Steven Spielberg's New Amblin Chief Reveals Who Has Greenlight Power
CEO Michael Wright talks about backer Jeff Skoll's role (and money), how a trio of brands will operate and the strategy behind Hollywood's hottest reboot.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
When Michael Wright became CEO of DreamWorks Studios in September 2014, he immediately commissioned a brand study. The Turner veteran was a newcomer to movies, but it was obvious to him that DreamWorks was not in a position to secure big franchises. Still, Wright saw the brand as a franchise of its own.
The findings regarding co-founder Steven Spielberg were hardly surprising: "He is known worldwide for quality," says Wright. "But the DreamWorks and Amblin brands also were viable." Given a slew of underperforming DreamWorks films, from Cowboys & Aliens to The Fifth Estate, the apparent resilience of the boy with the fishing pole might surprise many in Hollywood.
Building and exploiting those brands now is an essential mission of the new Amblin Partners, a company launched in January that includes three labels: Amblin, for family films; DreamWorks, for adult fare like this fall's The Girl on the Train; and Participant, for socially conscious movies. In an interview with THR, Wright and Amblin Partners president and COO Jeff Small — soon to get a bigger title as Wright re-ups as CEO — offer a fuller picture of how the company will operate.
Spielberg, 69, will be the dominant influence, greenlighting all films under the DreamWorks and Amblin labels, including those with budgets above $100 million, while Participant founder Jeff Skoll, who is investing $200 million in the new venture (Spielberg is adding $50 million), can put up to three films bearing the Participant label into production each year, within certain budget parameters (between $15 million and $50 million, according to sources). Skoll's company, headed by David Linde, will develop and oversee those films. "We will not be telling them how to make their movies," says Wright. (Participant also will make films outside the Amblin deal.)
Financing for all Amblin Partners movies will come out of the same pot, and profits or losses from the films will not be credited to or charged against the individual labels. "The performance of all our films, whether they are branded Amblin, DreamWorks Pictures or Participant, goes to the bottom line of Amblin Partners," says Small.
The new 75-employee company emerged from an exceptionally complicated negotiation based on conversations that began 18 months ago between Spielberg and Skoll, 50. Their companies had collaborated on such films as The Help and Lincoln. "Steven and Jeff were looking to do something bigger," says Small, "and the timing was right for both of them."
Wright credits Small as "the quarterback" of a team of dealmakers laboring toward an accord that involved not just Spielberg's and Skoll's companies but backers Entertainment One and Indian giant Reliance. The new company also had to negotiate a distribution pact with Universal while extricating DreamWorks from its deal at Disney. And then there was the bank financing. "What's unique is how many different balls we had in the air at any given time," says Wright.
While he says he never doubted the deal would come together, Wright was disappointed in his hope that it might close in October or November. There was no major glitch, according to Small, just the time-consuming task of working out all the terms. It was Dec. 16 when the two exhausted executives finally sat in Small's office on the Universal lot and Wright proposed opening a celebratory bottle of wine. "I did choose the most expensive bottle off his cart," acknowledges Wright. "It was Caymus Reserve, which I may have given to him myself."
The new arrangement hardly eliminates all potential for brand confusion given that there will be Participant and Amblin movies made outside the Amblin Partners label, not to mention a completely separate company called DreamWorks Animation. DWA's Jeffrey Katzenberg controls the DreamWorks name and licenses it to Spielberg's company; Katzenberg says he has no intention of altering that arrangement, adding, "I'm honored that he feels that connected to the brand."
There are challenges: Spielberg remains free to make movies for other studios; Amblin Partners will not reap profits from Jurassic World sequels; and the company likely will not participate in possible reboots or spinoffs of other Spielberg-directed or -produced films such as Goonies or Gremlins. Many millions of dollars could hang in the balance: The reason Jurassic World took so many years to make, say sources, is that Spielberg insisted on the terms of his decades-old deal with Universal giving him a breathtaking 50 percent of "total net," or gross revenue minus the cost of making and releasing a film. (That's just for producing; he gets more if he directs. Spielberg declined comment.)
But even if Amblin Partners doesn't get Jurassic riches, Spielberg's leverage with Universal still will help his company's movies get respect. "He's going to have his way," says a top film agent. "And he's going to have this leverage of Jurassic World for a long time."