Weak box office for 'Lions' gives UA bumpy ride

The weak box office performance of “Lions for Lambs” marks a rough start for Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner’s United Artists, with the film looking likely to gross no more than $60 million worldwide.

Pic, which boasted the marquee trio of Cruise, Redford (who also directed) and Meryl Streep, isn’t expected to hit the $20 million mark in the U.S. MGM distributed Stateside, and 20th Century Fox Intl. has it overseas.

Removing some of the sting is the fact that the film cost only $35 million to produce.

While it’s true that start-up studios and production companies aren’t made or broken by their first film, UA is far more high-profile than most ventures, meaning its every move will be scrutinized. “Lions” is the label’s first release since being revived a year ago by Cruise and Wagner following their departure from the Paramount lot.

But there’s no denying that with that kind of star power, “Lions” was still expected to do far better at the box office, both here and overseas, where Cruise has enjoyed blockbuster status.

“Lions,” which heads into its fourth frame this weekend, grossed $14 million through Tuesday at the domestic box office, according to Rentrak.

Overseas, the film grossed $27 million through Wednesday. The final overseas haul should come in between $35 million and $40 million. Film has only two major foreign territories left in which to open: Japan and Italy.

UA doesn’t try to hide its disappointment at the film’s failure to grab the attention of auds, saying it was one in a string of dramas about the Middle East and the war on terror that didn’t work this fall. At the same time, studio says no one is panicking, including its investors.

This summer, UA secured a $500 million film financing fund from Merrill Lynch to finance 15-18 films over five years. MGM put up the equity portion of the fund, likely meaning $50 million to $60 million. That way, MGM owns UA titles. Harry Sloan’s MGM owns 65% of UA; Wagner and Cruise own the rest.

Wagner said that “Lions” represents everything that the revitalized UA stands for, and that its importance extends beyond just box office haul. She said the film helped UA secure the Merrill Lynch fund.

“We do recognize that it hasn’t performed as well as we would have liked, but we don’t regret making it. I think it’s very important that a film company be judged by a slate of films, not just one film,” Wagner said.

“It was a Robert Redford film that was timely, relevant and engaging. It represented the very essence of the United Artists legacy, and it made perfect sense for it to be our first movie,” she continued. “You have to look at us as a start-up company. We had zero assets. The cupboard was bare. Now we have one movie in our library, a movie we are very proud of.”

“Lions” is hardly the only film that underperformed this fall, or that will lose money. Other disappointments include New Line’s political drama “Rendition,” DreamWorks-Paramount’s Ben Stiller laffer “The Heartbreak Kid,” U’s “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” and Fox-Walden’s “The Seeker: The Dark is Rising,” to name some examples.

UA insists that “Lions” is in no way a reflection of Cruise’s star status, and that it wasn’t a Tom Cruise movie, per se. UA’s next release, Bryan Singer’s “Valkyrie,” however, is definitely a Cruise vehicle. Film will unspool July 27.

The last time one of Cruise’s films grossed under $20 million domestically was more than 20 years ago. Released in 1986, “Legend” grossed $15.5 million domestically. Two years earlier, All the Right Moves” grossed $17.2 million, though times — and expectations — were different back them.

Some say “Lions” could lose as much as $25 million, although UA and parent company MGM won’t comment on any figures. They said that “Lions” could even be profitable once it gets into its home entertainment and television runs.

As with any film financing fund, money is repaid to the equity portion last, meaning that part of the Merrill Lynch fund put up by MGM and its investors.

In putting up the equity, MGM likely bolstered its relationship with Creative Artists Agency, where Cruise is repped and where Wagner’s husband, Rick Nicita, is an agent.

“Is there any immediate fallout from ‘Lions’ for MGM, or UA? No. If seven movies bombed, maybe, but we are talking about one movie. This isn’t tearing our world apart. Any studio knows that if you produce 10 movies, six could fail,” one MGM exec said.

Wagner reiterated that UA intends to make a wide variety of films, and that the studio is developing a comedy for Cruise. Announced projects include “Champions,” the bigscreen adaptation of Brit sci-fi TV series that Guillermo del Toro has signed on to write and direct.

Last week, UA announced that it was postponing production of Oliver Stone’s Vietnam drama “Pinkville” because of the writers strike. News coincided with word that Bruce Willis was departing the project. Film was set to start production this winter.

“Running a studio is a marathon, not a sprint. You want every picture to be successful. That’s the goal. But the reality of the biz is that not every one will be. If you can’t deal with that, don’t be in business,” Wagner said. “We are one year out now, and I have to say that we are very confident about the soundness of our business model.”

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