IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Cruise’s United Artists off to a rocky start

For a studio with a hallowed past, the star power of Tom Cruise and producing partner Paula Wagner at the helm, United Artists seemed supercharged for a comeback.
/ Source: The Associated Press

For a studio with a hallowed past, the star power of Tom Cruise and producing partner Paula Wagner at the helm, and a $500 million bankroll, United Artists seemed supercharged for a comeback.

But the studio is off to a shaky start.

Its first film, the somber political tale “Lions for Lambs” from director Robert Redford and starring Cruise, Redford and Meryl Streep, opened poorly at the box office and may not recoup its $35 million investment.

Its third film, the Vietnam war story “Pinkville,” from director Oliver Stone, has been delayed because of the current strike by TV and film writers.

That leaves a lot riding on next June’s “Valkyrie,” a Bryan Singer film starring Cruise as a Nazi officer involved in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

“The first film won’t make or break them,” said Harold Vogel, author of “Entertainment Industry Economics.” “The success of a studio is dependent on a portfolio of films, not just one.”

So far, no one is calling the new United Artists a flop. Cruise and Wagner, one of Hollywood’s most successful producing teams, still have time to prove whether they can replicate that success as heads of their own studio.

The pair are also trying to prove that a lean studio operation run by artists and not tied to a media conglomerate can still make it in today’s competitive marketplace.

Another high profile attempt, DreamWorks SKG, lasted for 10 years as a separate entity before selling itself to Viacom Inc.’s Paramount Pictures. That company was founded by director Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen.

A personal stakeCruise and Wagner also have a personal stake in proving their ability to run a successful studio.

Last year, Cruise/Wagner Productions was publicly humiliated by Viacom Chairman Sumner Redstone, who dumped the duo, saying Cruise’s public antics shaved $100 million off the box office take of “Mission: Impossible III.”

Soon after, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer offered the pair an equity stake in United Artists and a free hand in producing and acquiring films in an effort to breathe new life into the nearly 90-year-old label that had been moribund for years.

Wagner, who serves as chief executive, and Cruise were able to secure a $500 million funding commitment led by Merrill Lynch & Co. to release a slate of four to six films per year for five years.

Wagner said the company took a modest financial risk with “Lions for Lambs.” But, she said, the symbolic benefits were invaluable.

The film has cleared only $11.6 million at the domestic box office after two weeks.

“This is the perfect first film for United Artists,” Wagner told The Associated Press.

“This film was never expected to be a blockbuster or reign at the box office. I think this film will wear well over time. I think it has the potential to be an important film.”

Wagner concedes that the film challenged moviegoers with an unusual structure and subject matter.

The movie traces three interlocked conversations taking place simultaneously in Washington, California and Afghanistan. The movie asks questions about America’s involvement in the war on terror but offers no answers.

“We readily and eagerly embraced this film,” Wagner said. “It’s a film that is entertaining. Every film has its naysayers, but generally people are really moved by it. It asks people to think. It asks people to feel something.”

She said that the film was also made with a financial structure that would not break the company if it didn’t perform well in theaters. The production cost of $35 million already included the salaries for the normally high-priced stars when the project came to United Artists, she said.

A rich historyUnited Artists has a rich history, stretching from its founding by Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks in 1919.

That tradition embraces a number of different owners, from insurance company Transamerica to financier Kirk Kerkorian, who bought and sold the company several times.

It also encompasses a wide variety of films, ranging from blockbusters such as “Goldfinger” and the other James Bond movies to flops of historic proportion, most notably 1980’s “Heaven’s Gate,” which nearly bankrupted the company.

But it’s the tradition of giving filmmakers creative control of their projects that Wagner most cherishes. In particular, Wagner wants filmmakers to be free of the layers of bureaucracy and constant executive interference that so often comes with big budget productions at larger studios.

“In as much as past can be prologue, I would like us to look at the great legacy of this company and say, those are the types of films we want to make,” Wagner said.

She points to musicals such as “West Side Story,” romances such as “The African Queen” and comedies such as “Annie Hall” and said she wants to replicate that variety.

A blockbuster action film starring Cruise is not out of the question.

“We’re proud to have this legacy and we cherish it and we respect it and would like to continue making those kinds of movies,” she said.

The company could afford to use its first film as more of a statement of principles, Vogel said. But eventually, its movies will have to provide an attractive return on investment or financial backers will get restless.

“They have no direct line back to Mary Pickford,” Vogel said. “None of this has any relevance to today. The dynamics of the industry are different than they used to be.”

One big challenge for the studio is the writers strike.

If the walkout lasts several months, there will be an enormous backlog of productions, all demanding a limited number of crew once filming resumes.

That could seriously delay “Pinkville” and the studio’s other announced projects, including “Die a Little,” a crime thriller starring Jessica Biel, for months.

Wagner runs the studio from her bare-bones office. Renovations are under way, but she said the offices will reflect the lean nature of her staff and her decision to focus money and attention on filmmakers, not bureaucracy.

She doesn’t envision taking on the moniker of studio mogul.

“I don’t see myself as that title,” she says, then adds: “Give me a couple of years, maybe.”