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DreamWorks is ready to bolt

THE BIG PICTURE / PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

May 06, 2008|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

And THEY'RE . . . off!

After winning the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, Big Brown has a chance to be the first horse to win the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978. But in Hollywood, all eyes are trained on a different kind of thoroughbred. May 1 marked the beginning of a window allowing DreamWorks' top executives to shop themselves around, looking for a new studio deal after a troubled 2 1/2 -year-old marriage to Viacom's Paramount Pictures.

DreamWorks co-founder David Geffen has been on his yacht in Tahiti since late March, but even from that distant tropical isle, his intentions have been made loud and clear -- DreamWorks' top creative team is planning to leave the Paramount lot, a departure spurred by an endless loop of animosity between Geffen and Viacom chief Sumner Redstone and Paramount chief Brad Grey. According to an existing series of contractual outs, Geffen can announce his departure in August, creating an opening for co-founder Steven Spielberg to depart in October, triggering a key-man clause allowing DreamWorks chief executive Stacey Snider to leave as well.

Geffen isn't talking to the press. But he made his feelings clear last December in an interview with Vanity Fair. "These people are a nightmare," he said of the Paramount top brass, adding, "I chose to sell this company to Paramount. It turned out to be a poor choice." DreamWorks loyalists say that Geffen is at work on a whopper, not just out of loyalty to Spielberg but because the new deal will be his last in show business. He's been telling friends that he's through with the movie business. With all the money in the world, he wants to pursue other interests. It is likely that Snider, an indefatigable, highly regarded executive who has become a Spielberg confidant, will become a DreamWorks partner in the new arrangement.

That still leaves a couple of tantalizing questions: Where exactly is DreamWorks going? And what form would a new DreamWorks studio take? Although DreamWorks would leave behind its development slate of upcoming films, it would continue to own the name DreamWorks, a key point in Paramount's $1.6-billion acquisition of the studio in late 2005.

It has become apparent that Geffen is not looking at a studio financing deal, where a DreamWorks slate of six to eight films a year would be bankrolled by one of the Big Seven studios. Some say DreamWorks has already raised its own money for a production slate. Others say a different economic model is in the works that would give DreamWorks even more autonomy.

One form of autonomy is ownership. There is considerable speculation that DreamWorks could buy its own distribution system by taking over a studio. Many insiders believe Spielberg has always dreamed of owning Universal, the studio lot where he began his career and has, to this day, kept his offices and parking space. (It's also the studio where he gets a percentage of the gate from every theme park outside of Universal City.) But it seems unlikely that General Electric, which owns Universal Pictures and NBC, would sell off one without the other and even harder to imagine that Spielberg and Co. would want the headache of owning a network at a time when advertising and ratings are down.

Another scenario would involve DreamWorks funding its own films and using the existing distribution apparatus of a major studio. DreamWorks would have total creative control over its films, while a studio would pocket a distribution fee from each film and benefit from the market share, Spielberg aura and classy product DreamWorks brings to the table, in much the same way that 20th Century Fox handled the release of George Lucas' final trilogy of "Star Wars" films.

In an era when virtually every studio is bankrolling a big chunk of its slate with outside financing, it would be hard to image a better supplier of films than DreamWorks, which in recent years has been one of the few production entities to successfully combine big-scale commercial projects with classy higher-end fare. Geffen has always had great timing with his deal-making, going back to the days when he sold Geffen Records at the peak of the music industry's profit-making era. After a successful 2007 led by the global hit "Transformers" and with Spielberg poised to release the much-anticipated "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," DreamWorks has the look of a blue-chip filmmaking machine.

That said, with the movie industry overstuffed with product, it may be difficult to find a good studio fit for a DreamWorks distribution deal. Here's a look at the possible landing pads for DreamWorks, with the pros and cons of each pit stop:

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Universal

Pros: No studio has the same emotional tug as Spielberg's ancestral home. Studio boss Ron Meyer would love to have DreamWorks back in the fold, while Spielberg and Snider (a former chairman at the studio) have an easy familiarity with Uni's marketing and distribution machinery.

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