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DreamWorks' Movie Pipeline Slows to Trickle

New production chief Michael De Luca's mission to boost output is hampered by the studio's conflicting impulses.

June 09, 2003|Claudia Eller and Michael Cieply Times Staff Writers | Times Staff Writers

DreamWorks SKG set Hollywood abuzz in June 2001 with its surprise hire of Michael De Luca, a brash baby mogul who had made New Line Cinema a hot stop for cutting-edge fare such as "Austin Powers" and "Boogie Nights" during his 16-year run there.

De Luca's mission as the company's new head of production: to help boost output to a dozen pictures a year, finally putting DreamWorks within reach of the major studios.

Two years later, De Luca is still in place, still wrapped in his trademark black T-shirt. But the DreamWorks pipeline, instead of gushing, has slowed to a trickle. Meanwhile, Hollywood's favorite executive wunderkind, who is 37, appears still to be learning the peculiar dynamics of the house that Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg built.

Neither De Luca nor other DreamWorks executives would comment for this story. In more than two dozen interviews, however, executives, producers, agents and others with close knowledge of the company say the current slowdown owes much to conflicting impulses at the heart of DreamWorks' identity as a studio wrapped around a filmmaker-owned production company -- and a sometimes uneasy mesh among the people who run it.

"DreamWorks is a very unconventional studio run by filmmakers who have strong creative opinions," producer Tom Pollock said. His production boutique, Montecito Picture Co., co-owned with director Ivan Reitman, has the rare distinction of having made three films in four years for DreamWorks, with another one shooting now.

Other producers affiliated with the studio have found it much slower going. In all, DreamWorks is expected to release just seven films this year, including the animated "Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas," set to debut July 2. Recently, the company scheduled "Envy," a Barry Levinson-directed comedy, for release in mid-August. Woody Allen's "Anything Else" follows in September and then "House of Sand and Fog," an Oscar bet that stars Ben Kingsley.

The company's biggest payoff is likely to come from its stake in films it won't distribute domestically -- this summer's "Seabiscuit," which it shares with Spyglass Entertainment and Universal Pictures; "The Cat in the Hat," a Mike Myers Christmas picture that it splits with Universal and Imagine Entertainment; and "Paycheck," a John Woo-directed science fiction thriller to be co-financed and released by Paramount Pictures.

Missing so far is that De Luca sizzle. Although the executive had a decent hit this year with Montecito's low-budget comedy "Old School," he did less well with the Chris Rock comedy "Head of State" and the action-heavy "Biker Boyz."

But more than finding hits, De Luca's toughest job as production chief is how to coexist with the radically different style of his immediate boss, Walter Parkes.

The company's live-action movie operation has been largely shaped by DreamWorks Pictures co-head Parkes, a former screenwriter who, with his wife and co-chief Laurie MacDonald, once ran Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment. Parkes remains closely aligned with the superstar director and his preference for high-end projects such as last year's "Minority Report" and "Road to Perdition." With Katzenberg focused on animation, his preferred domain, Parkes' intense, hands-on approach has become DreamWorks' signature style.

Meanwhile, De Luca, known as a street-smart operator adept at "working the town," was brought on board by the like-minded Katzenberg. He was supposed to break a stop-and-start rhythm that grew from Parkes' habit of focusing closely on a small cluster of movies one year, while finding little time to prepare a slate of films for the following year. De Luca was also meant to bring DreamWorks a new openness and with it some younger, hotter, more freewheeling pictures.

The two approaches may yet find their balance. Company executives are scrambling to assemble as many as 10 films for release next year, including a full complement from De Luca, along with pictures as promising as "Collateral," in which Michael Mann will direct Tom Cruise, and the computer-animated sequel "Shrek 2."

An expanded movie slate would be helpful as the studio heads toward 2006, when its biggest investor, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, can begin cashing out his stake. Forbes magazine recently reported that Allen would be entitled to the first $670 million in distributions, plus nearly a quarter of any payouts in excess of $1 billion.

But success may depend on coming to terms with some tendencies deeply embedded in DreamWorks' corporate DNA.

"They have the burden of a studio but the mentality of a production company," one executive with close knowledge of the operation said of its preference for auteurism over volume.

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