Tom Cruise and Demi Moore?s box office battle -- ?Mission: Impossible? takes on ?Striptease? this Memorial Day Weekend, but who will make it to No. 1

By Benjamin Svetkey and Susan Spillman
Updated January 26, 1996 at 05:00 AM EST

Good morning, Mr. Phelps. The file in front of you contains pictures of two of this summer’s most powerful box office contenders. The shifty-looking fellow in the suit is Tom Cruise, who’ll be starring in the big-screen version of Mission: Impossible. The woman in the G-string is Demi Moore, who’ll be playing a topless dancer in Striptease. Both films open Memorial Day weekend. Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to determine which movie will become the season’s biggest hit. This tape will self-destruct in five seconds. Good luck. And, oh, by the way, we want the Demi Moore picture back.”

Half the nation is smothered in snow, but the Hollywood hype machine is already heating up on the summer of ’96. What will it be: Cruise’s $20 million smile or Moore’s $12.5 million bod? And what about the summer’s other offerings, like Jim Carrey’s The Cable Guy and Eddie Murphy’s The Nutty Professor? How will they fare? It’s never too early for summer buzz, so here’s what we’ve been hearing through our earmuffs:

Mission Impossible will open big because it’s Tom Cruise, and people know the franchise,” predicts Phil Borack of Tri-State Theatre Service, which books films in 250 Midwest theaters. ”Striptease isn’t a $30 million opening, but it’ll run and run. The challenge will be to let people know it’s not like Showgirls.”

”They’re two tent-pole movies,” agrees Howard Lichtman, executive VP of marketing for Cineplex Odeon, which owns about 323 theaters nationwide. ”One will be No. 1 and the other will be No. 2 on opening weekend — and there’s no reason why they can’t both do well.”

Although other big names will be hanging on marquees, most agree that Cruise and Moore are the season’s 800-pound gorillas. With no franchise films (Batman IV and the Jurassic Park sequel won’t be out until ’97), the field is clear of heavy competition. Twister, a tornado flick made by Speed director Jan DeBont, has a killer trailer but no stars. The Cable Guy has a proven star in Carrey, but this time around he’s not playing an idiot — a big gamble. And while buzz has been building around The Nutty Professor, the last time Murphy had a hit Reagan was still in office. In fact, the biggest hurdle may come from the ’96 Summer Olympics.

In the Cruise/Moore competition, Striptease may have a small edge: It was made for a mere $40 million (as opposed to Mission‘s $70 million). That means it won’t need to do Jurassic-size business. But which will earn more? At the moment, experts favor the IM Force. ”Mission: Impossible is the one that’s least likely to be hurt by the others,” says Bruce Corwin, president of the West Coast’s Metropolitan Theatres chain.

Even Striptease producer Mike Lobell concedes that Mission may be impossible to beat. ”We just want to be in the same multiplexes so when [Mission] is sold out they’ll come to our movie,” he says.

In fact, about the only one predicting that Moore will outmaneuver Cruise is Mark Canton, chairman of Columbia TriStar, which is distributing Striptease. ”We have the goods,” he says. ”Demi draws young adults to mature adults. And since her character has lost her job and has a daughter in a custody battle, women will relate to the theme of the movie.”

Getting women to relate to a naked Demi Moore — now, that is an impossible mission.