Tom & Tom and the (Auto)biography of ‘Knight and Day’

Marketing chief Tony Sella really isn’t to blame for the movie’s flopping; look a little higher up the executive ladder at Fox

I’ve always liked Patrick Goldstein: In the old days (the ‘80s) when the Los Angeles Times barely admitted the “industry” existed, he was one of the few capable of giving you an inside look.

Of course Patrick (like any good reporter) had an unfair advantage — he had embedded himself in the industry by being married to the head of PR for Paramount, at the time the hottest studio in town. (That was when Barry Diller, Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Don Simpson and Dawn Steel were shaking up the industry with surprise hits like “Flashdance,” “Footloose” and “An Officer and a Gentleman” and winning critical plaudits with “Reds” and “Terms of Endearment.”) Of course, that gang ultimately broke up — and, unfortunately, so did Patrick’s marriage. But he rebounded with his always insightful column on the industry for the Times, “The Big Picture.”

But even Patrick misses now and then — as I would argue he did last week with his column on Fox marketing chief Tony Sella and the “failure to open” Fox’s big-budget “Knight and Day,” starring onetime heartthrob Tom Cruise and an aging Cameron Diaz.

How big a bomb is the $117 million movie (with an additional $130 million reportedly spent on marketing)? Google “Knight and Day” and what comes up is a “Save Tom Cruise’s Career; See ‘Knight and Day’” site, while the next discusses how Paramount (which already kicked Cruise off the lot) is now considering replacing him with Shia LaBeouf in “Mission: Impossible IV”!

Or, let’s put it more succinctly: Cruise and Diaz and a $200 million-plus expenditure finished a lagging third not to just a cartoon in its opening weekend but to Adam Sandler, now a bigger star than Cruise! Then there was this weekend, when Cruise and Fox couldn’t even scare up more than $10 million — a 48% drop in one week alone, putting them now only in fifth position after just two weekends!

Unfortunately, while Goldstein quotes Sella as saying “Blame me” — and not Cruise or studio head Tom Rothman — Goldstein makes clear in his opening that Sella is just being a good soldier, taking the fall for Cruise and his boss, by pointing out that “many in the industry, Tom Cruise Cameron Diaz Knight and Dayincluding several people close to the film, were privately pointing fingers at Fox co-chairman … Rothman, who picked the movie’s title and micro-managed its marketing campaign.”

How do I know? Well, I’ve been there with both of them — Tom & Tom; Cruise and Rothman, that is — in similar situations.

I first met Cruise in the mid-1980s, when I was a young correspondent for Newsweek and he a young star coming off his first hit, “Risky Business.”

A year or so later, it was clear Cruise’s next hit was going to be “Top Gun,” the beginning of the new rock’n’warfare genre pioneered by Simpson and partner Jerry Bruckheimer that ultimately begat such copies as the trio of “Iron Eagle” movies. Ironically, I was in Fresno getting ready to fly the then-new Navy F/A-18 fighter/bomber for a story for Newsweek when I got the call to get down to Miramar, the air field that was home to the famous Top Gun school to join late studio head Ned Tanen and studio president Dawn Steel for a “behind the scenes” story on the upcoming film.

While I was never able to get back to fly the F-18 (though my brother ultimately became a top F-18 pilot), I thoroughly enjoyed my weekend with Tanen, who became a friend; Steel (who I later worked for); and Cruise.

Actually, I’ve told the story of the film Cruise and I worked on together, “Cocktail” — on which I was a junior exec for Disney — in a Los Angeles Times magazine story so I won’t bother repeating it here (of course, you can Google it!). Suffice it to say, however, that it’s a pretty hilarious tale how an acclaimed comic novel is turned into a turgid drama and what a studio will do to attempt to save it.

While “Cocktail” was critically unsaveable, of course, it nonetheless did something like $150 million at the box office. Those were the days when Cruise was bulletproof. As our research showed, it may have been the worst movie ever, but every teenage girl in America was willing to pay over and over again to see Tom naked under the waterfall with Elisabeth Shue. And, as everyone knows, you can’t crack $100 million without repeat viewers.

Fast-forward to 2010: Those girls who raced out to see Tom Cruise over and over in “Risky Business,” “Top Gun” and “Cocktail” are now middle-aged housewives with broods of their own — teenage daughters more likely to be seeing “Eclipse” multiple times or boys waiting for the highly anticipated Leo DiCaprio movie “Inception” than another “Bourne” retread like “Knight and Day.” Without Bourne!

In fact, with full houses of their own, they probably don’t get to the movies much anymore, let alone multiple times. So rather than Cruise being an attraction, for “Knight and Day” he was a liability (if you don’t think that’s what Fox’s tracking shows, you’re nuts!).

But let’s not just blame Cruise. After all, we all get older (even co-star Diaz began her career nearly 20 years ago in “The Mask” after already having a career as a model, so she’s no spring chicken like Megan Fox or Kristen Stewart, who the “fanboys” or “fangirls” fawn over now). No, the real problem is Tom Rothman.

Now, Tom is a very smart man, a former lawyer who’d already had a good career before he joined Columbia Pictures as an exec in the late ‘80s. But even then, his prejudices were already clear. I pitched him any number of” hot” projects: The true story of the world’s first -known female serial killer (long before female serial killers became a staple); a hot Marines-vs.-pirates movie (before pirates were vogue!), etc.

But all he seemed interested in were remakes of classic romantic comedies — hardly a hot genre. I finally scored with a movie called “Hard Promises” that my agent Joan Hyler set up with William L. Petersen (later the star of “CSI”) and his producing partner, Cyndy Chvatal. It was a fictionalized version of my trip to my high school/college girlfriend’s wedding to my best friend — a story many people would be familiar with, but hardly “high-concept.” Tom loved it! It was, he said, the “Country and western” version of the high-gloss Cary Grant/Katharine Hepburn “The Philadelphia Story.” Oh, well. Actually it was more like Jake and Ali on “The Bachelor” … only with dust on the shoes.

Not that it wasn’t a good movie — we got “****”’s from numerous papers and were the closing-night gala at the prestigious Toronto Film Festival. But, although you can still see it on cable, it was a box office bust. In those days, without Julia Roberts, a romantic comedy had little chance against “Predator II,” “Last Action Hero” or “Speed.”

But Rothman still perseveres. Without having been in the meeting, I can tell you that when they pitched “Knight and Day,” his mind flashed on “Topkapi” (1964)-meets-“The Prize,” starring Paul Newman and Elke Sommer (1963.) That’s just how his mind works. And that’s why “Knight and Day” didn’t work: You can’t take a 50-year-old genre and cast it with 40- and 30-year-old stars whose signature hits were 30 and 20 years ago and expect a teenage summer audience to care.

So don’t blame it on Tony Sella!