Tom Cruise’s production deal with Paramount was terminated with extreme prejudice by Sumner Redstone yesterday. He didn’t just end the relationship. Redstone bombed it by saying things like this:
The latest high-profile Hollywood breakup is between Tom Cruise and his studio. Sumner Redstone, whose company owns Paramount Pictures, said the studio would sever its 14-year relationship with Cruise’s film production company because “his recent conduct has not been acceptable to Paramount.”
“As much as we like him personally,” the Viacom Inc. chairman told The Wall Street Journal, “we thought it was wrong to renew his deal.”
In the past year or so, the usually guarded actor came under intense scrutiny after he jumped up and down on Oprah Winfrey’s couch while proclaiming his love for Katie Holmes, openly advocated Scientology, and criticized Brooke Shields for taking prescription drugs to treat postpartum depression. The religion founded by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard opposes psychiatry and its medication.
Redstone estimated that Cruise’s off-screen behavior cost his latest movie, “Mission: Impossible III,” $100 million to $150 million in ticket sales, even as he praised the film as “the best of the three movies” in the action series.
“It’s nothing to do with his acting ability, he’s a terrific actor,” Redstone said. “But we don’t think that someone who effectuates creative suicide and costs the company revenue should be on the lot.”
In assessing this development, the New York Times’ reporters said this:
While Paramount’s decision was a shock to the Hollywood status quo, the way in which it was revealed was another sign that movie studios are playing rougher with stars they once coddled, one senior movie studio executive said.
Most recently, ABC canceled a production deal with Mel Gibson’s company for a mini-series about the Holocaust after he made anti-Semitic statements while detained for drunk driving. And the head of Morgan Creek Productions wrote a scathing letter scolding the actress Lindsay Lohan for unruly behavior during a movie shoot; the letter was quickly leaked to the news media.
“I think the press has become the weapon of choice for these people,” said the studio executive. “These companies are sick of being pushed around. This is indicative of a huge paradigm shift in the industry in terms of what constitutes a star and how much power a star has.”
My guess is, the Hollywood suits have wanted to pull the plug on unruly stars since the days of Charlie Chaplin. So what’s different now?
PR programs at major universities will study this endlessly. But my answer is one word: SNARK.
For decades, the gossip columns and later the tabloids hounded stars, sometimes peddling blatantly false stories to protect them from public condemnation, sometimes keeping them in line with threats, sometimes taking bribes, effectively, to hush things up. But there was a limit. The gossip media and the studios were really in business together, the business of celebrity mythology. They all made money by supporting the myth that movie and TV stars were living a glamorous, sexy, affluent, elevated life to which most of us aspired. The gossip-mongers and the star-makers sometimes had skirmishes, but usually stopped short of doing anything that would cost anyone serious money.
Now the gossip industry has grown an offshoot, the snark industry. Snarky means “irritable or ‘snidely derisive,'” according to Wikipedia; “a witty mannerism, personality, or behavior that is a combination of sarcasm and cynicism,” according to Urban Dictionary. But in this context, the derisive attitude is always aimed at celebrities and the powerful.
Right now, many of the most popular blogs are pure snarkiness; sites like Gawker (media snark), Wonkette (political snark), Defamer (Hollywood snark), Deadspin (sports snark), Valleywag (tech snark), The Smoking Gun (snarky stolen documents and legal filings) and their many imitators. The snark media is gaining credibility, breaking stories like Mel Gibson’s arrest, and pushing the mainstream media to follow their lead, and change their own style of reportage.
These sites don’t have the symbiotic relationship with the stars or the studios that the gossip sites of old had. They don’t play with the myth; they destroy it. If one big star goes down in flames, so what? There will be others in line, waiting to embarass themselves.
Snarky sites had no interest in helping Tom Cruise’s PR reps save Cruise from himself, in hopes of getting an “exclusive” at a later date. The self-immolation of Tom Cruise was more entertaining from a snarkist’s perspective than any movie he has ever made; and, to them, more profitable. The worse, the better, from this media’s point of view. There’s no fun to be had in helping him dig himself out through extolling virtuous acts — in case he’s tempted to go off planting trees or saving Africa. Snark is the black hole of celebrity PR, sucking bad and good news into its gravitational wake.
To an increasing share of the movie/TV audience, every star is presumed to have a humiliating secret, whether they do or not. And it’s distracting to the moviegoer and TV-watcher, as Sumner Redstone suggests.
Cruise wasn’t acceptable anymore as a bold action hero, after the corrosive effect of reading over and over the bizarre stories of his religion, his peculiar courtship, his baby (the weird stories suggesting it might not even exist!) and any number of belittling things proved or unproved, but discussed openly in the snark media, which doesn’t even claim to be telling the truth in every case, just passing things along that you, the reader, might find amusing.
In the old days, er, five years ago, Team Cruise would have been able to counter all this. But I think the collective weight of the snark has diminished him, perhaps finished him, and certainly made it easier for a major studio to envision the future without him. Same with Mel Gibson. It is hard to imagine someone who has made so much money for himself and other people reaching the end of his career, but from now on, every move he makes will be written about purely in the light of his awful, drunken anti-Semitic rant, by snarky chroniclers who will be totally unimpressed by his acts of penance. Studios feel much safer passing on him now.
I’m sure Cruise and Gibson’s PR people thought at various points during the past few months, “It’ll all blow over. It always has before. They’ll be knocking on my door, desperate to meet my price.” Maybe they still think so. But the old PR strategies seem to have failed, and I’m not sure new ones yet exist to replace them.