Tom Cruise, one of the biggest stars in Hollywood history, has now endured one of the biggest film studio slap-downs possible. Now, the famously ambitious 44-year-old actor must ask himself, "What's next?"
Big stars are rarely excoriated so publicly by the studios. A few weeks ago when ABC-TV put the kibosh on a Holocaust miniseries that Mel Gibson's production company planned to produce, the network steered clear of any reference to the actor's arrest for drunken driving and the anti-Semitic tirade for which he has since apologized.
Morgan Creek Productions took on Lindsay Lohan, accusing the actor of behaving "like a spoiled child," and in a letter leaked to the public earlier, threatened to sue her for delaying production of the upcoming film "Georgia Rule." But Lindsay wasn't fired.
Cruise, however, has suddenly come face to face with the biggest embarrassment of his career when Paramount Pictures announced that it was ending its 14-year relationship with the star, who brought in an estimated $3 billion in box-office revenue from such blockbusters as "Top Gun" and "War of the Worlds."
What's more, Cruise's production company, which had maintained offices on the Paramount studio lot, wasn't simply handed its walking papers. Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone blasted Cruise's off-screen behavior.
"It's nothing to do with his acting ability. He's a terrific actor," Redstone told The Wall Street Journal. "But we don't think that someone who effectuates creative suicide and costs the company revenue should be on the lot."
Smaller Audiences, Bigger Headaches
There's little doubt that studio executives have always fretted over the conduct of its actors, especially if they thought it was turning off moviegoers. But most of these little wars are conducted in private.
And even if a studio severs ties with an actor, it rarely rages against that actor in public, simply because the company doesn't want to diminish the value of the films that actor has made. Those films, of course, are expected to be resold as DVDs and licensed for broadcast.
In the past, Redstone has come to Cruise's defense, even when his actions have come under public scrutiny.
But in a time of shaky box office revenues, the mood in Hollywood seems to have soured as tempers flair. Many industry experts say the spat between Cruise and Redstone largely boils down to money.
"If Tom Cruise's last movie like 'Mission Impossible III' went into the 800, 900 billion-dollar range, you never know, we might not be having this discussion," Michael Speier, managing editor of the trade paper Variety, tells World News Tonight. "It is about money in the end."
"Mission: Impossible III" has earned $389 million at the box office worldwide. While it will still rank among the year's top grossing movies, the figure is far below expectations, and far lower than "Mission: Impossible II" in 2000, which had an international gross of $565 million, making it the 22nd most successful movie ever, according to IMDB.com.
The take from "M:I:3" is further diminished when you consider that it cost an estimated $150 million -- $17 million more than the film grossed in the United States. And as one of Hollywood's biggest stars, Cruise receives a percentage of the films gross revenues. In the end, Paramount might make little or no money.
Still it's hard to say that Cruise has lost his appeal because of his conduct. The actor's most successful film, 2005's "War of the Worlds," took in $589 million. The film was released just weeks after Cruise's infamous couch-jumping interview on Oprah Winfrey's talk show, and just as his war of words with Brooke Shields over the use of antidepressants as a treatment for postpartum depression was raging.
A Relationship That Was Just 'Too Expensive'
Redstone did not single out which incidents or statements hurt Cruise's career -- nor did he directly criticize the actor for his advocacy in Scientology -- but he told the Journal that the actor's off-screen behavior cost "M:I:3" between $100 million and $150 million in ticket sales. "He never really behaved this way before," Redstone told the Journal. "He really went over the top."
Paula Wagner, Cruise's production partner, rejected Redstone's account of Paramount terminating the contract, telling the Journal that Cruse/Wagner Productions had been in negotiations with the studio, and that her side was willing to consider less-lucrative terms, but talks just fizzled. She also disputes any connection between Cruise's behavior and disappointing box office numbers.
While it's to be expected that the two sides would offer different views, Hollywood insiders say the acrimony speaks volumes about the state of the film industry. "Studios aren't making as much money as they used to. People aren't going to the movies like they used to," says Us Weekly's West Coast editor Ken Baker.
"I think that Paramount just said, 'Look, he's too expensive for us. His movies are too big a budget, and we need to walk away.'"
"This relationship was too expensive for paramount," says Harvey Levin of TMZ.com. "My understanding is Tom Cruise got 25 percent of the gross off the top, before anybody made money, and that's a really sweet deal."
Cruise had enjoyed benefits few stars see. Under the contract that expired this summer, Paramount had given Cruise/Wagner productions up to $10 million a year to maintain offices and develop pictures, in addition to a percentage of box-office takes, DVD sales, merchandising and other streams of revenue.
Uncertain Path for Cruise's 'Deathrace'
Certainly, as Cruise contemplates his next move, he still has plenty of clout. Even if his box-office appeal is diminished in the United States -- and that is far from a given -- he is still a considerable star abroad. Even a film like 2003's "The Last Samurai" earned an impressive $475 million in box-office revenue worldwide. In the United States, each of Cruise's last seven films have earned more than $100 million apiece.
"Cruise's movies simply make money," Baker says. "If he goes over to a rival studio and makes another $500 million grossing movie that should have been at Paramount, they're not going to look very smart."
Rather than going to another studio, Wagner says that she and Cruise are looking to Wall Street to finance future projects. She told the Journal that their production company plans to set up an independent operation that's financed by two top hedge funds. "This is a dream of Tom and mine," she tells the paper.
Mel Gibson's success with "The Passion of the Christ" has led several filmmakers to consider sidestepping studios, a move that allows them greater control over their work, although it's unclear what sort of arrangement Cruise/Wagner Productions seeks.
Before the parting with Paramount, Cruise/Wagner had at least eight projects in production or development. They include the following:
"The Few" -- a Michael Mann film featuring Cruise in the true-life story of American pilot Billy Fiske, who broke the U.S. policy of neutrality and began flying against the Germans before World War II was declared.
"Deathrace 3000" -- a sequel to the 1975 sci-fi adventure "Deathrace 2000"
"I Married a Witch" -- a romantic comedy with Tom Cruise in which he marries a witch. While this seems reminiscent of Cruise's ex-wife Nicole Kidman's "Bewitched," another actress, Famke Janssen from the "X-Men" films, is in talks to ride the broom.
"The Eye" --Jessica Alba is set to star alongside Cruise in this horror thriller, a remake of a Hong Kong film in which a woman receives an eye transplant that allows her to see into a supernatural world.