ANALYSIS: Even though the Robert Wise original musical West Side Story is about as sacred a cow movie as you are going to find, Fox has unlocked that movie title for a remake specifically because Steven Spielberg is interested in making it. No writer has been set yet and Spielberg hasn’t done anything more than register his interest, which traditionally has always been enough to get a studio hot and bothered. Between this project and the Fox/DreamWorks team-up Robopocalypse, the Daniel H. Wilson sci-fi novel that has a Drew Goddard script and which Spielberg has said he will direct even though he stepped away to make Lincoln, it would be easy to see Spielberg directing movies at Fox for the next several years if in fact Stacey Snider makes a move to that studio after her contract expires at year’s end.
That’s just part of why the town sees Snider’s move over there as such an easy transition. It is an easier fit than when Jeff Robinov eyed Fox at a landing place but he did not want to report to Jim Gianopulos, who likes calling the shots after sharing power so long with Tom Rothman. Snider is apparently willing to do that and she has a lot of experience to offer managing a studio pipeline, skills that are rusting with DreamWorks’ comparatively small output.
Robinov is now well on his way to finding his money to start a company that will allow him to take big swings at Sony, and I’ve heard that there’s a good chance the bulk of that investment will come from Len Blavatnik, the Ukraine-born billionaire whose worth has been pegged at north of $17 billion. What better way for a man with that kind of money to jump into the perilous Hollywood movie business than with Gravity and Argo architect Robinov and the distribution and marketing might of Sony Pictures?
After a strong run when DreamWorks was sold to Paramount, a nasty divorce that left behind plum properties like the Transformer series, a near move to Snider’s past home Universal, and the Reliance financing/Disney arrangement which has been stepped down and has hobbled the company, I can easily imagine this finally calling a halt to the great DreamWorks experiment. The one that started with Jeffrey Katzenberg being denied the crown at the Mouse House by Disney’s Michael Eisner, and then joined into building what was to become the next great major studio by his pals Spielberg and David Geffen. I look at the recent crop of DreamWorks films, from the upcoming Need For Speed, the good but disappointing at the box office flop The Fifth Estate and the solid hit The Help, and DreamWorks just seems like an ordinary production company to me. That certainly didn’t have to be the case if the supremely ambitious principals hadn’t made all those deals that disrupted the company and instead stayed a solid course from the beginning and kept building a company on a consistent track.
As I was watching Patrick Wachsberger and Rob Friedman accept the Publicist Guild’s Showmanship Award last Friday for building Summit, I found myself thinking about their accomplishment in contrast to Snider, Spielberg and DreamWorks as the specter of her Fox move and the West Side Story resuscitation first came up. If you had lined up Wachsberger and Friedman against DreamWorks braintrust even when Katzenberg peeled off DreamWorks Animation and Snider left Universal to partner with Spielberg, and said who was more likely to build the next major studio, you’d have put your money big on Snider and Spielberg. And yet it was Wachsberger and Friedman — with the help of a lucky break of Paramount dropping the Stephenie Meyer book series Twilight Saga – who managed to leverage their success into a marriage with Lionsgate to create the closest thing we’ve seen to a new major studio (how long do we keep calling them independent when they outshine major studios every year?), while DreamWorks is flagging and seems to be out of gas as it generates good but hardly game-changing product.
I would argue that in the case of DreamWorks, the principals were already made men who would not have had far to fall no matter what happened even if Katzenberg had to sue Disney to come up with his share of the initial investment. All of them are hall-of-fame-caliber talents, but instead of building a back lot that would have demonstrated they meant business, DreamWorks never had a physical space. Spielberg’s mailing address never changed from the Amblin offices on the Universal lot. I look at Summit, which married into Lionsgate’s Hunger Games franchise and now reports the same kind of pre-release fervor for the new franchise Divergent as it experienced with Twilight Saga. That is the bedrock of a wannabe studio, those franchises that can turn in big global grosses. That seems how you build a studio, even if you don’t break ground on a back lot.
DreamWorks had the biggest of those, when Spielberg personally shaped the humanity of the first Transformers installment and hand picked Michael Bay to direct it. The fourth one is on the way, aiming to surpass the last one’s billion dollar worldwide gross. Only they left it at Paramount in a divorce that reportedly had much to do with Paramount offending the DreamWorks principals by taking too much credit for a string of successes. Really?
Then there was the expected move back to Universal, where Spielberg had so many successes and Snider presided over the studio. That changed at the last moment for the radical move to India-based Reliance with a Disney output deal. Might a Universal deal have cut DreamWorks in as partner on Jurassic World, the film that will anchor what will be a huge summer for Universal in 2015 and probably inch up toward the billion dollar gross stratosphere if it’s any good? Who knows? It ended in scorched earth feelings between Snider and Universal’s get along with everyone head Ron Meyer, and with DreamWorks having to go hat in hand to India when it was time for new investment, to see if that company was still in. DreamWorks also hasn’t been helped in this factor: the company’s great strength is Spielberg, but as a filmmaker, he follows his heart when he makes choices to direct films. If Spielberg was mercenary, Robopocalypse would have gotten done already and fattened the coffers of Reliance and made those India partners happy. But he stuck a pin in that film because he wanted it to be better quality, and he has stepped in and out of numerous movies. And while the most commercially successful director in history this side of James Cameron, Spielberg is just as likely to do a personal movie as something tent pole. Spielberg’s still personally being paid a fortune for that Jurassic World sequel, and there was that earlier flirtation that Snider might move back to Universal when she was briefly courted by the Comcast higher-ups. It just felt that it was all about them, the principals, and not the company they are supposed to be building into a dynasty.
To me the big difference between Wachsberger, Friedman and Snider, Spielberg etc, is maybe the latter were too smart, too prone to make the hot deal rather than stay the course, and who never felt the desperation that I’m sure drove Wachsberger and Friedman and their Summit teams when failure was possible. Maybe all the DreamWorks guys got personally richer, but Wachsberger and Friedman were hungrier and you can see the difference.
From what I hear, the Fox move is more when that if. Katzenberg has a foothold and the ear of higher-ups since moving his DreamWorks Animation distribution deal to there from Paramount, whose execs felt that the 8% distribution fee revenue required just too much high maintenance work. Everybody now wonders what will happen to DreamWorks, but it seems easy enough, like in the Paramount divorce, those projects could be assimilated at Fox, or to come under Spielberg’s wing at Amblin. It will be business as usual, but certainly an anticlimactic ending to what was envisioned as something historical. Reliance will be fine as well, but it is a useful lesson to learn that even when you are invited to bankroll a company led by a Hollywood’s king director like Spielberg, there is no such thing as a sure thing in this business unless the principals risk so much that they are supremely driven to succeed.