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COMPANY TOWN | THE BIZ / CLAUDIA ELLER

Ready to Roll 'Em : DreamWorks Lines Up Slate of Films

June 28, 1996|CLAUDIA ELLER

After the initial rash of mega-hype surrounding DreamWorks' launch nearly two years ago, Hollywood wondered whether the company would deliver the creative goods it boasted so loudly that it would.

The answer is now emerging as the closely watched studio venture formed in October 1994 by Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg has put its first slate of movies together. Despite the long pause before DreamWorks put its first film into production last month, Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald--the husband-and-wife duo running the studio's movie division--have been quietly assembling an eclectic group of projects to be produced over the next 18 months.

In effect, the pair is carrying on the tradition of movies made by Spielberg's company Amblin Entertainment, which it headed for six months before the formation of DreamWorks.

Parkes and MacDonald said DreamWorks is basically interested in making two types of film: the higher-end "big idea" movie, not unlike Amblin's current hit "Twister," and the smaller-scale, perhaps more controversial or edgy movie that often involves new talent behind and in front of the camera.

"Where I don't think we'll be that active is making just the genre comedy or the genre action picture," said Parkes, to which MacDonald added: "There are a lot of movies made where you know the upside, creatively or economically, is not tremendous, and you're just hoping it does OK. We're not in the business of doing that."

As is the case at Amblin, DreamWorks will not be making violent or exploitative movies, nor is it likely to deal with NC-17-rated material.

Parkes said because DreamWorks is a company where production will drive distribution rather than the reverse--which is true of the major studios--"we won't be in a position to green-light movies just to fill slots."

Last month, DreamWorks began production on its first non-animated movie, "The Peacemaker," a suspense thriller set in Russia starring George Clooney and Nicole Kidman. DreamWorks' debut release will be in theaters in the fall of '97.

Industry insiders and DreamWorks' rivals have been curious about how committed Spielberg will be, as a director, to his own company since he's free to make movies anywhere he chooses.

According to Spielberg, very committed.

"I'd prefer to direct inside my own company," he said in a phone interview from East Hampton, N.Y. "But my first choice is the material. I'm committed to directing where I can find the best scripts and novels. The play's the thing."

Spielberg, who is contractually committed to DreamWorks for the next 10 years, said, "I give my best efforts to get co-productions going" if material happens to be at another studio.

Such is the case with a project called "Saving Private Ryan," a Paramount movie to star Tom Hanks that DreamWorks is negotiating to co-produce.

There are at least three other projects (plus a "secret one") that Spielberg has earmarked to direct for DreamWorks after completing "Jurassic II" this fall for Amblin/Universal.

DreamWorks' business plan is to produce two live-action movies this year, four in 1997 and a maximum of seven to nine by 1998. In addition, there will be one animated feature every year or every other year, on which Parkes and MacDonald will oversee the initial development and Katzenberg and which his team will see through to completion.

The company's average production cost will be about $38 million, a bit more than the industry average of $36.4 million for a studio movie. DreamWorks, backed by MCA, billionaire Paul Allen, One World Media and smaller investors, finances its own production, marketing and movie distribution.

While DreamWorks won't be producing a slate the size of other major studios, its movie division is an integral part of the business plan, which also calls for television production, music and interactive media.

"The motion picture division is the most important part of the company for me," Spielberg said, "because it's what I know and do best. It's my primary focus."

It is also the most cost-intensive, he noted.

"The commitment to development and production is the biggest cost drain to any motion picture studio," he said.

Spielberg, whose Amblin movies have always been bankrolled by studio money, admitted he was a bit shocked the first time DreamWorks plunked down $1 million for a book and $750,000 for a script.

Spielberg works closely with Parkes and MacDonald in picking the movies, and he said he feels lucky to have filmmakers running the division.

With their good looks and statuesque figures making them appear more like fashion models than studio executives, Parkes, 45, and MacDonald, 42, have spent the last year in transition, fulfilling Amblin commitments while building DreamWorks' first slate of pictures.

Because of their background as filmmakers, Parkes and MacDonald serve in various producer capacities on the Amblin projects (including executive producers on "Twister") and will produce some of the DreamWorks films.

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