ARRAYED in a glass case in the lobby of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s
headquarters in Century City are contracts from the creation of the United Artists studio in 1919. The documents bear the signatures of the Tinseltown legends Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and D. W. Griffith. Also ensconced in the case is one of United Artists’ first income statements: sales of $21 million in today’s dollars, a fair sum for the early 20th century but barely enough to finance even a single low-budget film now.
Some things never change. Asked how United Artists’ early revenues compare with what it takes in today, Harry E. Sloan, chief executive of the studio’s parent company, MGM, replies: “We don’t have any yet. It’s all cost.”
If Mr. Sloan has his way, however, that will soon change. Last November, he signed the latest set of United Artists contracts with yet another Hollywood heavyweight determined to chart his own financial and creative course: Tom Cruise. Mr. Cruise and his business partner, the veteran film producer Paula Wagner, have signed on to run United Artists with what insiders describe as a relatively free hand for a term of at least five years. In exchange, MGM has granted the pair about a one-third stake in the dormant studio without asking them to invest a penny in it.
Ms. Wagner is the chief executive of UA — as the studio is commonly known — while Mr. Cruise bears no official title except, perhaps, the world’s most famous movie star. Unlike Ms. Wagner, Mr. Cruise does not draw a salary from UA, according to a person with direct knowledge of the arrangement. The idea is that his ownership stake alone will align the interests of Tom Cruise the actor with Tom Cruise the studio grandee.
“I can’t put a number on it yet,” says Bert Fields, the Hollywood rainmaker and lawyer who represents Mr. Cruise and Ms. Wagner. “I will tell you this: If their pictures succeed, it will be worth a very large amount.”
Still, in a town awash in news releases written in magic ink on fairy parchment, Hollywood does not know exactly what to make of the idea of Cruise-as-mogul — or, for that matter, how exactly the fast-moving Mr. Sloan plans to deploy UA and the deep pockets of private equity investors to yank MGM back from the brink of obscurity.
Moreover, Mr. Cruise stands at the end of a long line of creative potentates in Hollywood, including Burt Lancaster, Paul Newman, Barbra Streisand, Sidney Poitier, Steve McQueen and Steven Spielberg, who have tried to follow the original Chaplin-Fairbanks-Pickford blueprint by overseeing their own mini-studios. All of them experienced mixed results as they ran up against the brutal economics of a hit-and-miss industry in which independents often lack the size needed to overcome the financial vagaries of filmmaking.
Though the relationship between studios and stars has grown ever more tangled in modern Hollywood, one thing has stayed the same: what many stars most covet — along with fame and fortune — is creative autonomy from their corporate overlords. For actors like Brad Pitt, Reese Witherspoon, Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio, that has meant deals as independent producers that give them a stronger hand in developing their pet projects and bestow production fees and credits on them.
Until last year, the gold standard of such deals was an arrangement between Cruise/Wagner Productions and Paramount, the studio where Mr. Cruise, 44, had starred in many of his biggest pictures. But that relationship vaporized in a mushroom cloud last August, after what many critics called Mr. Cruise’s erratic behavior during his promotional tour for the spy thriller “Mission: Impossible III.”
Sumner M. Redstone, the chairman of Viacom, Paramount’s owner, contended that he had fired Mr. Cruise for “inappropriate” behavior that had hurt his studio’s bottom line. Mr. Cruise’s defenders accused Mr. Redstone of grandstanding and said that, actually, both sides had already been planning to part amicably.
Regardless, the media firestorm and scrutiny of Mr. Cruise’s career and conduct only intensified when, two months later, Mr. Cruise and Ms. Wagner landed at United Artists, which through different owners has hewed in varying degrees to its founding ideals of artistic hegemony.
The producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who worked with Mr. Cruise early in his career on the film “Top Gun,” said that the news of the move “kind of shocked Hollywood.”
Mr. Bruckheimer added: “You have a star and his producing partner actually running a studio. That hasn’t happened in I don’t know how many years.”