Last August, as movie theater owners gathered in Las Vegas for their annual convention CinemaCon, they were treated to behind-the-scenes footage of Tom Cruise doing what Tom Cruise has made a career of doing: risking death and defying the laws of physics to pull off some of the splashiest stunts on the big screen.
In this case, Cruise and “Mission: Impossible 7” director Christopher McQuarrie talked up a sequence that saw the actor drive his motorcycle off a cliff in Norway. “This is far and away the most dangerous thing I’ve attempted,” Cruise admitted, adding, “I wanted to do it since I was a little kid.”
But making this childhood dream come true has proved costly, considering this stunt and others like it had to be pulled off in the midst of a globe-rattling pandemic. It has also left Paramount and Skydance Media shouldering a massive budget and an endless stream of unforeseen expenses. “Mission: Impossible 7” cost $290 million to produce, which is tens of millions more than the studio and its financial partner expected to have to shell out, multiple insiders with knowledge of the production told Variety. That eye-popping price tag includes the substantial tax incentives that the global production was able to leverage to rein in costs. In contrast, the most recent film in the series, 2018’s “Mission: Impossible — Fallout,” cost $190 million to make.
A significant factor in this budget escalation is that “Mission: Impossible 7” was initially scheduled to begin shooting in Venice in February 2020, but it had to stop and start production seven different times, insiders said. Day one of principal photography, which was supposed to involve an elaborate action sequence staged during the Carnival Venice, an annual festival renowned for its elaborate masks, took place on the same day that Northern Italy went into COVID-19 lockdown. The production then scrambled to move shooting to Rome, only to once again be forced to shut down when cases spiked.
Public health restrictions and further outbreaks of the virus added unanticipated costs, said the sources, because the studio has had to keep crew and cast members employed and housed during long lag times and quarantine periods. There are also costs associated with having to shut down streets and canals in major cities, such as Rome and Venice, only have to scrap those plans and reschedule them. Though the film’s backers tried to be nimble, the complexity of mounting an international production, one that hopscotched across a half-dozen countries including Poland and the United Arab Emirates, meant that no matter how hard the “Mission: Impossible” team tried, it couldn’t outrun a pandemic that knows no borders. Further complicating matters were global supply chain issues, other insiders added, which brought unforeseen costs via lumber and additional materials.
The budget headaches reached a crescendo last summer when “Mission: Impossible” distributor Paramount was faced with shouldering roughly $50 million in overages by itself. The issue was that co-producer Skydance had already met its cap in terms of financial contributions, according to two sources. They declined to exceed their contractual requirements, around $240 million, and pony up the additional funds that Cruise and McQuarrie said were needed to complete the movie.
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At the same time, Paramount is hoping to ease its financial burden with the help of its insurers. But its efforts to get the insurer to pay for the delays related to outbreaks and shutdowns have become entangled in litigation. To that end, the studio filed suit in August against Federal Insurance Company for breach of contract, arguing that the insurer was responsible for the additional costs associated with COVID.
“Mission: Impossible 7” isn’t the only tentpole that’s been forced to navigate a new reality. These action-oriented blockbusters carry massive budgets and span countries and continents, which create logistical headaches at a time when the virus has proved to be so mutable and enduring. Many major studio releases have had to absorb millions of dollars in costs associated with instituting COVID precautions and factoring in delays when outbreaks occur.
Another challenge facing “Mission: Impossible” and other tentpole films is that these type of movies tend to perform well in China, where “Fallout” made more than $180 million. But tensions between the U.S. and China have impacted the country’s appetite for Hollywood films, cutting into their grosses in the important market.
In January, Paramount announced that it was delaying the release of “Mission: Impossible 7” from Sept. 30, 2022 until July 14, 2023, citing “delays due to the ongoing pandemic.” The postponement will also add interest costs to the film’s overall budget. Paramount and Skydance also announced that “Mission: Impossible 8” will open June 28, 2024 instead of its previously announced debut of July 7, 2023. Part of the reasoning, according to one individual with knowledge of the film, is that Cruise wants to have finished making the eighth film before the seventh film is released. That’s because the seventh movie ends with a cliff-hanger, and the star wants to make certain that the transition between installments is seamless.
The plan is for the seventh and eighth films to serve as a sendoff for Cruise’s Ethan Hunt character — a “culmination” of the entire series, as one insider described it — which has also upped the pressure on the star and McQuarrie to deliver a slam-bang farewell to the super spy. The two films were originally scheduled to shoot concurrently, but that plan was abandoned. The eighth film is about to go into production in South Africa.
Cruise and McQuarrie tend to shoot their films in real locations, not on soundstages or in front of green screens, which presents its own challenges in terms of keeping costs low and its sets COVID-free. They are also committed to giving audiences compelling, exotic locations for the on-screen action — past installments have unfolded in Prague, Dubai, Paris and New Zealand’s South Island. During shooting on “Mission: Impossible 7,” outbreaks of COVID and regional shutdowns meant the production had to pivot locations. On occasion that worked out to the film’s advantage, with more sequences unfolding in the United Kingdom than originally planned, which allowed the production to cash in on the country’s generous incentives.
There’s also Cruise’s desire to dial up the “wow” factor. The actor believes that he needs to keep topping himself in order to delight fans. In 2011’s “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” Cruise scaled the Burj Khalifa, a half-mile-high structure in Dubai, without a harness. In 2015’s “Rogue Nation,” he famously hung from the outside of an airplane as it took off. In “Fallout,” Cruise performed a HALO jump (high-altitude low-open) from a military plane at 25,000 feet. These stunts are part of the the franchise’s DNA, but require extensive rehearsal and safety efforts and have become increasingly expensive to shoot.
“Mission: Impossible” is one of Paramount’s most popular franchises and an important piece of intellectual property for the company, but the films are not major profit generators. That’s due in part to Cruise’s deal which guarantees him “first dollar” gross and entitles him to tens of millions of dollars in bonuses after certain box office milestones are achieved over the life of his films. Cruise made in the neighborhood of $50 million on the most recent “Mission: Impossible” film.
Yes, Cruise’s iconic roles in “Risky Business” and “Top Gun” still make for pop culture fodder and frat boy Halloween costumes. But “Mission: Impossible” is his signature franchise, for which he has been in ruthless competition with himself for years – a race to amp up those jaw-dropping stunts, expand the production’s global footprint, and recruit flashy costars.
The “Mission: Impossible” films have grossed over $3.5 billion at the worldwide box office, hitting a lull with its third sequel “Mission: Impossible III” directed by J.J. Abrams. That 2008 picture grossed only $398 million around the world, the lowest performing of all the films. Cruise rebounded in the next chapter, “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” from director Brad Bird, which tallied a much healthier $695 million. The latest release, “Mission: Impossible – Fallout,” is the most successful in its history, earning $791 million worldwide and introducing meme-worthy characters like Henry “disappearing mustache” Cavill and “The Crown” bad girl Vanessa Kirby.
Spokespeople for Paramount and Skydance declined to comment on this report. A spokesperson for Cruise did not respond to request for comment.