director Barry Levinson. Cruise was not nominated.
The “Rain Man” era was something of a last hurrah for United Artists, which had a stream of hits, classics and Oscar winners behind it including “Some Like It Hot,” “Rocky” and “Annie Hall.”
The studio operated as an artist-centered company in the decades after its founders’ heyday, with United Artists’ releases including a long string of James Bond movies starting with 1962’s “Dr. No.” The United Artists logo will appear before the latest Bond film, this month’s “Casino Royale,” though the franchise now is in the hands of a consortium that bought MGM in 2004, including Sony Corp. and Comcast Corp.
MGM had acquired the company in 1981, a year after United Artists was driven to the financial brink with one of the costliest flops ever, “Heaven’s Gate.” From 1967 until then, United Artists had been owned by Transamerica.
For a few years before MGM was bought out, United Artists had been relegated to art-house duty, releasing small in-house productions and low-budget film acquisitions. United Artists had some solid successes with such critical favorites as Michael Moore’s Oscar-winning documentary “Bowling for Columbine,” the African drama “Hotel Rwanda,” the foreign-language Oscar winner “No Man’s Land” and the quirky comedy “Ghost World.”
Rick Sands, MGM’s chief operating officer, said he is unconcerned that Cruise’s public behavior might affect United Artists. Cruise became a joke among many fans with his Scientology preaching and his romance with Holmes, which included jumping for joy up and down on Oprah Winfrey’s couch.
“We believe Tom is a terrific creative force,” Sands said. “If you look at his track record, he’s generated huge box office, and we believe the relationship of being a partner is different from a studio-actor relationship.”
Much like the origins of United Artists with its quartet of superstar studio bosses.
“At least there’s one artist involved with a company called United Artists,” Maltin said. For too long, he said, the company’s been run “by a lot of suits.”