Paramount vs Cruise: all down to the killer cut

In the fantasy industry of Hollywood, where public relations is often the dominant coin of the realm, Sumner Redstone, chairman of Viacom, moved with great dispatch to put a favourable spin on the loss of his Paramount studio’s single largest rain-maker, Tom Cruise. He told The Wall Street Journal, for example, that the reason for Mr Cruise’s departure was his public antics, explaining: “We don’t think that someone who effectuates creative ­suicide and costs the company revenue should be on the lot.”

While Mr Redstone might have temporarily succeeded in diverting the media by his personal attack on Mr Cruise, the underlying reality of the decision is that Paramount has not only lost its most successful producer, Cruise-Wagner Productions – which produced, over three years, crucial “tent pole” films such as War of The Worlds, around which Paramount hung the television and foreign sales of its other films – but it has lost Mission: Impossible, its only successful long-term franchise. (Paramount’s desperate attempt to revive Indiana Jones has been blocked by its inability to get a script approved by Harrison Ford, the film’s star.) Of course, battles between studios and stars have been part of Hollywood history ever since the end of the studio system, in which studios “owned” the stars, in 1948. But the Cruise-Paramount conflict that had been going for six months concerned a radical change in the studio’s division of profits – the “back-end” DVD revenues. The decision to end Mr Cruise’s contract, despite Mr Redstone’s jibes, was, to quote The Godfather: “Not personal, Sonny; it’s strictly business.”

In reality, Mr Cruise did not work for Paramount Pictures. His company had a deal with Paramount under which, in return for giving Paramount first-bid option on its projects, the studio paid for Cruise/Wagner’s office and other overhead costs. According to an ex-Paramount executive, the outlay – ­$5m-$8m a year – was “small change” for Paramount. The real problem was the basic contract that Mr Cruise applied to all his movies with Paramount.

The good news is that Mr Cruise takes no cash fee up front for his acting or producing role, which otherwise would be $35m-plus per film. The bad news is that Mr Cruise gets 22 per cent of the gross revenues received by the studio on the theatrical release and the television licensing. Even worse, from the studio’s point of view, is Mr Cruise’s 12 per cent cut of Paramount’s total DVD receipts.

What most stars and other Hollywood participants get is a cut not of the DVD revenue itself but of a 20 per cent “royalty”. The other 80 per cent goes to a subsidiary of the studio, the home entertainment division. In other words, in the conventional deal for most other stars, one arm of the corporation collects all the money from DVDs and then pays a mere
20 per cent of it to the studio, which then becomes the “gross” number that the studios report to participants. The justification for this system was that, unlike other rights, such as television licences, which require virtually no sales expenses, DVDs have to be manufactured and marketed. So, usually stars and other participants get their share of just the 20 per cent royalty. For example, if a star has a 10 per cent participation, he gets 10 per cent of only the 20 per cent, or just 2 per cent. But not Mr Cruise. He insisted – and gained – in his first Mission: Impossible deal “100 per cent accounting”, which means that the studio, after deducting the manufacturing expenses, paid Mr Cruise his 22 per cent share of the total receipts. As a result, Mr Cruise earned more than $70m on Mission: Impossible, and he opened the door for stars to become full partners with the studio in the so-called back-end.

After the DVD industry began altering Hollywood’s profit landscape, and because it was complicated to track all the expenses, Mr Cruise revised the deal with Paramount. His cut of the gross was increased to 30 per cent and, for purposes of calculating his share of the DVDs, he accepted a “royalty” but it was doubled to 40 per cent. So, he would get his whopping 12 per cent of DVD receipts with no expenses deducted by Paramount. From the DVDs alone, Mr Cruise gained more than $30m on Mission: Impossible II. With Mission: Impossible III, Mr Cruise still got his huge percentage of the gross. Both he and Paramount were, however, disappointed with the theatrical gross – $393m – even though it has been Paramount’s highest grossing film in 2006. Mr Cruise blamed Paramount, whose new regime, headed by Brad Grey, had fired a number of Paramount’s top marketing and distribution executives in Europe, and Paramount blamed Mr Cruise’s tiffs with the media. The bottom line was that Paramount could not make much of a profit from even a high-grossing film such as Mission: Impossible III with Mr Cruise getting a 40 per cent royalty of DVD sales. When Mr Cruise refused to reduce his cut, Paramount “played hardball”, as an executive put it, and lost the Mission Impossible franchise. Faced with this disaster, Mr Redstone turned it into a morality play, with himself in the role of Mr Morality.

The writer is author of The Big Picture: Money and Power in Hollywood ­(Random House)

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