Film Studies: You're risky business, Tom

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The Independent Culture

What went wrong with Tom Cruise at Paramount Studios wasn't his jumping on the sofa on The Oprah Winfrey Show or getting tough with Matt Lauer on The Today Show about drugs. It was the numbers. It is always the numbers.

The first number to note is that Tom Cruise is 44 years old. Living out there in the real world, you can say that 44 is the prime of life, that Tom is newly married with a child of his own. Still, in the history of Hollywood box office very few people - men or women - have had their best days still to come at the age of 44.

The next number: one of the great opportunities Cruise has brought to Paramount (or Viacom, the company that owns the studio) is the Mission: Impossible franchise. The first film in the series opened in 1996 and it grossed $181m (that is, 181 million in 10-year-old dollars). The second film came along in 2000 and grossed $215m. It did better, something that surely weighed in the balance when wise heads went into conclave to ask, should we go for a third film with this junky material? They decided they would, no matter that Cruise abandoned many of the talents who had worked on I and II.

Mission: Impossible III opened this spring (we hope you noticed) and it has grossed $133m - this is a drastic decline.

Now, this decline in public interest could have been affected by Tom's euphoria over Katie Holmes and his harshness on drugs. I doubt it. I think the public grew bored with the empty-headed spectacle of Mission: Impossible and noted that the once dazzling kid running it now looked 44. Not to get too personal, but have you looked at Tom lately? He looks well, but he looks 44. And the dominant movie-going demographic, the people in the 14-24 age range have an old-fashioned notion about 44 - they think it looks parental.

This is not to knock Tom Cruise. The wonder is that his miracle has lasted so long. And he has been very good for the movie business: his pictures have grossed somewhere in the region of $20billion. Paramount and Viacom have taken a good deal of that income, and been happy to do so. But they are behaving like businessmen in saying this could be the moment to cut and run. I don't think Paramount went into the crucial negotiations with that intent. Rather, I think they were determined to reduce the Tom overhead, to make it more rational. They would offer him a new deal - not a bad deal - and it was up to him.

And now we come to the real numbers, the ones that counted. Tom Cruise is not actually just Tom Cruise. He is Cruise-Wagner Productions, and Wagner is Paula Wagner, an older woman (married to Cruise's agent, Rick Nicita) and a dragon when it comes to deals. For years, Tom has had a deal with Paramount that goes like this. Cruise-Wagner is an independent production unit at the studio, funded - for mere working costs - at $10m or so a year. Whenever they make a picture for the studio, Tom gets minimum $20m up front, let us say five to 10 per cent of the gross, and a similar return on DVD sales.

Now translate that into actual numbers - or my estimates anyway - for Mission: Impossible III. That picture was in development, say, for three years - that's $30m of the Cruise-Wagner overhead, or a big part of it. That picture is reckoned to have cost $150m. So, say Paramount have put $150m into it. By conventional standards, that means they need clear income of $375m from the picture all over the world - that's two and a half times production cost. But there's a catch: the picture only grossed $133m in the US. And Tom, if he gets 7.5 percent of the gross from the first dollar, clears another $9m on that.

The picture has to play out over the world, and then on DVD - but DVD sales everywhere are down. I'm not saying Paramount will lose money on the picture. But it will take them two to three years to find out, and interest rates are slowly climbing on that borrowed money - whereas Paramount had relied on Cruise for a great surge of cash flow.

That's when they put the whole sum together and start to nibble at what Tom has. For his part, Tom - whatever his age - may think he's a 24-year-old lion, and if he's had five antelope a week to feed on, try telling him he's getting four. Or try taking something away from Paula Wagner's part of this deal. And then, if you are Paramount, say to yourself: once upon a time there was this sleeper hit with a kid named Tom Cruise - Risky Business. It grossed $63m and he was 21, and he did it for peanuts, because he was desperate for a break. And the streets of LA are crowded with 21-year-olds who would probably make a big picture for nothing, but who will certainly do it for $250,000. And they look 21.

Don't worry about Cruise. He may soon thank his lucky stars that someone ended the Mission: Impossible nonsense. He says he has quickly made a deal elsewhere, and I'm sure he has. Even if it's less generous than the Paramount deal, it's a moment for Cruise to say, look, I'm older - I'm going to search for more grown-up material, better pictures. He might do more movies like Magnolia or even Born on the 4th of July. He might make some of the surprising choices that Nicole Kidman made after their marriage broke up. He might yet become an actor. He may earn less but, believe me, he is already a ridiculously rich man. And he will go on earning residuals from pictures such as Top Gun, Rain Man, The Firm, War of the Worlds, Jerry Maguire and the Mission: Impossible movies (let's face it - we have loved Tom Cruise).

So Tom will be all right, even if he feels motivated to become another Billy Graham-like figure. The person I would be a little worried about - especially if I were the person - is Paula Wagner. But being married to your partner's agent is a training in trickiness. Just remember the numbers.