Los Angeles: Late last month, DreamWorks, the boutique movie studio that Steven Spielberg co-founded in 1994, let it be known that it had found a way to exit its unhappy three-year marriage with Paramount Pictures. Reliance Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group (R-Adag), the Mumbai-based conglomerate, was nearing a deal to give the dream workers $550 million (Rs2,321 crore) to form a new movie company.
That Spielberg and his business partner David Geffen had found an investor wasn't surprising. Spielberg is a superstar. DreamWorks had made it clear for months—via public comments and private grousing fed into the Hollywood grapevine—that they hated being part of Paramount and were going elsewhere as soon as it was contractually allowed.
A-lister: A file photo of Steven Spielberg at the White House in Washington, DC for a Kennedy Center Honors reception. (Photograph by Chris Greenberg / Bloomberg)
But there was still an element of shock: Hollywood could not come up with a rich enough deal for Spielberg, the most bankable director in the business and a “national treasure”? His last movie, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, alone has sold $743 million in tickets and is still playing in theatres around the world.
For that matter, there wasn't anybody on Wall Street willing to write a blank cheque for the guy with Jaws and Jurassic Park on his resume?
The pending deal with Reliance underscores some realities about Spielberg—mainly that he has become so expensive that few public companies can afford him. Spielberg's standard deal, at par with other blue-chip talent, is 20% of a movie's gross from the first ticket sold, although he agreed to a somewhat less aggressive paycheque on the latest Indiana Jones instalment to offset its high budget.
And there's another whisper coming from Hollywood's highest echelons. It's a sensitive topic—and one that Spielberg's associates find hugely insulting—but one that bears consideration: how long before the A-list director, at 61, is a little, well, Jurassic?
Such talk is rooted in sour-grapes justifications for losing Spielberg to Reliance, his allies say, noting his huge list of projects on the horizon. Among them are potential blockbusters such as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, which he will produce. He's also pursuing more cerebral projects like an Abraham Lincoln film with a script written by the Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner.
Even so, Spielberg's representatives had been talking with potential backers for months, said three people involved who requested anonymity for fear of angering the powerful director. The Spielbergians had casual chats with companies including Sony and News Corp. Hollywood-friendly banks such as JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs were also in the mix. Hollywood's seeming inability to close a deal with Spielberg highlights the shift towards a more corporate, buttoned-down movie business. Just a few years ago, bragging rights often drove business decisions. Steven Spielberg is available? Back up the money truck. We want that jewel in our crown no matter what the cost. And studio bosses could justify such ego-driven loss leaders: in the entertainment business, talent draws talent.
Associates of Spielberg say they have not seriously entertained any Hollywood overtures, something corroborated by Ron Meyer, the president of NBC Universal, Inc. “We have not been given the opening to be in business with DreamWorks,” said Meyer, adding that the studio would jump at the chance given “the opportunity and the right deal.”
But now that the big studios are all firmly embedded in big corporations, profit margins are the obsession. Add in skyrocketing star salaries and ballooning marketing costs, which have hammered margins, and pop go the sweetheart deals. “Big names don't carry the same weight they used to,” said Harold L. Vogel, an independent media analyst.
DVDs also have a starring role in the reluctance to take on risk. After years of blistering growth, domestic DVD sales fell 3.2% last year to $15.9 billion, according to Adams Media Research, the first annual drop in the medium's history. While DVDs are still a big business, any decline is cause for great concern, because DVD sales can account for as much as 70% of revenue for a new film.
When DVDs were soaring, studios had an incentive to own projects outright. Recently, they've been going the other way, trying to share ownership to protect themselves. Indeed, the DVD situation combined with other business challenges —the arrival of widespread Internet streaming being one of the thorniest—has studios so panicked that all their executives chatter about these days is mitigating risk. Hardly a time to double down on a fat deal with Spielberg.
Studios are also increasingly focused on out-of-the-park franchise films that sell overseas. The DreamWorks slate is a little patchy—namely because Spielberg and Stacey Snider, the company's chief executive, believe in delivering a mix of prestige films and blockbusters. Along with Norbit, the sophomoric Eddie Murphy smash that sold $159 million in tickets, come films like Things We Lost in the Fire, a drama starring the Oscar-winner Halle Berry that sold about $8.4 million in tickets.
Chip Sullivan, a corporate spokesman for DreamWorks, declined to comment. He said Snider was on vacation and unavailable. Spielberg, via a spokesman, declined to comment. Bruce Ramer, the director's longtime lawyer (Spielberg named the mechanical shark in Jaws after him), also declined to comment.
As for Wall Street, the firm belief in Hollywood is that the arrival of Reliance marks the end of the private equity and hedge fund boom that has propped up the industry. With the capital markets in turmoil, terms have tightened substantially for movie deals. Investors are demanding faster payback schedules, better guarantees and even a say in how movies are made and marketed.
None of that is acceptable to the DreamWorks team. Spielberg, who has directed more than 50 films, also wants to control his own destiny; at this point in his career, say friends, his accomplishments have earned him the right to have 100% control over his movies. Autonomy and ownership are paramount, and, at the moment, overseas investors are the most likely to allow Spielberg to write his own ticket, say studio executives.
In some ways, Reliance marks a return to the past. Studios have over the last decade tapped American investors— DreamWorks began with backing from Paul Allen, a founder of Microsoft—but foreign investors, notably Germans, were a big source before that.
The deal with Reliance is not done. People involved in the talks, which are private, say that work is progressing but that no deal is likely to be signed for several weeks. In addition to the $550 million in equity—which may inch higher during negotiations—DreamWorks is seeking access to a $400 million line of debt financing.
And Hollywood will still have a chance to nab a piece of the storied director. After negotiations with Anil Ambani’s Reliance wrap up—if they wrap up—Geffen and Spielberg will start looking for a distribution deal with one of the big studios, most likely Universal Pictures or 20th Century Fox.
Will Geffen and Spielberg see a bidding war? Probably, but it depends on what kind of terms they want.
©2008/the New York Times