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Fall Sneaks

First the Launch, Then the Mortar

September 07, 1997|Bruce Newman

When Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen announced the creation of their own studio three years ago, it seemed to be the perfect combination of A-list talent and type-A personalities to pull off what was to have been the first full-fledged Hollywood start-up in almost 60 years. Even the name--DreamWorks SKG--seemed steeped in the myth of Hollywood's venerable magic factories.

So when DreamWorks releases its first movie and finally shows its face in the very public way that makes a studio a studio later this month with "The Peacemaker," will it actually be a studio? "Certainly not by the criteria we set for ourselves," says Katzenberg. "So, no."

And if DreamWorks, whose television and music divisions have already produced their first offspring, was never intended to be a business-as-usual enterprise, what is it about this first release that will bear the new studio's unmistakable signature? Well, nothing.

"I just want to be clear," says Katzenberg. "It's not like we had a choice of 20 things and picked this because it's some statement or something. It went the way movie development typically does. First one in, first one out."

The other thing that makes a studio a studio, the thing that was to have distinguished DreamWorks from such recent distribution start-ups as TriStar and Miramax, was its state-of-the-art studio lot at Playa Vista. But three years of environmental impact statements later, Playa Vista remains a DreamWorks deferred.

"To become the studio that we set out to be, to realize the dream that we set out to accomplish, a physical plant is not of the essence to it," Katzenberg says. "Emotionally it is. But we don't have to have it to do the job, and that's clear by the results that are being achieved right now. Bricks and mortar can come later."

Right now, the DreamWorks empire is divided, gallingly, into many parts--11 of them--but that number will dwindle to three when the company opens its new animation studio in Glendale at the end of the year. "That will relieve an enormous amount of pressure," Katzenberg says. "We're only going to build a studio when we can do it in the right place, in the right way, and with the right economics. If it takes three more years to do it, five more years, we'll be OK. There is no time pressure, no clock ticking."

Until the studio extricates itself from its real estate quagmire, DreamWorks will remain headquartered in the Amblin Entertainment bungalows on the Universal lot, an occupying force of J. Crew-clad insurrectionists quietly building tunnels that will take another two years to reach the outside walls. "These first couple of years are the hardest because it really is about laying the foundation, the foundation for a home," Katzenberg says. "It is not the sexy part. You don't really get to see the realization of the dream."

Diverting the flow from Amblin's gold-plated pipeline has helped. "In some ways it's not a clean break from one thing and a new start-up of something else," says Walter Parkes, co-head of DreamWorks Pictures with his wife, Laurie MacDonald. "Amblin sort of became the feature film division of DreamWorks."

Amblin scored the summer's two biggest box office hits with "Men in Black," produced by Parkes and MacDonald for Columbia, and "Lost World," which Spielberg directed for Universal. If there are sequels to those movies involving Spielberg, Parkes, or MacDonald, DreamWorks will not make a dime from them.

DreamWorks hopes to remain light enough on its feet to make only the movies it really wants to make--between seven and nine a year. "Unlike a lot of studios, we are not driven by distribution," Parkes says. "We have the luxury of not making the sorts of decisions that sometimes trip up studios, which is, 'We need a summer picture. We need a genre movie to fill a slot in the distribution schedule."'

"I think the idea behind that is right, which is you lose a lot of money making bad movies just to fill a pipeline," says Tom Pollock, former vice chairman of MCA Inc (now Universal Studios) and now chairman of the American Film Institute. "Other studios are large worldwide distribution conglomerates, with lots of other ancillary outlets, that feel a need to fill their pipeline. I'm not saying that everybody else is wrong and DreamWorks is right. I believe that their strategy will work so long as they make good movies."

That's the trick, of course. It's also the reason DreamWorks has little incentive to compete with the behemoths. "The counterbalance to the temptation to get sucked in is to ask yourself how many movies you liked over the past year," Parkes says.

"If you could have picked a slate of films in hindsight," adds MacDonald, "if you'd had that advantage, which movies would you have made?"

The five that DreamWorks did come up with to see the studio through its first year after "The Peacemaker" are Spielberg's slave ship drama "Amistad" and the antic "Mouse Hunt," due in December; "Paulie," a modern-day fable, and Spielberg's epic World War II adventure "Saving Private Ryan" next spring; and Neil Jordan's "Blue Vision" coming in the fall of '98. If you remove Spielberg from the mix, the only DreamWorks release on its first slate that doesn't come from a first-time director is Jordan's. To balance that, the studio has set up housekeeping deals with such first-rank directors as Robert Zemeckis and Cameron Crowe.

Now all DreamWorks has to do is come up with the house.

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