Inside Murdoch's New Dream: What a Stacey Snider Move to Fox Would Mean (Analysis)

7:00 AM PST 03/05/2014 by Kim Masters
Illustration by: John Ueland

The Hollywood Reporter breaks down the stakes, the role of Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen and Steven Spielberg's next moves (a "West Side Story" remake?).

This story first appeared in the March 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

If DreamWorks co-chairman and CEO Stacey Snider doesn't wind up in a top job at the Fox film studio, it won't be for lack of trying on Rupert Murdoch's part. That's according to several sources with knowledge of the situation, including one who says with authority that the 82-year-old billionaire is "completely charmed by her -- her personality, her brains, everything about her."

The deal is far from done, and Snider, 52, has been careful to avoid any move that might be construed as a breach of her contract, which expires at year's end. But Murdoch has been getting acquainted with Snider over the course of about a year, and now it's just a matter of execution.

What becomes of DreamWorks still is a question. For principal Steven Spielberg, says one observer, "I don't think it matters" whether DreamWorks stays in business, unless "it's an ego thing" for the company's founders: Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen. In fact, this observer and others see Katzenberg, whose DreamWorks Animation distributes its films through Fox, as a prime mover behind the Snider-Fox matchup. (Geffen also is said to be playing a role.) "Believe me," says a Fox veteran, "Jeffrey's figured it all out." Katzenberg and others involved declined comment.

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Ever since Fox co-chairman Tom Rothman exited the studio in September 2012, Murdoch and other powers at 21st Century Fox have wanted film studio chairman Jim Gianopulos to bring in a strong creative second-in-command. Fox took a look at former Warner Bros. chairman Jeff Robinov, but he was bidding to be a little too strong (and sources say he's closing in on financing for a company that will set up at Sony Pictures). Snider is seen as ambitious as well, but she has labored at DreamWorks under tight financial constraints and no doubt has signaled to Gianopulos that she comes in peace.

DreamWorks, which distributes its films through Disney, has had high-profile and costly misses, including Cowboys & Aliens and more recent disappointments such as Vince Vaughn's Delivery Man ($30 million domestic) and The Fifth Estate ($3 million domestic). On the other hand, Spielberg's Lincoln made $182 million domestic. DreamWorks has the Aaron Paul car-racing movie Need for Speed set for release March 14 and Lasse Hallstrom's The Hundred-Foot Journey with Helen Mirren in August. Otherwise, the company has no other movies in production.

Some find it confusing, given the weak DreamWorks track record, that Fox is so keen on Snider. But she has experience at the helm of Universal for 10 years ending in 2006, a run that included such hits as the Bourne Identity movies. "She can manage franchises, do a slate, run marketing, run business affairs and make a creative strategy for the next five years," says a top executive at another studio. And Fox appears to be the only option for Snider to transition into a big studio job. Previous talks with Universal stalled, and the company put Jeff Shell in the top job; Warner Bros. completed a prolonged upheaval only last year; Sony Pictures hired Rothman to run its TriStar label and brought producer Michael De Luca in-house. Paramount isn't thought to be looking.

There would seem to be three obvious obstacles to moving Snider to Fox before her deal ends: Reliance, the India giant that finances DreamWorks to some unknown degree; Disney; and Spielberg, who would be losing the head of his company less than two years after his longtime producer, Kathleen Kennedy, exited to run Lucasfilm.

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Sources agree that Disney -- home of Marvel, Lucasfilm and animated fare -- has no real interest in keeping DreamWorks. But the company wants to get back some of the money it has put in since striking a pact to distribute DreamWorks films in 2009 -- a cash advance of $100 million, a potential $75 million credit line, marketing costs and access to pay TV slots. Disney is more than $100 million underwater on the deal, say sources, but maintaining the status quo is unlikely to help. What might be more promising is an agreement with Spielberg or an arrangement in which DreamWorks would set up at Fox, opening the door for Spielberg to make movies in which Disney could share. (A Disney source says no talks are underway.)

Spielberg is said to be dismayed at the idea of Snider leaving. But moving DreamWorks to Fox could smooth the way, allowing him to stay connected to her while remaining in his old offices at Universal. There are murmurs that Spielberg is moving closer to tackling Robopocalypse, a project that DreamWorks would split with Fox. Chris Hemsworth and Anne Hathaway were set to star, until Spielberg pulled back in January 2013. Writers Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth have been polishing the script, however, and sources say that film could happen. Another project said to interest Spielberg is an updated West Side Story; Fox owns the rights. For now, Spielberg hasn't lined up a post-Lincoln project.

Reliance, which contributed $325 million in equity to DreamWorks in the first round and an unknown amount in 2012, also would seem to have little to gain by keeping things as they are. A source says Reliance is committed to DreamWorks and, "to them, a move to Fox has to be a better situation."

The next question is how Gianopulos fares with Snider at Fox. Most assume he is eager to have someone subordinate in the creative job. And a source inside 21st Century Fox says there's plenty for both to do. "We're so global in nature," says this person. "And he's so good on distribution, the business, policy, Silicon Valley. That is of huge value. They'd be an incredible pair."

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