Feb 17, 2009
Posted by: Hitsville

Updated: The new reality at DreamWorks

Variety has two sober accounts of what’s going to be happening at the new Disney-distributed DreamWorks. Remember how the NY Times, in keeping with the paper’s wildy Spielberg-o-centric coverage of the ministudio’s departure from Paramount, was speculating that Steven Spielberg might “assert” that he was attached to every project optioned by DreamWorks while it was owned by Paramount—and that this might give him “enormous leverage” over the studio? Variety:

The company will have to quickly fill up its development coffers with new material if it wants to meet its target of providing making six films a year beginning in 2010. When Spielberg and Snider left their failed marriage at Paramount, they got custody of only the 17 projects in development and one production shingle, Parkes/MacDonald Prods.

The story also has a lot of concrete info of the sort that has been in short supply elsewhere in the coverage of the debacle that saw the boutique studio crash and burn with a never-signed distribution deal with Universal and end up going to Disney. The attempt has been to spin it as a great DreamWorks success, but the reality isn’t so:

DreamWorks would have paid an 8% distribution fee to Universal, but could end up paying a higher distribution fee to Disney. Some estimate the Disney rate to be as much as 10%, though DreamWorks insiders insist that it falls in the 8%-9% range.
[…]
The only significant advantage that the Disney deal offered was a $100 million loan (DreamWorks execs concede that higher figures cited in the press are inaccurate). And perhaps that was the deciding factor for Spielberg, who had been forced to dip into his own pockets last month to pay for overhead and development.

The other story details the different corporate cultures that may in the end find DreamWorks not finding a comfortable home at Disney either. (That story, incidentally, flatly says the distribution deal is 10 percent.)

Update: Meanwhile, Kim Masters in the Slate spinoff Big Money has even more painful details, centering on Spielberg’s behind-the-scenes desperate moves to direct a pet project about Abraham Lincoln. All that talk about Spielberg’s being able to “assert” ownership of projects, oh so long ago in the NYT, has now turned into … “buying”:

When the split with Paramount took place, DreamWorks bought the rights to 17 projects that it had developed and hopes to make at the new company. To secure those films, Spielberg had to put up more than $13 million of his own money—a violation of a sacred law of Hollywood, which states that other people’s money must always be used for everything.

DreamWorks intended to write another big check to retain the right to partner on and produce a separate batch of projects that it had to leave behind at Paramount. In that latter batch was Lincoln. But to stay in the game on Lincoln and the other projects, DreamWorks had to buy two completed films that it made during its time at Paramount: The Lovely Bones, directed by Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings), and A Thousand Words, a comedy starring Eddie Murphy. And DreamWorks didn’t have the money.

The result? Paramount, the studio DreamWorks sold itself to and then whined about for five years, still owns Lincoln and is taking its sweet time in deciding whether Spielberg can direct it. Masters:

A source close to Spielberg says the director is busy with his next film, Tintin, and is not wringing his hands over Paramount’s decision. But another source associated with the project, asked about the process, said, “I think it’s called water-boarding.”

Feb 08, 2009
Posted by: Hitsville

Uni to D’works: “You behaved like pigs”

The hagiographic coverage of St. Steven Spielberg unravels today with the reporting of Nikki Finke,  who details how a scrabbling DreamWorks pushed Universal over the edge. Turns out the two studios had never signed the distribution deal that had been anounced; instead, DreamWorks, arguing from what seems to have been a position of weakness, tried to get Universal to cough up more and more money. In the meantime, it had parallel talks, in secret, with Disney. Finke:

I’ve also learned that, today, [DreamWorks capo Stacy] Snider phoned Universal Studios prez/COO Ron Meyer to apologize. “We had to do this. Our backs were against the wall. We couldn’t tell anyone about our discussions with Disney.” To which Meyer replied, “What you did was wrong on every level. You guys behaved like pigs.”

For once, Finke’s slightly unhinged writing style (SHOWBIZ SHOCKER! EXCLUSIVE DETAILS!) seems to be justified by events: DreamWorks was “financially desperate” to put together the other investment pieces with its new Indian partner, Reliance, and needs to “lay its hands on all the money it can and by any means possible.”

Note how this reporting contrasts with the Spielbergocentric coverage in the Times. In particular, you don’t generally read analyses like this:

Here’s the thinking that went into the offer. First, Spielberg gets the richest gross deals in Hollywood. “So rich that when he finally does a movie with you, you can’t make any money,” one insider complains. He was offering no collateral. And Universal conducted so-called “Monte Carlo’s”, an analysis of the probable scenario of the returns on a future slate of motion pictures. The studio decided that those DreamWorks projections under the current circumstances did not look very favorable.

It’s performance like that that drove DreamWorks the studio—minus most of Spielberg’s blockbuster work and minus the money-minting animation arm, spun off long ago—out of Paramount and overseas to India in the first place.

p.s.: The LAT, which has been way behind on this story, toes the Spielberg line as well:

The slight [i.e., the Disney talks] prompted Universal to swiftly break off talks with DreamWorks on Friday. The move underscores the pressure Hollywood studios are under to rein in costs, even to the point of passing up a deal with one of the industry’s most decorated filmmakers.

