Tom Cruise takeover of United Artists puts "artist" back in venerable Hollywood studio

Tom Cruise and his producing partner are taking charge of United Artists, restoring the venerable but moribund film outfit to its roots as a Hollywood shingle run by superstars looking to control their own careers.

United Artists owner MGM announced Thursday the move to put Cruise and Paula Wagner in control of the film company founded in 1919 by Charles Chaplin, Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks.

It is poetic symmetry that United Artists, generally mothballed amid recent corporate changes at MGM after a short period as an art-house film banner, should come back in the hands of a Hollywood giant.

"The truth is that the name United Artists has been relatively meaningless for decades. It's just been a corporate name with no vestige of its original significance," said critic and film historian Leonard Maltin. "Tom Cruise is one of the most powerful stars in the world. He's making the same move that his forebears did 85 years ago."

The move comes after Cruise and Wagner's fallout with Paramount Studios, which severed its 14-year producing deal with the pair in August. Sumner Redstone, chairman of Paramount's parent company, Viacom Inc., had blamed Cruise's odd antics over his romance with Katie Holmes and his Scientology preaching for undermining box-office returns on the actor's summer release, "Mission: Impossible III."

There was little doubt that a star of Cruise's caliber would find safe haven elsewhere. After all, even at 44, Cruise still has the boyish charm and rakish grin that helped make the star of "Top Gun," "Risky Business" and "War of the Worlds" the most durable audience draw of modern times.

The question was whether he still had the clout to maintain the same degree of control he enjoyed at Paramount, a deal that allowed him and Wagner to develop films there but left Cruise free to star in projects for other studios.

Wagner, who will be chief executive, and Cruise will have full control over United Artists' film slate, expected to be about four films a year, according to MGM. They will be part owners of United Artists, able to make anything from $100 million (Ђ78 million) action flicks to lower-budget films, with Cruise free to pick and choose among films at rival studios, reports AP.

Wagner said she views it as an "opportunity to take a brand that is classic and bring it into the present. It has such an illustrious past, we have a tradition to respect and uphold and at the same time help and nurture this brand to evolve into something for the future."

The power Cruise and Wagner will hold harks back to the origins of United Artists, whose founders wanted the freedom to create without big studios pulling the strings. The company's early releases included Chaplin's 1920s and `30s classics "The Gold Rush," "City Lights" and "Modern Times"; Griffith's 1924 epic "America"; Fairbanks' 1920s action adventures "The Three Musketeers" and "Robin Hood"; and 1929's "Coquette," which earned Pickford the best-actress Academy Award.

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