He was Maverick in Top Gun, Lt. Kaffee in A Few Good Men, and the agent with a crisis of conscience in Jerry Maguire, but are Tom Cruise's days of portraying memorable characters behind him? The affable actor has had a bumpy decade since his 2005 "jump the couch" PR debacle and many have wondered if his films can still remain profitable.
However when looking at the numbers it's no wonder Warner Brothers (a subsidiary of Time Warner (NYSE:TWX.DL)) greenlit Cruise's latest film Edge of Tomorrow -- the data yields some fascinating results.
Over the 'edge'
When Cruise's appearance on Oprah went viral (before "viral" was even a thing), many wondered what that meant for the Oscar-nominated actor's career. We all remember that while making a stop on his War of the Worlds publicity tour, Cruise declared he was elated about being in love with then-wife Katie Holmes and couldn't contain his enthusiasm. Somehow this turned into a war with the media and experts were calling Cruise's career DOA.
Except that's not exactly what happened. War of the Worlds opened to $64 million, a personal best for Cruise. The next year his third installment in the Mission Impossible film series opened to $47 million, which for Cruise, was a record for a non-holiday weekend debut. Still the media kept replaying his Oprah appearance like they hoped it would scare away audiences.
Finally, that perception became reality and Cruise's movies took a nosedive -- since then, he's yet to cross the $40 million mark during an opening weekend. Even his ultra-successful Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol couldn't break $30 million (though it impressively scored that same amount in back-to-back weeks, which is a rarity). Still Cruise was a name and all of his older films gave him a certain bankability that studios were comfortable counting on.
This week Warner Brothers banked on that name to help launch Edge of Tomorrow, a sci-fi action flick starring Cruise and Emily Blunt. The problem is a poor marketing campaign made it look like a violent version of Groundhog Day and audiences were quick to write it off before it premiered. Yet, critics have praised the film as one of Cruise's best in years.
'The Bankability Breakdown'
Some have wondered if Warner Brother made a mistake by casting Cruise, given his recent openings. Remember, this is a movie with a production budget of $178 million and that's not counting marketing and promotion costs. That's a pretty high bar, no matter who you are in Hollywood.
But looking closely at the actor's box office drawing power, you'll notice that (excluding 2012's film adaptation of the musical Rock of Ages) you have to go back to 1986's Legend to find the last time a Cruise-fronted movie failed to make back its production costs. And just a month after Legend, Cruise returned to theaters with Top Gun and a worldwide gross of $356 million, which helped cement his legacy.
Yet it's the past five years you really need to look at -- Cruise has had a number of misfires with the Oscar-bait movie that wasn't in Valkyrie and the critically lambasted Knight and Day. It also included the aforementioned Rock of Ages, but since that was an ensemble movie and not fully on Cruise's shoulders, I'm leaving it out of the equation. What you'll notice in what I call "The Bankability Breakdown" is that despite those movies and the under-performing Jack Reacher, each one recouped its budged thanks to international ticket sales.
You can see how valuable that international appeal is for Cruise -- each of the films that opened over the past five years has made at least $100 million internationally. What freaked out American analysts recently was that Edge of Tomorrow opened low internationally last week with just $20 million in sales, but as additional markets opened, that number has risen to a more calming $100 million. And the film isn't even slated to open in Japan until the end of the month, so it still has a lot of time.
So yes domestically Cruise has not been able to brush off the negative publicity stemming from both the couch incident and his long-running ties to the controversial Scientology religion, but internationally it's a whole other story. Either way the success of Ghost Protocol alone should tell you everything you need to know -- it shows audiences still will show up for Cruise in the right project.
That's also a reason all four of Cruise's presumed upcoming projects are franchise brands, including another Mission Impossible and another Jack Reacher. Cruise is also reportedly looking to reboot the Van Helsing franchise and return to his Top Gun roots with a long-awaited sequel. These are films that should do well because each plays off how audiences want to see Tom Cruise on screen. That's why I think he's still a very bankable actor.
Brett Gold has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.