MGM revives 'artist-friendly' label for producing duo

Nearly a century after United Artists was founded by Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks as a studio run by and for artists, it’s in for an auspicious rebirth.

Tom Cruise and his producing partner Paula Wagner are reviving UA, with Wagner to serve as CEO and Cruise to star in and produce pics for the MGM-owned label.

Cruise’s arrangement with UA is not exclusive — he will still be able to star in films at other studios.

No UA titles have yet been determined, but MGM is expected to announce the company’s first release within the next several weeks.

Deal is a coup for Cruise, who was recently lambasted by Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone for his “inappropriate behavior” and rich salary as he and Wagner were exiting their long-standing production deal at Paramount, as well as for MGM chairman-CEO Harry Sloan. Since he took over the reins last year, Sloan has been aggressively reviving the Lion, which many had believed to be somnolent, or at least under the grips of 20% stakeholder Sony.

Cruise offers MGM — which under Sloan has operated as a distributor and marketer of low- to mid-budget indie pics — more content, as well as an A-list property with major box office appeal. Cruise also fits into MGM’s plans to get into the tentpole biz; studio recently announced plans for “Terminator 4.”

Though dubbed a disappointment, Cruise’s last pic, “Mission: Impossible 3″ grossed $395 million worldwide.

In turn, UA offers Cruise an opportunity to rebrand with an historical name that stands for artist-driven filmmaking. His alliance with UA also answers the question on many minds of late: Does Tom Cruise still have the appeal to land at a studio? The answer, evidently, is yes.

With Wagner overseeing day-to-day operations, UA will develop and produce pics in the $40 million-$50 million range — though some will have higher budgets — with the goal of releasing four films a year. The movies will be distribbed and marketed by MGM. In some cases, UA will partner with other studios, including MGM.

A limited portion of the slate will be films produced by Cruise and Wagner; the rest will be produced by outside producers. Funding is close to being finalized — the source is a high-profile investment fund.

Wagner says that the pics will not be “genre specific” and that tentpoles will be included in the mix.

“The whole concept is to make movies, and we have a company that is artist-friendly,” she said. “We’re going to do a wide variety of films. We are producers, and we know how to make economically sound choices.”

Wagner and Cruise’s relationship with UA is separate from the $3 million financing deal they recently signed with Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder. That deal continues to exist under the Cruise/Wagner Prods. banner and is not exclusive to any studio. Pics produced by Cruise and Wagner at UA and other studios will go out under the C/W banner.

In addition to Cruise and Wagner, C/W exec Don Granger has landed at UA, and the company will soon start building a staff Wagner said will be “very lean.”

The partnership between MGM and Cruise and Wagner has been in the works for several weeks and was orchestrated by Sloan, attorney Bert Fields, and CAA agent Rick Hess. CAA reps Cruise, and Wagner is married to CAA honcho Rick Nicita.

(It is not coincidental that when Cruise and Wagner set up new offices after leaving Paramount in August, they were in the MGM tower in Century City.)

Cruise and Wagner are substantial minority owners in UA and will have ownership of all forthcoming UA pics.

“What we needed to do was create a communication and dialogue between the studio-financing side and the talent side of the business,” Sloan said. “By creating UA run by artists, and by having artists and top talent owning a nice, big piece of the studio and being involved in the financing, they have the opportunity to benefit from the success of the studio.”

In UA’s early stages, MGM will fund the company’s overhead, production and development costs, but it will ultimately set up an independent financing structure for the label from outside sources.

“As the other studios do, it’s a matter of managing portfolios, and we will be going out to the markets in order to set up co-financing structures, whether hedge funds or equities,” said MGM chief operating officer Rick Sands.

Sloan said that “ultimately, UA will be able to stand on its own and have its own financing, credit lines, production funds: That’s the goal.”

When Sloan first took over MGM last year, his initial idea was to bring in a strategic partner to essentially take over UA — at one point the asking price was $300 million — though MGM would still have ownership. Although there were discussions with several parties, no deals were reached. Part of the concern was that a stake in the valuable UA library, which includes titles such as “Rocky” and “The Pink Panther,” was not part of the deal.

Cruise has been in the media spotlight since his split with Paramount. The studio would not reup his production deal at the $10 million annual rate it had been providing, so Cruise and Wagner looked to move their deal. Insult was added to injury when Redstone made public remarks about Cruise’s behavior and salary.

Of the UA deal, Redstone said through a spokesman, “I wish Tom and his associates the greatest good fortune in their new venture.”

UA was founded in 1919 by Chaplin, Pickford, Douglas and Griffith as the first independent studio run by artists. Later, UA flourished as a haven for filmmakers such as Woody Allen, Robert Altman and Milos Forman in the 1970s. In more recent decades, the company lost some of its luster, and when MGM was sold to a consortium of investors, including Sony and Comcast, in 2004, the label went quiet.

Cruise and Wagner’s task will be to breathe life back into the label, just as the new MGM is getting the Lion to roar again.

In a statement Cruise said: “Paula and I are very respectful of the rich history and tradition of United Artists, and we welcome the opportunity to contribute to that legacy by providing a wide range of releases that appeal to all audiences. It’s our desire to create an environment where filmmakers can thrive and see their visions realized.”

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