Can Tom Cruise make it without Paramount? -- Eccentricities and exorbitant pay have left the M:I 3 star a free agent

By Jeff Jensen
Updated September 01, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

He broke up with Paramount. Got booted from his swanky studio office. And even before the door hit him on the way out, was publicly humiliated by one of Hollywood’s most powerful men. At the same time, Jerry Bruckheimer rallied to his defense and dubbed him ”one of the biggest stars in the world.” Some smart rich guys gave him a few million bucks to start his own independent film company. And wouldn’t you know it, the FDA decided to put warning labels on Ritalin.

All in all, not a bad week for Tom Cruise.

Of course, when it was announced on Aug. 23 that Paramount was ending its storied, 14-year partnership with the Top Gun megastar — in the form of a bluntly worded rebuke by Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone in the pages of The Wall Street Journal — it was easy to assume the worst. In confirming that popular opinion had now become cold, hard policy at Paramount, Redstone seemed to be declaring that the Tom Cruise we once idolized was indeed dead. He even used the words ”creative suicide.” The news was so huge, CNN ran a ticker about the breakup during its coverage of the Kentucky plane crash last weekend, and at the Emmys last Sunday it was the buzz of the red carpet. Asked what his superagent character on Entourage would do, Jeremy Piven quipped: ”He would chain himself to a desk for Tom.”

Redstone’s remark was the potshot heard around the world, and for industry watchers and power players in Hollywood and Wall Street, it reverberates with Big Picture issues. Could this be a tipping point in that decades-old power struggle for dominion over this town? Could this be the beginning of the end of the reign of the $20 million-a-movie, first-dollar-gross superstar? In many ways, the answer is yes. The cold war between studios (under increasing pressure to cut costs) and talent agents (under continuing pressure from their clients to deliver big paydays) has been heating up lately. One Hollywood exec familiar with Redstone says the 83-year-old mogul might have been inspired to speak out thanks to the example set by fellow old schooler James Robinson, the producer who reprimanded Lindsay Lohan for the costly impact her alleged partying was having on her still-filming flick Georgia Rule. ”Everybody’s under financial pressure,” says another producer. ”Studios can’t absorb the excesses of the past.”

They can’t afford their exorbitant paychecks, either. Fox scrapped plans to make Used Cars, a comedy starring Jim Carrey and Ben Stiller, reportedly because of their hefty profit-participation deals. No one is saying stars aren’t important, but in today’s franchise-driven, genre-hot Hollywood, the megasized models are an endangered species. Will Smith and Reese Witherspoon are safe bets, but former $20 million-a-flick players like Harrison Ford, John Travolta, and Bruce Willis are more risky. The message is clear: The pendulum of power is swinging from the people in front of the cameras to the people who own them.

At least for the moment.