The disappointing opening of Mission: Impossible III is not just a problem for Tom Cruise and hit-hungry Paramount.
The industry was hoping the movie would have a successful first weekend, signaling that last year's box-office slump was a fluke and that folks still want to eat overpriced popcorn, watch a string of commercials, and overhear other people's cell-phone chatter at the local multiplex. Box-office prognosticators don't necessarily think that the summer season will tank after M:I3, but Hollywood seems certain to suffer through another bad weekend if Warner Bros.' Poseidon is as weak as advance tracking suggests. Even a senior Warner executive concedes, "We're all pretty much aware that 'disaster film' will take on a whole new meaning on Friday."
Meanwhile, those soft M:I3 numbers raise obvious questions about Cruise. Until the publicity run-up to War of the Worlds last year, Cruise was by all accounts the consummate movie star, maintaining a laserlike focus on his image. Former Fox Chairman Bill Mechanic told up-and-coming actors that Cruise should be their role model. Then his persona collided with his duties as an L. Ron Hubbard acolyte. (Talk about a war of the worlds.)
To promote M:I3, Cruise continued his planes, trains, and motorcycles tour, and Paramount could neither rein him in nor turn the focus elsewhere. (Having recently been extensively exposed for Capote, Philip Seymour Hoffman had a good excuse for limiting his M:I3 duties.) And since crowds turned out to cheer, Cruise could convince himself that fans still adored him. But according to studio sources, M:I3's weak opening has penetrated even Cruise's bubble. If so, Cruise's publicist Paul Bloch * hasn't heard. He says that Cruise is "ecstatic" because M:I3 was his biggest-ever nonholiday weekend opening. So, in Church of Scientology terms, Cruise is still "up-stat."
That good news aside, Hollywood is left pondering who can still legitimately be called a movie star. Last year, the late Radar magazine conducted a (never-published) survey of agents, producers, and executives. One question was, "Who is the industry's most desirable actor?" Even then, Cruise was not the favorite. "I don't think it's the couch-jumper any more," the head of one studio division said at the time. Brad Pitt won almost by default even though he is hardly a sure thing (Troy, Fight Club, Meet Joe Black), while second place went to Will Smith.
Many of those polled struggled to come up with names. "Is Pixar a man or a woman?" asked a producer after groping for answers. "A Pixar image is the single most compelling image."
"There is nobody who's a star," said one marketing executive. "There are a lot of good-looking people—but they're not movie stars." And that may go a long way toward explaining what Anderson Cooper is doing on the cover of this month's Vanity Fair.