It's a serious and nagging question that marketing executives working on United Artists' second film, "Valkyrie," have spent months frantically trying to resolve in Mr. Cruise's favor.
Mr. Cruise plays Col. Claus Philipp Maria Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, a German army officer and aristocrat who was one of the leading officers of a failed plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
The film's release has been bedeviled by numerous scheduling about-faces. Some were typical of a hypercompetitive, overcrowded Hollywood release calendar, but many of them came from uncertainty about how to best market Mr. Cruise, whose PR had been considerably dinged by outlandish behavior on Oprah Winfrey's show in 2005 and his very public association with Scientology. Complicating matters, Mr. Cruise wasn't just the star of the UA film; since November 2006 he has also been the company's co-owner and CEO.
"Valkyrie," which cost close to $87 million to make, though UA admits to a $75 million price tag, will likely cost $60 million to market.
Release date moved repeatedly
Originally scheduled for release in August 2008, "Valkyrie" was first moved up to July 4. But by December of last year, it had become clear that Pixar's "Wall-E" was too big a threat. To avoid a losing battle at the box office and to allow director Bryan Singer extra time to finish a crucial battle scene with Mr. Cruise, UA marketing execs moved the release to October, thinking that would improve its odds at getting nominated for Academy Awards.
But in April of this year, "Valkyrie" was pushed back yet again, to Feb. 13, 2009 -- a move seen by many in Hollywood and the media as a tacit, if unspoken, admission by UA worldwide marketing chief Dennis Rice that the film wasn't truly good enough to compete for an Academy Award. When UA publicity photos of Mr. Cruise in an eye patch surfaced online, they were met with widespread derision. Such missteps were said not to have gone over well with the UA CEO.
Mr. Rice was soon replaced by Paramount marketing chief Michael Vollman in July, who promptly moved "Valkyrie" back to Dec. 26. Terry Press, the former head of marketing at DreamWorks Pictures (and an old friend of Mr. Vollman's), was brought in as a consultant to help save what had become a very hot kartoffel.
The 'eye-patch movie'
"It got identified as 'the Tom Cruise eye-patch movie,'" sighed Ms. Press, adding, "I would say the biggest change that we made was in identifying the genre of the movie -- it's not a 'war movie.'"
Added Mr. Vollman: "We're doing everything in our power to make this look like a thriller, because that's what it is. There's one brief war scene, but the rest is skullduggery."
Their other, major effort: To change the campaign's look, so as to modernize a decades-old conflict that had gotten a bit moldy with time.
"[The new campaign] looks modern; it doesn't look period," said Ms. Press, "It has a little retro feel to it, but not an old-fashioned experience. And we upped the level of Bryan Singer-ness."
Mr. Singer, of course, is known for well-regarded thrillers such as "The Usual Suspects" and "Apt Pupil," another movie with a Nazi theme.
In Norse mythology, Valkyries were minor deities who chose the victors of wars. But in Hollywood, those gods are known as focus groups.
With Mr. Vollman, Ms. Press also set about creating a second -- and unusual -- campaign for a Tom Cruise movie that relied heavily on the use of such groups.
The result? A new "Valkyrie" campaign that de-emphasizes Mr. Cruise's usually outsized name and personality in some creative advertising materials.
New "Valkyrie" billboards, for example, depict Mr. Cruise in an ensemble of officers, a tactic that, as Mr. Vollman explains, reflected market research on what audiences say they still very much like about Mr. Cruise.
"We used a variety of research companies, as you would with any movie," said Mr. Vollman. "And what they told us what we always knew: Tom Cruise is a movie star. And people love Tom Cruise as a character leading a group of people toward solving a problem. People like a true story. People like a conspiracy tale."
By early December, the film will have been screened by test audiences, and all UA's research will finally meet reality.