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The Power Players: DreamWorks' Stacey Snider on a successful fledgling year

DreamWorks Chief Executive Stacey Snider talks about the studio's first year after the Paramount breakup and its changes for "The Help" and "War Horse" this award season.

January 03, 2012|By Ben Fritz, Los Angeles Times
  • 'WAR HORSE': DreamWorks' new chief executive extols the film's "jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring craftsmanship." CEO Stacey Snider, far right, with "The Help's" Octavia Spencer.
'WAR HORSE': DreamWorks' new chief executive extols… (Andrew Cooper / DreamWorks…)

If comebacks were measured in award heat, DreamWorks Studios would be the champion of 2011.

In its first year of operation following a messy 2008 divorce from Paramount Pictures, DreamWorks released just five movies but from those landed two Golden Globe nominations for best picture and seven nods overall.

"The Help" collected five of those and also got four Screen Actors Guild nominations, including its best picture equivalent, the ensemble cast nod, and is widely considered a shoo-in for multiple Oscar nominations — for picture, lead actress Viola Davis and supporting actress Octavia Spencer. The benefit to DreamWorks from that attention will be mostly prestige, as "The Help" is already the studio's biggest — and sole — box office hit and is selling well on DVD.

The Steven Spielberg-directed "War Horse," meanwhile, will likely benefit significantly from any additional nominations it can nab this season as the picture tries to turn its $14.5 million two-day opening (Dec. 25-26) into a long and successful box office run.

DreamWorks Chief Executive Stacey Snider, who teamed up with Spielberg in 2006 and stuck with the studio after it raised its own capital to launch independently, talked to The Envelope about her strategy and hopes this award season.

You've got to feel like you have some momentum on your side after the SAG and Golden Globe nominations.

I try not to get caught up in momentum because I feel like voters vote for what they want to vote for. I've seen so many wonderful surprises over the years that I genuinely ignore momentum. What I know is that we feel great. For a company just starting up again that made only five movies this year, to have two in contention is very rewarding.

"The Help" finished its box office run to much acclaim and success before award season started, while "War Horse" is opening well into the season. So you must be taking very different approaches to awards for each.

The basic strategies have some similarities in that we are letting the audience see the movies as much as possible. With "War Horse," we had a word-of-mouth screening program just as robust as the one we had for "The Help." We've had close to 300 screenings since early November on military bases and with religious groups and consumer groups.

The difference is that "War Horse" is benefiting from some awards recognition simultaneous to that strategy.

At this point, do you have to make any more effort to get "The Help" seen besides sending out screeners?

I think it's at saturation. "The Help" screened over 300 times this summer and had a very long and healthy run at the worldwide box office.

The thing about the screeners was, anecdotally, I was not sure if people would watch it again. But I got a ton of calls from people saying that over the Thanksgiving holiday and beyond it was a choice to watch again because it's something you can watch with everybody.

Obviously, you're hoping for best picture Oscar nominations for both movies. Beyond that, it seems your strength is with "The Help" in acting categories. Where else do you think your movies can compete?

You're correct that with "The Help" we're hopeful the ensemble and the individual women are called out. We're optimistic about that.

What is compelling with "War Horse" is the jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring craftsmanship in this movie. For the guilds to see work of this caliber represented has been, anecdotally, incredibly inspiring, whether it's [cinematographer Janusz] Kaminski, [editor Michael] Kahn, [composer John] Williams or [production designer Rick] Carter.

There are shots so beautiful I've had people threaten to put me on a lie detection test because they say we must have cheated or tweaked the sky.

What about the directing or writing categories?

Steven's accomplishment is grand master directing. He makes you feel like you've traveled back in time to that world. When you see what he created with World War I, I think people sometimes take for granted that he can be that skillful.

I also think ["The Help" writer and director] Tate [Taylor]'s screenplay is very accomplished. Kathryn Stockett's novel took place over three years with alternating character chapters. Minnie didn't work for Hillie, and there was no resolution to the Charlotte character. He really wrote a wonderful adaptation and was the main reason we felt confident moving forward. If there was ever hesitation, we read the script and said clearly this man understands this material on a deep level.

Do nominations make a big difference to "War Horse" commercially? You're not "The Artist," where they're key, but you're also not "Mission: Impossible," where they are irrelevant.

You're right in terms of its size and our expectation, it's not one of the three blockbuster holiday season sequels. I'd put it in that middle ground, like "The Aviator" or "Gangs [of New York]" or "Benjamin Button."

What matters to us is the 10 weeks between now and the Academy Awards. It's our hope and desire to accumulate critical notices and awards notices that can propel "War Horse" to success.

ben.fritz@latimes.com

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