Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks Finds a Savior in Participant

AP Images/Invision
Steven Spielberg, Jeff Skoll

Participant Media is nearing a deal to make a $200 million-plus equity investment in the company that also would guarantee its titles distribution.

This story first appeared in the May 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Socially minded billionaire Jeff Skoll could be just the savior that Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks needs. As first reported by THR on April 24, Skoll's Participant Media is nearing a deal to make a $200 million-plus equity investment in DreamWorks and officially partner on a slate of films. The companies have flirted for years, with Participant co-financing and co-producing a slew of DreamWorks titles, including The Kite Runner, The Help, Lincoln and Bridge of Spies, the Spielberg-directed film starring Tom Hanks that hits theaters Oct. 16.

Both companies are at a crossroads, with DreamWorks in particular need of a financial boost. India's Reliance Entertainment isn't likely to invest any more money after helping to bankroll Spielberg's shop since 2008. Participant would become DreamWorks' equity partner just as the latter embarks on the complicated process of forging a new distribution deal with a major studio. Its pact with Disney expires in 2016, and rumors are rampant that Spielberg and his team instead will opt for Universal or Paramount (the latter could offer prime release dates because it especially needs movies, but Spielberg's office remains on the Universal lot). Any studio would want to know that DreamWorks has enough cash before agreeing to distribute and market its films.

In return for its investment, Participant would have bragging rights to being in business with Spielberg, at least on the film side. And its own movies could be guaranteed distribution via whatever new deal DreamWorks strikes, according to one source.

Several insiders say the DreamWorks-Participant deal will be announced over the summer, once McKinsey & Co. concludes a top-to-bottom review of Participant commissioned by Skoll, who is serving as interim CEO after ousting Jim Berk on April 10. But now that word is out, a reveal could come sooner.

Many in Hollywood bless a Participant-DreamWorks union. "They have successfully tested their relationship on a number of films," says one insider. Adds another executive: "It's a good partnership. No matter what, Steven is very intent on keeping the DreamWorks label. As for Participant, they've had a hard time figuring out what they want to be when they grow up." Skoll founded the company in 2004 with the ambitious mission of inspiring social change through entertainment while making a profit at the same time. Participant's initial emphasis was on film, but it later expanded into television, including the troubled Pivot network.

Like nearly all film companies, Participant has a mixed track record at the box office but generally is known for making smart choices in both independent productions and movies it co-finances with other studios. Wins include The Help, The Visitor, Lincoln, the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel franchise and A Most Violent Year. Among the big flops are The Fifth Estate (also a DreamWorks title) and Promised Land. Participant has excelled in the documentary arena with Oscar winners Citizenfour, The Cove and An Inconvenient Truth as well as the Oscar-nominated The Square.

Both DreamWorks and Participant declined comment.

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