Notably, the past two weeks have seen two significant and much-needed improvements to one of Hollywood's most famous operating systems: Mr. Cruise unveiled a new, self-deprecating humor interface as well as a new Nazi-film delay button, seemingly designed to augment the former.
Last week, at an industry screening of Ben Stiller's new DreamWorks comedy "Tropic Thunder," a gaggle of agents, executives and journalists erupted in laughter at the sight of Mr. Cruise on screen. For a change, they were laughing with him. For while it was well-known that Mr. Cruise had taken a small role in Mr. Stiller's "Mission: Impossible" farce, few expected to see him in a fat suit and chest wig playing a balding studio executive who, cursing extravagantly, shuts down an out-of-control action movie and its overwrought star.
Reading between the lines
In his cameo, Mr. Cruise had managed to give a thespian's equivalent of a noogie to Viacom Chairman Sumner Redstone, who two years ago gave Mr. Cruise's production company the bum's rush off the Paramount lot. The octogenarian oligarch alleged the star's loveseat leap-frog while discussing his bride-to-be Katie Holmes on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" had caused more than $100 million in damage to the box office of Paramount's "Mission: Impossible 3." But by mocking Mr. Redstone in a film that mocks his own "Mission: Impossible" franchise, Mr. Cruise proved that he has actually developed a sense of humor about his oft-bizarre public image.
And that's good news for a star whose current popularity, or "Q" rating, shows a 91% awareness with the public, but only 50% popularity, based on internal studio marketing research documents shared with Advertising Age.
Then Deadline Hollywood Daily reported that United Artists would again change the release date of Mr. Cruise's next starring project, Bryan Singer's "Valkyrie," from October to Presidents Day weekend of next year (the film had earlier been scheduled to premiere this summer); in an interview with Ad Age, an MGM spokesman cited better box office chances then, owing to a longer weekend and the paucity of other films debuting.
UA, of course, is the storied company that Mr. Cruise took over shortly after his 14 years at Paramount came to an abrupt and embarrassing end, and "Valkyrie" -- about the failed plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler -- will be the second UA film to emerge from Mr. Cruise's tenure as the studio's head. (Its first Mr. Cruise production, "Lions for Lambs," got slaughtered, managing only $7.5 million in its opening weekend.)
Stakes are high. Former New Line Cinema marketing president Russell Schwartz has been brought into help consult on the "Valkyrie" marketing campaign. The obvious question: Was "Valkyrie" rescheduled to allow Mr. Cruise's persona to benefit from his image-repairing work in "Tropic Thunder"?
"There was absolutely nothing about any publicity that Tom Cruise received before that influenced our decision to move the film," said Dennis Rice, MGM/UA's head of marketing.
No matter, for the benefits will be the same: Delaying the sight of Mr. Cruise in a Third Reich army uniform is a smart marketing move for Mr. Cruise the brand and for "Valkyrie" the movie. For Mr. Cruise's reportedly $90 million drama to succeed, it needs a star whose public image is once again "Top Gun," and not "Top Secret 2."