Imagine that one morning the farmers of Kansas walked into their fields to discover that every stalk of wheat had withered and blown away.
Consider the repercussions, not only on the state's economy but for a world that depends upon Kansas grain for sustenance.
Think about the panic. A resource that has always been reliable decade after decade has suddenly vanished. All bets are off.
Maybe it's the end of the world.
That's the kind of dumbfounded desperation that has seized Hollywood in the wake of the poor box office showing of "Knight and Day." It debuted on a Wednesday and made less than $30 million in its first five days — the second worst opening ever for a movie starring Tom Cruise (behind the indie "Lions for Lambs"). The holiday weekend pushed its total box office to about $45 million.
On a recent visit to Los Angeles I found the town — whose main industry, after all, is entertainment — in a dither about the box office blow that is Cruise's latest action-comedy.
The Los Angeles Times devoted a section front to dissecting why the action adventure, which many expected to be one of the summer's big hits, was doing so poorly — at least by Cruise standards. Was it the nondescript title? A flawed marketing campaign?
The movie is actually OK. It got some very positive reviews.
Why, then, is "Knight and Day" struggling?
You can wiggle the finger of blame in many directions, but the hard truth is that the bulk of today's moviegoing audience doesn't care about Tom Cruise. For this vast army of teens he's not a major sex symbol. He's just this old guy who sometimes behaves weirdly.
These young moviegoers weren't yet born when Cruise rose to prominence in the mid-'80s. If they've seen his big hits on TV or home video —"Top Gun" or "Days of Thunder" or "Mission: Impossible" — they probably view him as a quaint relic of another time.
Cruise turned 48 on July 3, so he's certainly not one of them. He is well into middle age (a well-preserved middle age, let's admit), and for that reason he holds little interest for kids who would rather watch performers in whom they can see a bit of themselves.
In other words, after a reign of a quarter-century, Tom Cruise is no longer a movie star — that is, someone whose mere presence in a film guarantees it will be huge.
So what's left for Tom Boy? Is all lost?
Not really. Cruise remains an actor, sometimes a good one. I'd argue that his best work was in the indie classic "Magnolia," in which he played a misogynist motivational speaker, earning himself an Oscar nomination.
That wasn't leading-man stuff. It was character work. And it turns out that Cruise is pretty good at it.
Cruise brought down the house at the MTV Movie Awards by appearing in character as Les Grossman, the fat, balding, venal studio executive he played in Ben Stiller and Robert Downey Jr.' s comedy hit "Tropic Thunder."
Tom Cruise doesn't need my advice, but that won't stop me.
Tom, it's time to emulate the career of your contemporary, Johnny Depp. He's only a year younger than you, yet he's about the most bankable actor out there.
Depp's career is plowing ahead while yours has run aground for the simple reason that he's never sold himself ("Hi there, fans, I'm Johnny Depp."). He's always sold his characters, which form a veritable menagerie of types and styles.
There was a time when Depp was a bit of a heartthrob. Now young people respond to him less for hunkiness and more for the memorable characters he's given them: Jack Sparrow and Ichabod Crane and Willy Wonka and the Mad Hatter.
So there you have it, Tom. Quit trying to be the guy who always gets the girl and go after different, colorful characters. Stretch yourself. Take little juicy roles, and then steal the movie from the 30-something leading man. I bet it'll feel real good.