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Tom Cruise the American Export

For more than 20 years, the actor has been more popular elsewhere.
By  · Published on October 2nd, 2017

For more than 20 years, the actor has been more popular elsewhere.

Tom Cruise is a huge movie star, which doesn’t mean anything in the US these days but is still a big deal overseas. Just look at the box office for his latest vehicle, American Made, which is a fitting title for a homegrown talent like Cruise: $16.8M opening (and likely a $60M total) here, but $81.5M so far worldwide. He’s a domestic product, but he doesn’t sell as well domestically as he does as an international export.

Of course, that hasn’t always been the case, so let’s determine when his box office appeal changed. The first of Cruise’s movies to do better outside America was the bartending drama Cocktail in 1988. The split wasn’t too bad, though: $78.2M here, $171.5M global, comes out to a 54.4 percent balance to foreign markets. Perhaps Bryan Brown brought in a lot of moviegoers in Australia, where the soundtrack was an even bigger hit than it was here.

Later that same year, Rain Man made slightly more overseas for a $354.8M total against a $172.8M domestic gross, which is only 51.3 percent for the foreign take. This was arguably the first movie where Cruise was really taken seriously as an actor, but his stardom in the co-lead (or supporting) role probably didn’t matter so much as Dustin Hoffman’s Oscar-winning performance and the fact that the movie won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Two years earlier, Cruise had his first real shot at international stardom with Top Gun, his first action movie. That one was pretty much 50/50 as far as the split between domestic and foreign gross, the former bringing in just $2.8M more, with $179.2M. I’m interested to see if the upcoming sequel, out in 2019, compares since foreign box office is so much bigger, farther reaching, and more monitored now than it was in 1986.

Cruise earned his first Oscar nomination for his work in 1989’s Born on the Fourth of July, which followed the two 1988 efforts in just barely leaning more on the side of foreign territories with its $161M global box office, $70M of which was American made. That means a movie with a very domestically focused story of a US soldier returned paralyzed from the Vietnam War still earned 56.5 percent outside the US (and Canada).

The only thing more America-centric, though, might be NASCAR, and so 1990’s Days of Thunder gave the home court a win with $82.7M out of a $157.9M worldwide gross. It wasn’t a blow out, however, as the foreign box office still accounted for 47.7 percent, which is close to half. And the next year, also the next Nicole Kidman pairing was back to foreign domination. Far and Away brought the widest divide yet with 57.3 percent of the total $137.8M coming from overseas.

Over the next years, Cruise delivered two dramas that appealed more to Americans, if the box office percentages are to be believed. Domestic grosses for A Few Good Men and The Firm were 58.1 percent and 58.6 percent, respectively, of their worldwide takes. Then 1994’s Interview with a Vampire was a close one with American audiences only accounting for 47.1 percent of its $223.7M total box office gross.

Cruise’s first big action blockbuster since Top Gun arrived in 1996 with Mission: Impossible. Although technically his best domestic number yet with $181M, it was actually his third biggest hit with adjustment made for inflation (behind Top Gun and Rain Man). The spy show adaptation did have his best overseas figure, which accounted for 60.5 percent. Similarly, Mission: Impossible II made 60.6 percent from foreign markets.

Later Mission: Impossible III made 66.3 percent more overseas, Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol made 69.9 percent more overseas, and Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation made 71.4 percent overseas. But it’s not just big action movies that have had big splits favoring foreign audiences. Eyes Wide Shut made more overseas by 65.6 percent, while for Lions for Lambs it was 76.3 percent.

Of course, as Scott Mendelson points out at Forbes, Cruise has mostly only done action vehicles since 2000 (Lions is a rare exception). Of them, the movie with the most uneven split is from this year: The Mummy. The Dark Universe franchise starter bombed domestically with only $80.1M, but its worldwide earnings add up to $407.8M, making its foreign gross a whopping 80.4 percent of its total. Much of that is because Cruise’s star appeal holds much stronger everywhere but home.

And that’s why Universal isn’t likely worried about their Monsters reboot series going forward. Five years ago, Jack Reacher opened to even less than American Made ($15.2M, or $16.8M adjusted) but went on to gross $218.3M worldwide, taking in 63.3 percent of that overseas. Last year’s sequel, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back did worse than the first here but took in 63.8 percent of its total gross of $162.1M from foreign screens.

The last movie to do better domestically was Rock of Ages, a bust all over but less so in the US with its 64.8 percent of the total gross. Tropic Thunder also performed better domestically with 58.8 percent. Cruise was not the star of those movies, though. His last starring vehicle to do better in America was way back in 1996 with Jerry Maguire. That movie made 56.3 percent of its global total of $273.6M domestically.

Everything else, as you can see in the graph up above has very much been more of an export than homeland hit, and it’s been mostly getting worst through the years: Magnolia 53.7 percent overseas; Vanilla Sky 50.5 percent overseas; Minority Report 63.1 percent overseas; The Last Samurai 75.7 percent overseas; Collateral 53.6 percent overseas; War of the Worlds 60.4 percent overseas; Valkyrie 58.5 percent overseas; Knight & Day 70.8 percent overseas; Oblivion 68.9 percent overseas; and Edge of Tomorrow 73 percent overseas.

American Made opened in many foreign markets earlier than its US release, with Egypt getting the movie back on August 23rd. So it probably won’t do too much more business overseas, making its probable total gross closer to a 50/50 split than we’ve seen in over a decade with his other less-action-y movies Collateral and Vanilla Sky. But it’s not a matter of us liking him in dramas more over here, just that they like him slightly less in dramas there.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.