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NEWS ANALYSIS

Cruise Flap a Set Piece?

Bluster between Paramount and CAA may be little more than playacting as the two camps continue to do brisk business.

August 28, 2006|Claire Hoffman | Times Staff Writer

When Viacom Inc. Chairman Sumner Redstone belittled Tom Cruise last week by publicly evicting him from his company's Paramount Pictures studio, the 83-year-old Los Angeles billionaire dealt a body blow to the world's largest talent agency.

Creative Artists Agency, which has long dominated the market on movie stars and represented the superstar for two decades, stands to lose as much money as the stars it represents if Redstone persuades other studios to act against what he called the unaffordable salaries of top actors -- part of his rationale for dismissing Cruise.

At the same time, the incident set the Hollywood rumor mill whirring with whispers that Cruise's fate was in part a result of the agency's missteps.

CAA President Richard Lovett quickly punched back, hurling a public insult at Paramount that was viewed in Hollywood as a veiled threat to use his gatekeeper role to hurt the legendary studio. Flouting a tradition by talent agents of playing Oz, Lovett stepped out from behind the curtain, telling the New York Times: "Paramount has no credibility right now. It is not clear who is running the studio and who is making the decisions."

Lovett's comments were an indirect swipe at the studio's chairman, Brad Grey, who had planned to allow Cruise's production deal to lapse quietly before being caught off-guard by Redstone's indelicate dismissal.

Such wars of words can leave lasting scars. Yet the mudslinging between Redstone and CAA may be largely a show for each side's power base. Their interdependence is underscored by the dozen movie projects involving CAA clients pending at Paramount.

The studio can ill afford to be feuding with CAA when it is only now getting back on track after a year of management turmoil and box-office disappointments. CAA represents some of Hollywood's biggest breadwinners, with a roster of more than 1,000 clients that includes Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Steven Spielberg, Jerry Bruckheimer, Tom Hanks, Will Smith and Brad Pitt.

What's more, it would be next to impossible today for any agency -- even one as powerful as CAA -- to boycott Paramount, which accounts for as much as 20% of the movie business. While CAA and its competitors are still flourishing, the riches aren't what they once were. Decades of mergers have concentrated moviemaking power among only six major studios, which make the majority of the world's filmed entertainment.

"CAA should keep its mouth shut," said a publicist who represents several A-list CAA stars but did not want to be named for fear of retaliation by Lovett. "They've got thousands of other clients."

CAA and Paramount declined to comment for this article.

Indeed, as tempers flared last week, Paramount executives were at the bargaining table with CAA, hammering out a new movie deal. By the end of last week, the studio had greenlighted "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," which it is co-producing with Warner. The film depends on four of CAA's top clients.

The drama about a man who begins aging backward when he hits 50 stars Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, with a screenplay by Eric Roth. It will be directed by David Fincher.

This week, Renee Zellweger, another CAA client, will start filming the Paramount release "Case 39," a horror thriller about a social worker who saves an abused girl.

"I don't think there's much solidarity with Tom [Cruise]," said a producer who is a CAA client with a film deal at Paramount. "It's not going to have any lasting effect on any of us, really. It's like somebody beat up your little brother."

Other deep entanglements between CAA and Paramount would make a war difficult to sustain. Spielberg, arguably CAA's most important client, became an employee of Paramount early this year, when the studio purchased DreamWorks SKG, which the director co-founded.

Pitt, another CAA superstar, is also close friends with Grey. The two launched a production company called Plan B, although Grey was forced to sell his stake when he became Paramount chief in early 2005 to avoid potential conflicts of interest.

Last week, Hollywood insiders were busy with the postmortem of how Cruise could have been so unceremoniously dumped. In one theory, other client interests of CAA may have played a role in unraveling Paramount's production agreement with Cruise and his producing partner, Paula Wagner.

In May, Paramount asked Cruise to take a large pay cut for "Mission Impossible III." The writing was on the wall then, some agents say, that Paramount would not renew Cruise's deal at the same rich terms when it expired July 31.

Some agents believe that CAA should have begun shopping for alternative production financing for Cruise then.

At the same time, Spielberg reportedly had been miffed by Cruise's bombastic behavior during the promotion for "War of the Worlds." Once the celebrated director became part of the Paramount family, he may have made his disapproval of Cruise known, which may have factored into the studio's decision to cut the star loose, insiders speculate.

This summer, Cruise's production deal was shopped around by CAA agents and Cruise's attorney, Bertram Fields. But rival agents say it was already too late, pointing out a basic axiom of agenting: Always negotiate deals before a film's release, when a star is hot with the anticipation. "Mission Impossible III" took in $100 million less at the box office than the previous film in the series.

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Creative Artists Agency has clients attached to at least a dozen movies at Paramount Pictures, including:

Case 39 (2007) Stars Renee Zellweger

Shooter (2007) Directed by Antoine Fuqua

When Worlds Collide (2008) Produced by Steven Spielberg

The Spiderwick Chronicles (2007) Directed by Mark Waters

Stop Loss (2007) Directed and written by Kimberly Peirce

Open Hearts (2007) Directed and written by Zach Braff

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Source: Times research

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