Cruise rebirths old United Artists label

Partners are mostly inheriting a blank slate

It seems that each time the old Hollywood rules change, a new United Artists is born.

UA started at the dawn of the star system in 1919, changed hands in 1951 as television threatened movies, then yet again in 1981 when corporate America moved into Hollywood and the blockbuster began to take over the business.

Today, as studios ponder the uncertainty of their business models in a digital world, another “new” UA has been born.

Its latest incarnation, under the reins of Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner — themselves refugees of the “new rules” at Paramount — comes as MGM and Harry Sloan work toward building a new kind of studio.

In the Nov. 2 surprise announcement, MGM did its best to emphasize the historical importance of the deal; UA founders Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks were mentioned in the press release before Cruise and Wagner. (The release also cited classic UA titles “Rocky,” “The Pink Panther” and the James Bond series).

But Cruise and Wagner are mostly inheriting a blank slate. The old UA library was long ago merged into MGM’s. UA’s production and distribution infrastructure was dismantled after MGM shuttered most of its operations when it was sold to a consortium of investors in 2004.

MGM may appear a bit awkward at times from the outside, but while other studio heads engage in woe-is-me uncertainty about adapting to the new media environment, Sloan and his team are doing the dirty work of trying to figure out a new studio business model.

There are no guarantees of success — and MGM has yet to produce a major hit — but bringing Cruise and Wagner to UA accomplishes at least three strategic goals for Sloan.

The first is the most crucial: raise the capital necessary to finance its own movies. MGM is currently in the business of marketing and distributing other people’s content, such as films produced by the Weinstein Co. and Sidney Kimmel Entertainment. To become a real studio, Sloan knows he needs his own films, and is out tubthumping for additional capital. Having a major star like Cruise on board will likely be a boon to the effort.

Second, once MGM gets that money, it will need producers to make those movies since it does not plan to hire a development and production staff. So far, Sloan has faced a credibility gap, but having Cruise and Wagner — who, in addition to producing many of Cruise’s pics, count “The Others,” “Shattered Glass” and “Elizabethtown” among their pics — should assuage some doubts of producers considering a move to the MGM Tower.

Third, and perhaps most important, having Cruise as a partner will guarantee MGM access to his tentpoles.

Under the deal, UA plans to release four films per year. Cruise is not committed to star in any of those and is free to take roles at other studios.

That raises the question of co-productions. As a stakeholder in UA, it is possible that Cruise would encourage the other studio to bring on UA as a co-financier — but there are certainly no guarantees on that.

(After Steven Spielberg co-founded DreamWorks, he made movies with Fox, Warner Bros., Universal and Paramount, but DreamWorks was a studio partner every time.)

Changes in the business have been both burdens and boons to the previous incarnations. The vision of Chaplin and Pickford never panned out, while under Krim and Benjamin, UA oversaw one of the most productive studio eras in the industry’s history.

David Picker, who ran UA from 1962 to 1973 — a period when the studio released the first James Bond pic “Dr. No,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Midnight Cowboy” and “A Fistful of Dollars” — said he was pleasantly surprised by the news.

“Cruise/Wagner has done some very interesting movies,” he says. “And if they were going to give it to somebody, I think they did a smart thing.”

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