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IS TOM CRUISE A CELEBRITY BRAND IN TROUBLE?

In Wake of PR Switch, Star's Behavior Raises Questions

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Tom Cruise once had a PR strategy as carefully arranged as the incisors in that famous grin. Now that he's given himself a media-relations makeover, both Hollywood and one of its biggest stars are going to find out whether there's still reason to smile.
Photo: AP
A year after he switched his PR representation, Tom Cruise's public persona appears to be undergoing a dramatic change.

More than a year after parting with a longtime adviser who largely kept him under wraps even as his box office soared, Mr. Cruise's public persona has emerged -- and it's a doozy. The gossip publications have feasted on a series of appearances where he's emerged as a bizarre cross between a giddy schoolboy in love and a mystic with a strong anti-psychiatric bent. But it's doubtful that anyone concerned with the film industry's already precarious state is laughing.

He is, after all, about the closest thing that Hollywood has to a sure bet these days. A Cruise film is just about guaranteed to gross at least $100 million and Forbes has him as the 10th most powerful celebrity in the world. He's arguably the most bankable star in the movie business -- a position he achieved through a nearly flawless choice of projects but also a careful publicity strategy where editors and reporters' access to him was doled out in exchange for promises of fawning cover stories and even input in choice of photographs.

A publicity glasnost
That's exactly why this publicity glasnost, which has opened the door to a gag-inducing minute-by-minute chronicle of his courtship of actress Katie Holmes and verbal sparring with the likes of Matt Lauer and Brooke Shields, seems like such risky business.

So why is he pulling such a maverick move now?

For one thing, the world of celebrity news has morphed into a 24-7 frenzy so cluttered that even the nightclub antics and dietary adventures of B- and C-list celebs will get some ink. Before TomKat was born, for instance, Mr. Cruise had never graced the cover of Us Weekly, a publication that recently pictured Sarah Jessica Parker buying paper

Photo: AP
In one recent incident that gave many Cruise watchers pause, the movie star leaped about the sofa on the set of the 'Tonight Show.'
towels and Matthew McConaughey playing Frisbee. Since then, he's been there twice.

'Interesting, for better or worse'
"It takes a lot to trump the celebrity news out there," said Janice Min, the magazine's editor. "More and more of these old-school stars, who did not grow up in the Us Weekly world, are realizing that they can use the US Weekly world to their advantage. ... He's made himself incredibly interesting again for better or worse."

Then there's the fact that his publicity is now managed by his older sister, Lee Anne DeVette, who, like Mr. Cruise, is a Scientologist.

Pat Kingsley, who managed Mr. Cruise's publicity for 14 years until he dismissed her last year, declined to speculate about his current PR strategy but she suggested that the belief that she withheld him from the press is wrongheaded.

"When we worked together, it was in a very organized way that it was my responsibility to organize the interviews he did -- and he did do quite a few interviews, by the way. People think my job was to say 'No.' My job was to organize and he always trusted us in organizing the campaigns around his films. We were at one with that."

She said the strategy of negotiating covers and selection of photos was in keeping with the nature of negotiations. "It's a two-way street. They always had their conditions, too: being first or the only one that month. You have to meet their conditions as well as meeting your conditions. I took it as far as I could go [to get] what I wanted. Both sides pushed the envelope."

A 'strong interview'
Asked what she thought of Mr. Cruise's recent Today Show interview with Matt Lauer, where he accused the anchor of being "glib,"

she said: "I thought it was a very strong interview. I don't want to go any further than that."

A spokesman at his talent agency, Creative Artists Agency, declined to comment. Mr. Cruise himself couldn't be reached.

More skeptical observers caution that while there is the risk of long-term damage to the Cruise brand, it will take an awful lot of spotty behavior to undo the massive amount of goodwill he's built up over the years.

"There's a school of thought that it's always good to be discussed, but the recent coverage was so negative," said Mark Lisanti, editor of Defamer.com. "Someone who's as big and famous as he is, it's hard to tell whether people will forget."

"It does get a little risky when the coverage diverts from his craft and into personal stuff," said Sean Cassidy, president of Dan Klores Communications. "You begin to obscure who he is and what he does."

And what he does is surround himself with enough talent that the reason to go see a Tom Cruise movie is rarely only Tom Cruise, said Brandon Gray, president and publisher of Box Office Mojo, a Web site for box-office data. "Because he picks such strong projects, there is insulation against any tabloid antics that might happen," Mr. Gray said.

Movie box-office magic
It appears that Mr. Cruise's coming out hasn't hurt him in the short run. His new film, the Steven Spielberg-directed War of the Worlds, has been successful and principal photography for his next, the third Mission: Impossible is proceeding, despite some concern that the negative publicity and a renegotiation of Mr. Cruise's deal would derail it. With a July 4 weekend performance of $77 million, War of the Worlds was the biggest opening of his career.

But it remains to be seen how that brand holds up in the long run, especially if there are many more awkward moments like the attack on psychiatry.

"That kind of thing can't be good for somebody's brand," said Mr. Lisanti. "He's certainly not going to get an endorsement deal with Paxil."

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