Meet Tom Cruise's new best friend
Michael Vollman knows how to market a movie the way Joe Torre knows how to manage a baseball team. I've walked through movie theater lobbies with him, watching him critique each movie poster on the wall, shrewdly assessing all the different messages the poster images and iconography were sending. So it's good news for MGM to see that the talent-challenged studio has snatched Vollman away from Paramount to run worldwide marketing for MGM and United Artists.
Short of cash and often woefully lacking in quality films, the studio has struggled to make a dent in the marketplace in recent years. Even worse, its re-launch of UA with Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner at the helm has been a disaster. UA's first Cruise-starring film flopped and the buzz about its upcoming Cruise vehicle, the Bryan Singer-directed "Valkyrie," has been, well, nothing but bad. (Dennis Rice, UA's marketing chief, is being pushed out, presumably taking the fall for UA's troubles.) So it's telling that when MGM wooed Vollman, he didn't just meet with studio boss Harry Sloan and production chief Mary Parent but Cruise as well. "I had dinner with Tom and Mary and I have to say, it was pretty cool," Vollman told me this morning. "I've been around a lot of movie stars, but Tom is really impressive. He knows about marketing, he knows about stardom and he knows about entertaining people. Trust me, I'm going to work my ass off for him."
Vollman says that after hearing Sloan and Parent's plans to roll out a slate of quality commercial films, he was sold on taking the job. "Harry is a very smart guy and Mary has this amazing 24-hour-a-day desire to win. I loved working for [Paramount executives] Rob Moore and Gerry Rich, and of course for [DreamWorks Animation chief] Jeffrey Katzenberg, but having the opportunity to be a part of something that is being built from the ground up was too good to pass up."
It's been no secret that MGM was desperately seeking some new marketing muscle. It spent weeks wooing Terry Press, Vollman's longtime boss and mentor during his 10-year tenure at DreamWorks, but Press backed out after someone at MGM leaked news of the impending hire before she'd even made a deal. Vollman knows he has challenges ahead, especially with "Valkyrie," which has been battered by constant media sniping. Ever the canny marketer, when I asked about the troubled production, Vollman defended the movie by repositioning it. "Hey," he said. "It's a Bryan Singer and Chris McQuarrie movie. Look at what they've each done, from 'The Usual Suspects' to 'X-Men.' Everyone on the outside keeps hoo-hawing it, but no one's seen anything. Let me tell you--there's a real movie there."
Vollman will continue to work both jobs through the release of Paramount's "Tropic Thunder" (which has an incredible cameo by hip-hop dancing Tom Cruise) next month, then start work full time at MGM Aug. 18. He's already been looking at "Valkyrie" creative materials and reading MGM scripts. Parent sent him "Cabin in the Woods," a Joss Whedon thriller that will be directed by Drew Goddard. "I couldn't put it down," says Vollman. "It's 'Buffy' meets 'Cloverfield.' All I could think was--I can market the [heck] out of that."
For us skeptics, it sounds like MGM must have given their new marketing wizard some potent Kool-Aid to drink. It will be interesting to see if Vollman sounds so confident a year from now, but it's certainly safe to say that he's hit the ground running.
Photo: Tom Cruise. Credit: Kevin Winter/ Getty Images