The Cootie Factor
Why Tom Cruise should disappear for a year.
Call it an obsession, but we can't stop wondering about Tom Cruise.
At this point, Over the Hedge is poised to pass Mission: Impossible III in domestic grosses. Yes, talking animals are out-grossing Tom Cruise—and they're not even Pixar animals. It seems beyond debate that Cruise has a problem, especially with the ladies. Not that M:I3 was a bomb. "The movie's still made over $300 million in its third week," says a very informed member of Cruise's team. "That's not Basic Instinct 2. … What people perceive as a stumble, well—it's not a fall."
Or is it? Another source very close to the star acknowledges, "He's teetering on the brink of a certain kind of trouble that no star like him has ever been in before." With Cruise, movies cost a lot. In that context, the weak performance M:I3 is enough to give any studio pause. Meanwhile, Cruise's production deal with Paramount expires in a few weeks. Negotiations to renew are not, as yet, under way. Without big, profitable movies starring Cruise, the deal (which brought you Elizabethtown and Narc) is far too rich to be justified.
If you're Cruise's agents at CAA, you need to do more than find a home for Cruise's production company. You need to find the right project for Cruise the actor. One marketing executive speaks for many in saying, "He needs to go away." The idea is that Cruise should stay out of sight for at least a year, allowing time to get over what one prominent agent calls "the cootie factor."
Apparently Cruise does not grasp the cootie factor and has no plans to take a break. And the agent says it would be very hard for his reps, at this delicate moment, to explain the situation to him. "He's in a zone that he's never been in and it's their job to make sure he feels the positive light," he says. Another source close to the star agrees. "You've got to be very careful in conversations with him," he says. "Tom is not ever going to face facts."
Studio executives may find it hard to face the facts, too. "He's made a lot of money for them," says the very informed member of Cruise's team. (Shockingly, he—like pretty much everyone else—didn't want to speak for the record, so we'll call him "VIM" from now on.) A studio president agrees, musing, "Maybe we're all blinded by our nostalgic view of Tom and being in denial about losing any stars because we have so few of them."
VIM says the star has lots of good material from which to choose. The problem is that, at least hypothetically, he will want his usual rich deal. And the prominent agent assumes Cruise's reps at CAA are asking for the usual money because it's too hard to explain to Cruise why they didn't. Another who is very close to the situation says eventually Cruise's agents will have to break the news that he has to work for less. "Someone's got to sit with him and say, 'Tom, you've got to do this.' Those are very tough conversations to have," he says.
VIM won't address Cruise's deal but seems to hint that the "ask" may not be as firm as it was. Cruise "has always been very smart about the deal," he says. Another studio president points out that broader changes buffeting the industry would pave the way. "The reality is, almost no deals are nonnegotiable any more," he says.
Cruise is said to be looking at a couple of possible projects, including 3:10 to Yuma at Sony Pictures with Walk the Line's James Mangold directing. Sony likes to spend, it has a lot of Da Vinci Code money, and sources say Mangold isn't scared of the "cootie factor," so maybe that will happen. But a comedy sounds like it would be VIM's choice. "I'd like to see him in another Jerry Maguire-type movie," he says. "That's a role that he plays well—and smiles." A role like that would be aimed at women, who haven't cottoned much to Cruise lately. But VIM says this would be the chance to win them back.
Meanwhile, VIM feels that it's unfair for Cruise "to keep being punished for stuff he did last year." (Apparently VIM—unlike certain Web sites—doesn't feel that the Katie Holmes of it all counts as part of the "stuff.") The situation may be more dire. One top studio executive wonders whether what's happening with Cruise isn't strictly a function of his extracurricular behavior. "Generations have their icons," he says. "Is there such a thing as a time limit? My kid doesn't give a s--- about Tom Cruise."
Kim Masters is an NPR correspondent and the author of The Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everyone Else.
Photograph of Tom Cruise by Pierre Verdy/AFP/Getty Images.