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Can Knight and Day Overcome the Cruise Problem?

How to save Knight and Day? The film, which by many accounts is a perfectly entertaining summer action blockbuster, is tracking miserably as it heads into its first week, and Fox is scrambling to do all it can to pump up its initial grosses: Earlier this month it pushed the film’s opening date up from Friday, June 25 to Wednesday, June 23, hoping to accumulate some good, uncontested word of mouth before heading into a weekend battle against Adam Sandlers’s Grown Ups. And then the studio decided to show sneak previews of the film in 500 theaters this Saturday night to work up even more buzz. All of this is in the hope that the quality of the film can overcome what looks like one of the film’s biggest handicaps: its star, Tom Cruise.

While having one of the most well-known movie stars in the world is certainly an asset, when it’s Cruise, it’s also a liability. E-Poll Market Research data shows that while 88% of audiences recognize his name and 83% his face, his favorability rating is now just 37%. That’s a huge dip from 2004, when 64% of Americans found him likable; that was one year before his devastating War of the Worlds “wait, is he crazy?” publicity tour. Whether consciously or not, with its marketing campaign Fox has articulated the mixed feelings of any studio advertising a Tom Cruise movie: The K&D poster has CRUISE and DIAZ in big letters, but never shows the actors’s faces. Instead, there are just white silhouettes of two running, pistol-packing figures. It’s as if Fox is graphically saying, “We’ve got Tom Cruise! But on second thought, maybe best not to brag about that…”

The recent tracking data shared with Vulture by one studio source shows that only 31% of those polled expressed “definite interest” in seeing K&D. For context, the similarly-themed (and terrible) Fox film Killers scored two points higher at this point, while Mr. and Mrs. Smith, which also has the same feel, polled 48%. Worse, awareness of the Cruise/Diaz film is stuck at 72%. Privately, even a Fox insider admits that “at those numbers, we can’t open the movie right now. Hopefully, they’ll change in the next few days.”

K&D’s other looming problem is it has no wiggle room. Toy Story 3 is going to be a powerhouse this weekend, and its second-week gross will almost surely be at least $50 million, further cutting into the Cruise/Diaz opening. And on top of that competition, there’s Grown Ups. The difference in awareness and interest in the two comedies is, well, night and day: Fully 81% of those surveyed were aware of Grown Ups (compared to 72% for Cruise’s film), and 41% cited “definite interest,” ten points higher than K&D. And if Cruise manages to crawl through that week, beaten but still breathing, what does he face the next week? Twilight: Eclipse. That ain’t good.

What’s sad about the impending mess is that by all accounts, the buzz on K&D is quite good: It’s directed by James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma, Walk the Line); Diaz comes off ditzy-but-charming; Cruise is deadly, funny and winsome - finally, the guy we’d want to know, or at least spend a couple hours with. And internationally, Cruise remains a huge star. It’s not like Fox wasn’t aware of the cons of hiring Cruise for a $125 million film, which makes its no-room-for-error scheduling amidst such heavy-hitters all the more perplexing. So unless Twitter lights up with “f.u. team edward, see #knightandday” this week, Fox is more likely to have a Cruise bomb instead of its hoped for Cruise missile.

Can Knight and Day Overcome the Cruise Problem?