IN HOLLYWOOD, THE WORLD capital of make-believe, no star is ever fired for doing his or her job poorly. Instead, people “withdraw” from projects because of “creative differences” or to “pursue other opportunities.” So it was rare, if not unprecedented, to see Viacom Inc. Chairman Sumner Redstone skip the can’t-wait-to-work-with-him-again boilerplate when he announced Tuesday that his company, owner of Paramount Pictures, would not renew its deal with Tom Cruise’s company, Cruise/Wagner Productions. Instead, Redstone told the Wall Street Journal that Cruise’s public antics were undermining his bankability: “His recent conduct has not been acceptable to Paramount.”
The news here isn’t that Cruise had embarrassed Paramount. It’s that the chairman of Viacom’s media empire chastised Cruise publicly instead of putting out a bland press release confirming the “amicable” parting of the ways. That’s apparently how Paramount’s top brass wanted to handle matters.
The internal disagreement reflects the conflicting pressures faced by media conglomerates. While studio head Brad Grey has to worry about ongoing relations with the tribal “talent” community, Redstone has to worry about a sagging stock price. And his comments were clearly aimed at Wall Street more than Beverly Hills or Malibu.
Cruise’s banishment from the Paramount lot, like ABC’s decision to pull out of Mel Gibson’s Holocaust project after his DUI meltdown, recalls the days when Hollywood stars’ contracts had morals clauses. But rather than being a reversion to prior form, Viacom’s move is a symptom of the pressure that Wall Street places on today’s studios. The $10 million that Paramount reportedly threw at Cruise/Wagner annually might seem cheap compared to the dough Paramount made from Cruise’s blockbusters. But investors are notoriously indifferent to past success; they want to know what you’re doing for them now.
So with studios all across town slashing costs, Paramount had a hard time justifying its exceptionally expensive deal with Cruise/Wagner in the wake of the disappointing results from “Mission: Impossible III.” The movie made a handsome profit but fell short of expectations, and Redstone claims that Cruise’s rants about love, Scientology and psychiatry shaved $100 million to $150 million off the box office.
Many Hollywood insiders -- Cruise’s agents foremost among them -- were shocked at Redstone’s lack of grace and gratitude. But the old patriarch no doubt felt that it was Cruise who lacked grace and gratitude for becoming so radioactive while pocketing what amounted to a $10-million retainer. You don’t surrender your 1st Amendment rights when you become a celebrity, but when you’re making eight figures to market that celebrity, you’d best keep crackpot theories off the “Today” show.