Spielberg works on $1 billion dream

Studios vie for distrib rights as D'Works seeks a deal enabling it to own its films

Steven Spielberg aims to raise more than $1 billion in third-party financing to reinvent DreamWorks as a separate company that once again owns the movies it makes.

As for distribution, Spielberg wants to bolt his roost at Paramount for Universal, which wants to land Spielberg and DreamWorks after losing out to Paramount in that quest a couple years ago. But on recommendation from his advisers, Spielberg has allowed a bidding war to begin among studios for the rights to distribute future DreamWorks movies.

The chief suitors other than Paramount: Universal, Disney and Fox.

Warner Bros. has sat out the competition so far despite previous expectations that the studio would seek a relationship with DreamWorks if Spielberg and company were to leave Paramount. Industry betting runs heavily against Spielberg's staying put at Paramount, with the related question of where he and the DreamWorks film label land considered a simple matter of who will offer sufficiently attractive terms to attract Spielberg, chief Stacey Snider and their brand.

"Stacey is the next generation, and Steven is very committed to her," said one participant in DreamWorks strategy meetings.

Spielberg's contract runs until 2010, but he can terminate it early at year's end. Snider and DreamWorks chairman David Geffen have similar escape clauses in their deals with Par, while about 100 other DreamWorks employees theoretically would be unaffected by departures among the top execs.

Yet Spielberg will wield considerable leverage in any exit negotiations with Par and could insist on taking additional execs with him as he reconstructs DreamWorks elsewhere. Although Par owns "Transformers" and other films produced by DreamWorks while at the studio, Spielberg's rights regarding involvement on sequels could trigger negotiations over which films he brings with him and which would remain under Par's control.

A window in Spielberg's personal contract with Par opened May 1, allowing him to discuss potential offers for his services from rival studios. Since then, Spielberg or such advisers as Geffen and attorney Skip Brittenham have held several meetings with prospective studio suitors and financiers.

Still, there is the argument — offered a few months back by Par execs amid early handicapping of Spielberg's future — that early ill-will between DreamWorks brass and their Par overlords has been smoothed over. Par boosted DreamWorks' production funding and even credit on DreamWorks/ Par releases during the course of the former's residency on the lot.

But barring a complete revision of his current arrangement at Par, only bolting the studio would allow Spielberg again to stake actual ownership claim to his future films. He participated in just that through the original DreamWorks SKG, but Spielberg at Par essentially is a producer and director of films owned by others, backend deals on individual films notwithstanding.

Even the DreamWorks name is controlled neither by Spielberg nor Par but by Jeffrey Katzenberg's DreamWorks Animation. If Spielberg were to exit Paramount, DWA could withdraw rights to the name from Par and presumably grant them to Spielberg.

DWA's distribution contract with Par runs through 2012.

Meanwhile, it appears that Spielberg's hunt for financing could lead to DreamWorks securing a bank facility to fund production as well as private-equity investment.

Yet this time around, it's likely that the latter would be much more limited than the one-time majority stake in DreamWorks SKG by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. DWA went public in 2004 and DreamWorks $1.6 billion sale to Par a year later both were prompted by Allen's desire to cash out his interest in DeamWorks. (partialdiff)
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