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Box Office: Why Universal Is Risking $200M To Send Tom Cruise To Space

Universal hopes “Tom Cruise in space!” is as bankable as “Tom Cruise is Ethan Hunt!” It’s smarter than spending $175 million on Dolittle.

With word that Tom Cruise’s Top Gun: Maverick has been delayed to July 2, 2021, we’ll know soon enough whether Mission: Impossible 7 and Mission: Impossible 8 have been delayed from their (already moved once) November 21, 2021 and December 4, 2022 release dates. But once Cruise is done filming what could be his last two Ethan Hunt adventures, he’s allegedly going into space for Doug Liman’s… well, it’s essentially the “Tom Cruise goes into space for real” movie. Universal will produce and distribute the (allegedly) $200 million sci-fi actioner, while Christopher McQuarrie will participate as a story advisor/producer for the Liman-directed/penned screenplay. This is a huge risk for any studio, spending (at least) $200 million on a wholly original star+concept action flick, let alone one that will actually be shot in outer space.

Heck, if Liman goes over budget, and his previous “big” movies (The Bourne Identity, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Chaos Walking, etc.) aren’t necessarily known for smooth productions, we could see a contender to Avatar’s title as the most expensive original movie ($240 million) of all time. Of course, Liman’s films tend to perform quite (artistically and commercially) well after all of the ruckus. The Bourne Identity launched a defining action franchise in 2002 while Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith earned $458 million on a $110 million budget in 2005. Alas, Tom Cruise’s Edge of Tomorrow’s otherwise fine global gross ($371 million in 2014) wasn’t quite a hit on a $178 million budget. Speaking of which, this movie will have to out-earn almost all of Cruise’s non-Mission: Impossible movies to be a hit.

Tom Cruise’s peak stardom came when $40 million was a big budget, $15 million was a terrific opening and a $100 million domestic/$200 million worldwide gross was almost always an unmitigated success. Top Gun earned $179 million domestic and $360 million worldwide in 1986 on a mere $15 million budget. Ditto Rain Man ($412 million/$25 million in 1988), A Few Good Men ($237 million/$41 million in 1992), The Firm ($271 million/$42 million in 1993) and Jerry Maguire ($273 million/$50 million in 1996). If you’re wondering why we never got an Interview with the Vampire sequel, it’s because $224 million worldwide on a $60 million budget in 1994 was a lot less profitable than a standard Cruise vehicle at that time. When movie stars were franchises, you didn’t need to sequalize every vaguely successful movie.

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However, five of his top seven biggest global grossers are Mission: Impossible movies (alas, M: I 3 earned “just” $393 million on a $160 million budget in 2006). War of the Worlds earned $550 million worldwide (on a $132 million budget) in 2005, thanks to Cruise’s star power, Steven Spielberg’s marquee pull and the well-known source material along with the adaptation’s value as a 9/11 or Iraq war metaphor. Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai, a sweeping action movie that plays like “Dances with Wolves… but with 100% more ninjas!”, $458 million worldwide on a $140 million budget in late 2003, still a huge total for an R-rated movie. Those are the only Cruise flicks, sans inflation, which have grossed enough for “Tom Cruise In Space” to be profitable on an alleged $200 million budget.

That doesn’t account for marketing expenses, how much of that global gross comes from China (where theaters take as much as 75% of the gross) or other related variables. Even the old 2.5x figure puts you at War of the Worlds $550 million gross just to break even. In an era where star vehicles are by themselves, not big-deal draws, spending this kind of money on an original, concept-driven star vehicle is the very definition of “big risk.” Universal presumably has the same numbers I do, so what’s their angle? Well, it’s partially about generating buzz and curiosity in an era when most of the both goes to streaming platforms. It’s hope for the future of theatrical exhibition. They are banking on “Tom Cruise… in space!” being almost as bankable as “Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt.”

Yes, this project will very much play into Cruise’s public persona as a kamikaze daredevil who will push the limit to provide you with top-notch popcorn entertainment. If we chart his post-“being weird on Orpah Winfrey’s couch” funk to where his Mission: Impossible movies were bigger than ever worldwide, the difference was onscreen humility. Ethan Hunt, and thus by proxy Cruise himself, was willing to climb a skyscraper, but he now looked just as terrified of falling as you or I might, and his flustered and frightened reactions as gadgets didn’t work, people failed and stunts didn’t quite go right, felt unquestionably human. Cruise rehabilitated himself by morphing into, relatively speaking, an American Jackie Chan. I can only presume that the film will further blur the line between fictional character and public persona.

It’s partially based on the idea that studios are aware that the franchises that bring folks into theaters (Jurassic, Fast & Furious, Mission: Impossible, James Bond, etc.) are wrapping up or winding down, and we haven’t had an A+ “new to cinema” franchise since The Hunger Games in 2012. Recycling and rebooting are only going to work for so long. When “Will Smith will help you get that out-of-your-league woman” was enough of a hook, original movies like Hitch could thrive. Yes, there is value in “fun” all-star ensemble flicks from marquee directors (Knives Out, Ford v Ferrari, Little Women, Baby Driver, etc.), but it would be nice if “a star or two doing something interesting in a good movie from an acclaimed director” became reason enough to get folks off the couch.

Universal is hoping that “Tom Cruise as some guy… in space!” is more bankable than “Tom Cruise as some guy” who fights a mummy, discovers his clone, tries to kill Hitler, repeats the same day or deals drugs for the CIA. That’s a pretty reasonable assumption, as well as it being the first movie to actually be shot in outer-space. Pie in the sky, but it could end up clicking not unlike Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, which set Sandra Bullock and George Clooney adrift in space and grossed $724 million worldwide in 2013. Gravity was the last original live action movie to top $700 million. Give or take whatever Tenet’s future grosses, spending $200 million to send Tom Cruise into space seems a safer bet than spending $175 million on a Robert Downey Jr.-starring Dolittle flick.

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