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Tom Cruise's Sneaky Business

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This winter’s end-zone-busting hit, Jerry Maguire, Tom Cruise’s sports agent is a man torn between a greedy addiction to dealmaking and a struggle to discover his heart. Now it appears that a similar tug-of-war was going on during the making of the film. In an unusually public move, Reebok has body-blocked Sony’s TriStar Pictures with a $10 million breach-of-contract lawsuit, filed last month in L.A. The suit alleges the studio reneged on a plan to favorably spotlight the shoemaker’s gear and to show a Reebok-produced commercial with wide receiver Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr.) bagging a Reebok endorsement over the closing credits of the Cameron Crowe film.

Since product-placement disputes are rarely waged in the open, the court papers are the juiciest read this side of Maguire’s mission statement. They contain an astonishingly specific account of Reebok’s deal with the studio. They even show that Reebok, in its eagerness to be included in Jerry Maguire, actually approved a disparaging Tidwell line (”F— Reebok. All they do is ignore me. Always have. Always have”).

And it turns out Reebok was just part of a 60-yard drive for product placement, orchestrated in part by — surprise — International Creative Management (ICM), the talent agency better known for repping Gibson and Schwarzenegger than for helping to cut deals with sneaker companies. The contretemps is a case study of how closely Hollywood and corporate America now work, even though their aims don’t always run in the same direction.

A year ago, of course, Jerry Maguire looked to be one of Hollywood’s most win-win opportunities. Its star ranks as the human equivalent of the Reese’s Pieces-lovin’ E.T. ”Stallone may wear something but nobody seems to imitate him,” says Gisela Dawson, president of the Catalyst Group, a product-placement agency. A year after Cruise wore Ray-Bans in 1983’s Risky Business, sales of the sunglasses had tripled.

By the time Maguire began filming last March, more than 25 products besides Reebok’s — including Coke, Gatorade, and Second Wind foot deodorant — had landed in Cruise’s movie. Budweiser won the coveted beer spot. Toshiba beat out Apple. Part of the allure was that since Crowe’s script is set inside the world of pro sports, which is itself awash in endorsed clothing and drinks, so much product placement would seem perfectly authentic.

In keeping with the usual product-placement deal, most of these companies say they didn’t pay for representation in Jerry Maguire. ”It’s barter,” explains Steve Ross, senior vice president at Twentieth Century Fox, whose responsibilities include product placement. ”It’s product that the production doesn’t have to buy.” Even when fees are paid, they range from a low of $15,000 to a high of $150,000. The money is collected only if the product shot makes it in.

According to two sources in the product-placement field, however, ICM, perhaps hoping to position itself as a CAA-style broker between corporations and Hollywood, had originally hoped to raise the roof on PP deals. The most ambitious part of its strategy was purportedly trying to land an unprecedentedly huge fee from a sunglasses maker to put shades on Cruise. ”Three million to put glasses on Tom Cruise. That’s what they asked for,” says one incredulous placement exec. Even though such deals are usually handled by the studios’ product-resources divisions, it’s speculated that the talent agency stepped in because it represents James Brooks, one of the film’s producers. Brooks and ICM had no comment.

Ultimately, no sunglasses company showed them the money. “It was an attempt at greed,” says the agency source, “but they didn’t know what they were doing.” Cruise wears Arnettes in the film and its owner, Bausch & Lomb, denies paying a fee. “Tom Cruise was never involved in that,” says his spokeswoman, Pat Kingsley. “He went out and found some glasses that he liked.”

While the sunglasses scheme foundered, the Reebok deal turned ever more complicated. The company claims it didn’t pay an up-front fee either, but here’s some of what it says it did provide Jerry Maguire’s producers: up to $125,000 of athletic gear and the right to use its trademark in the film (the gear made the cut); an on-set football trainer and cameos by Reebok athletes; and, most spectacularly, the Tidwell commercial, which Reebok once discussed using for its tie-in campaign. In all, Reebok says it spent $1.5 million on Maguire.

Far from an idea dreamed up in a marketing meeting, the ad was the coda of Crowe’s original script, although he wrote it with Nike in mind. But Nike wasn’t comfortable with the script’s negative view of the endorsement biz.

After Nike passed on Maguire, Reebok, the industry’s perennial No. 2, readily closed the deal. “Our interest was because of the transformation of Tidwell into an athlete who is not just all about the money,” says Dave Fogelson, Reebok’s public relations director.

Reebok, which shot and produced the ad in early November, claims Crowe said he was happy with the results. But on Nov. 27, already well into a promotion that included selling tie-in jackets, Reebok was told the commercial had been scrapped. Worse, the film’s most prominent reference to Reebok is now Tidwell’s slur. “We knew that the loop would be closed on that because of the commercial at the end,” explains Fogelson. The fictional ad’s copy would have read: “Rod Tidwell. We didn’t notice you for four seasons. We’re sorry.”

Why the filmmakers nixed the commercial and whether Cameron Crowe ever completely endorsed the Reebok deal are open questions. Crowe refused to be interviewed. It’s clear, however, he was trying to make Maguire a love story as much as a sports movie. Keeping the ad might have tipped the film in the other direction. (The film now concludes with Cruise in a cozy family scene.)

Even so, Crowe’s Maguire-like artistic decision could cost TriStar millions. (In a similar case in 1990, Black & Decker sued Fox for $150,000 over a promotion it had developed for a drill that Bruce Willis ended up not using in Die Hard 2. The parties settled out of court.) The studio, however, is tackling back. On Jan. 13 it filed a motion to dismiss the case, asserting that the Reebok deal was never signed. TriStar also says Reebok knew the ad might be cut and cites a passage in the agreement in which Reebok asked to be reimbursed for production costs in that event. “[This] must be judged by the law prevailing on Planet Earth, not Planet Reebok,” the motion states.

Working in TriStar’s favor is the fact that other companies in the $94 million-grossing Maguire, from Marriott to Toshiba, have said they’re satisfied with their placement. So what happened with Reebok? Peter Anderson, an entertainment attorney who recently won an injunction against Universal Pictures over a copyright issue regarding 12 Monkeys, says, “It sounds like the marketing people were getting ahead of the creative.”

A hearing on TriStar’s motion is set for Feb. 10. But no matter who scores in court, product placement isn’t about to exit the field. “We understand it’s not guaranteed,” says Suzanne Forlenza, senior manager of film and TV placement at Apple, which ran ads last year promoting both a prominent PowerBook shot in ID and a murky one in Mission: Impossible. “A movie is a creative and artistic endeavor.” And while some directors, like Tim Burton, refuse product placement, others are learning how to artfully balance its demands. “I don’t like to do it,” says director Joel Schumacher. “On Batman Forever, McDonald’s, which had a huge campaign, asked if I’d put the arches in Gotham City. So there’s a shot of Chris O’Donnell in the Batmobile and way, way in the back are the Golden Arches.” With a similar fix, TriStar, after getting in far deeper, might have had its sneakers and kept Reebok happy, too.

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