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Previously in Hitsville:

The merry adventures of St. Steven Spielberg
“Tropic Thunder”: A case study of PR-friendly journalism

St. Steven Spielberg

Return to “The Spielberg Zone”

Indiana Jones Agonistes
Scary Steven Spielberg!

Feb 07, 2009
Posted by: Hitsville

The merry adventures of St. Steven Spielberg

To read Michael Cieply in the NYT today, the madcap world of Steven Spielberg is percolating along copacetically:

Steven Spielberg seems headed to the Walt Disney Company after a surprise parting of the ways with Universal Pictures, with whom he signed a deal just four months ago. The director’s production company, DreamWorks SKG, was in advanced talks on Friday on a deal to distribute its movies through Disney. …

The deal would shore up Disney’s movie studio, which has been struggling lately, reporting a 64 percent decline in operating income in the most recent quarter. It would also give Mr. Spielberg a huge global marketing platform for his family-friendly work.

Surprises! Advanced talks! Shoring up Disney! A huge marketing platform!

It’s all very exciting.

However, if the news isn’t emanating from inside St. Steven’s pants, it could be interpreted somewhat differently. Like:

Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks became a Lost Dutchman studio yesterday after Universal not only rejected the filmmaker’s desperate plea for more money but canceled its distribution deal entirely.

DreamWorks, which wore out its welcome last year at Paramount, couldn’t find support elsewhere in Hollywood and was forced to look for less discriminating financial funding overseas. It thought it had sufficient cash from an Indian company eager to make inroads into Hollywood.

When that wasn’t enough, it then tried to alter the terms of the straight-ahead distribution deal it had with Universal, trying to get it to help fund its operations. But that just ended up alienating the company, which kicked Mr. Spielberg out the door—and did it publicly. Given the situations of the other major studios, that left DreamWorks little choice but to go to Disney.

But the ministudio’s problem is this: While the filmmaker’s name is synonymous with the megablockbuster, he has seldom delivered those blockbusters to DreamWorks itself, preferring to structure them as outside personal deals with other studios.

The strategy has made Mr. Spielberg a billionaire but it has also meant that DreamWorks—run by the man who is by far the most commercially successful filmmaker the world has ever seen—has paradoxically never been financially secure. How that reality, as well as DreamWork’s boutique tastes and the need to care and feed Mr. Spielberg, will fit in at the non-nonsense Disney remains to be seen.

___________

Previously in Hitsville:

“Tropic Thunder”: A case study of PR-friendly journalism
St. Steven Spielberg

Return to “The Spielberg Zone”

Indiana Jones Agonistes
Scary Steven Spielberg!

Aug 02, 2008
Posted by: Hitsville

“Tropic Thunder”: A case study in PR-friendly journalism

tropicThe New York Times dug even farther into Steven Spielberg’s pants today, with a feature by Michael Cieply about Tropic Thunder, a new Ben Stiller movie from DreamWorks. It’s a “parting gift” from DreamWorks to its owner Paramount, we’re told.

The feature, the lede story in the arts section, is a case study in how a mainstream piece of journalism can be working a not-so-subtle agenda for one side in a dispute. Consider this passage about the film’s prospects, right after the stuff about the “parting gift”:

The movie clearly has hit potential. Directed by Mr. Stiller, it has an ensemble cast also including Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey, Steve Coogan and Nick Nolte, not to mention Tom Cruise, in a raucous cameo as a vulgar studio chief.

But Paramount executives also face the delicate task of selling what may be the raunchiest comedy yet in a summer that has seen more than its share. […]

If they fall short, a production budget of about $90 million and tens of millions of dollars in marketing money are at risk. A soft performance would also compound the embarrassment of “The Love Guru,” the Mike Myers raunchfest that flopped when Paramount released it in June.

In other words, DreamWorks has handed Paramount a sure hit, which the studio may screw up, just as it did The Love Guru … and if it does… it’s an embarrassment for Paramount.

This seems crazily biased to me. Why does DreamWorks get credit for doing a Ben Stiller movie in the first place? Night at the Museum made nearly $600 million worldwide; isn’t Stiller doing DreamWorks, a failed studio, the favor? And if it’s a flop, wouldn’t that mean the thing wasn’t that much of a gift in the first place?

And since when is it such a delicate task to sell a raunchy movie? Ben Stiller has been the star of the most lucrative of all of them, after everything from There’s Something About Mary to the Meet the Parents movies.

Leaving aside the Spielbergophilia in the Paramount contretemps (see my previous entries on the subject here and here) this “it’s rauchy and risky!” meme is the more journalistically insidious.

I want to make clear, Cieply is a serious guy and the Times coverage of Hollywood is in the main serious as well. But by playing the angle up, Cieply is plainly furthering the PR plans of the studio for the film, as he has been during the whole Paramount/D’Works dustup.

It’s hard to read the story and not laugh:

[DreamWorks exec Stacey] Ms. Snider acknowledged the risks inherent in the film. It is the first from DreamWorks, she said, to use a so-called red band trailer, which attempts to limit access to online viewers 17 or older. (Visitors to tropicthunder.com can view it only after clicking on “Restricted” and entering name, ZIP code and birth date.)

