After 15 years as a talent agent and 14 years producing movies with partner Tom Cruise at Paramount Pictures, Paula Wagner is “buoyed” by her latest guise: studio chief.
As CEO of the latest incarnation of storied label United Artists, Wagner and Cruise plan to deliver four midsize pictures a year over the next five years for MGM to distribute. They can greenlight anything under $60 million.
“As a filmmaker putting movies together or as a studio person overseeing a whole company,” she says, “we all have the same goal: making the best movie we can. You can’t be afraid to fail, to step out and speak up and take a chance.”
Wagner has wasted no time getting UA up and running with a slate of high-profile pictures. Robert Redford’s topical Mideast war drama “Lions for Lambs,” starring Redford, Cruise and Meryl Streep, is already in the can for November release. Cruise’s second UA picture, the WWII drama “Valkyrie,” reunites the writer-director team of Christopher McQuarrie and Bryan Singer. Walter Salles and Jose Rivera’s adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” is also in development.
A Yale Rep graduate, Wagner was a struggling actress when Susan Smith recruited her as a talent agent. After years at CAA, Wagner preferred putting projects together with Cruise and Oliver Stone to servicing the agency’s demanding client list. In 1992, producing partners Wagner and Cruise set up shop at Paramount, where they produced 13 movies, including the “Mission: Impossible” trilogy, with a total worldwide gross of more than $3 billion.
Reveling in the freedom of running her own tight-knit UA group, Wagner is having a blast, she says: “At Paramount, we were working within the system. This lacks bureaucracy.”
Vocation: “As CEO of United Artists, to make great films in a responsible way.”
Recent breakthrough: As UA co-toppers, Wagner and Tom Cruise have been charged with “rejuvenating a legacy,” she says, “and breathing life back into something that has meant so much to this industry since 1919.”
Role models: “My mother, Sue Kauffman, a homemaker. She was creative, strong, focused and supportive. Her advice: ‘If you put your mind to something, you can do it.’ She empowered me to be me.”
Career mantra: “If you put forth respect, you will get it back. Take the higher ground in life; do things with dignity and class.”
What’s next: Shepherding the release of “Lions for Lambs,” filming “Valkyrie” and pushing through UA’s 2008 slate.