Note how now Snider is agreeably “acknowledging the risks” of a movie that isn’t risky—as opposed to, say…

“… unpersuasively trying to promote the idea that it is unusual or risky to produce a raunchy Ben Stiller movie,”

or …

“… gamely trying to put the best face on the once-high-minded DreamWorks’ latest indignity, the release of a lowbrow Ben Stiller comedy in an attempt to give her, Spielberg and Geffen a bit more leverage as they try to extract themselves from their ill-advised sale of DreamWorks to Paramount.”

And further, we have the bit about the trailer, reported with complete credulity—a transparent ploy to make the R-rated movie seem naughty and appeal to kids (any of whom over the age of say, six, can easy type in a fake age to see the trailer).

The writer also makes it seem as if that’s the only place to see a trailer for the film, when of course there’s also the usual un-red-banded version on all the usual trailer sites. A more honest assessment of the strategy might be: “… and to play up the film’s raunchy appeal, the company is hosting an oh-so-naughty ‘red-banded’ trailer on its site, compete with an access restriction any eleven-year-old can navigate with alacrity.”

And to complete the PR bonanza for the company he even finds a little web site that is complaining about the use of the word “retard” in the film—another suspiciously synergistic bit of manufactured controversy for a marketing effort that apparently has the machines running full time.

___________

Previously in Hitsville:

St. Steven Spielberg
Return to “The Spielberg Zone”

Indiana Jones Agonistes
Scary Steven Spielberg!

Jul 27, 2008
Posted by: Hitsville

Star Blindness, Part II: Saint Steven Spielberg

The only person in the entertainment industry who gets better press than Mick Jagger is Steven Spielberg. For weeks we’ve been hearing about his big-money deal with an Indian company called Reliance, which is going to be giving Spielberg and David Geffen a half a billion dollars to make movies any day now.

The patsy, according to the stories, is Paramount, which has Mssrs. Spielberg and Geffen’s company, DreamWorks SKG, under its roof, having bought it for $1.6 billion three years ago. Spielberg and Geffen have been complaining ever since, and now they are leaving Paramount high and dry.

But like the stories about the Stones leaving EMI this weekend, it’s hard to see why Paramount is the only loser. It’s possible that it overpaid for DreamWorks. But after watching Spielberg operate DreamWorks for fifteen years or so, it’s plain that the other studios are now onto his game, and that’s why he turned to India.

But that’s not how the papers look at it.

The latest is a story in the NYT today, which asked the only-in-Hollywood question, “Why did Saint Steven have to go to India for money?”  The tone of the story is slightly incredulous:

That Mr. Spielberg and his business partner David Geffen had found an investor wasn’t surprising. Mr. Spielberg is a superstar. DreamWorks had made it clear for months — via public comments and private grousing fed into the Hollywood grapevine — that they hated being part of Paramount and were going elsewhere as soon as it was contractually allowed.

But there was still an element of shock: Hollywood could not come up with a rich enough deal for Mr. Spielberg, the most bankable director in the business and a “national treasure”? His last movie alone, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” has sold $743 million in tickets and is still playing in theaters around the world.

And actually, as you can tell from the emphasized passage, the story was extremely incredulous.

The pair had to sell DreamWorks because it wasn’t a successful operation. So they did what smart business people would do. Their animation arm, led by Jeffrey Katzenberg, was successful; they spun that off as a public company and cashed in there.

The slightly mangy beast that was left didn’t have too much appeal in the industry.But wait—what about those big ol’ blockbuster films by Mr. National Treasure, the superstar?

A lot of them were either done for other studios, or were done as co-productions with other studios. DreamWorks didn’t see any of that Lost World or Indiana Jones money, and only part of the take from Saving Private Ryan and War of the Worlds.

Spielberg reportedly wanted to take the company to his second home, Universal, but Universal offered only $1.2 billion.

Paramount eventually bought the company for $1.6 billion. Note the word “bought,” which doesn’t turn up in much of the reporting on Spielberg. He sold his company.

Now he’s unhappy about it. So he’s leaving DreamWorks behind and looking for new deep pockets. He couldn’t get the money he wanted from anyone else in Hollywood not because, as the Times has it, the companies can’t afford him—he’s an extraordinarily prolific filmmaker. Studios “afford” him an average of once a year. It’s because he’s not worth the money he wanted to do boutique stuff while he did the blockbuster projects elsewhere. But he, like Jagger, has cachet to sell, which is a lot more valuable to a company from India with designs on Hollywood.

Paramount isn’t unculpable, of course: It probably paid too much for Spielberg and his cachet. (The company doesn’t even owe the big latest Indiana Jones movie to Spielberg; Paramount had released the previous ones.) What’s not surprising now is that no other Hollywood studio wants to buy what Spielberg is selling. Why don’t the papers say that?

___________

Previously in Hitsville:

Return to “The Spielberg Zone”
Indiana Jones Agonistes
Scary Steven Spielberg!