Spielberg's DreamWorks Explores Move to Paramount or Universal When Disney Deal Expires

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Steven Spielberg

One insider says Steven Spielberg — who has worked out of his Amblin offices on the Universal lot since the '80s — would prefer a deal there, even if that means accepting less favorable terms.

A version of this story first appeared in the March 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

With its distribution deal at Disney expiring in 2016, Steven Spielberg's nomadic DreamWorks Studios already is exploring moving again — and Paramount or Universal are the frontrunners, say sources.

DreamWorks originally handled its own distribution when it was founded as a full-fledged studio in 1994. Then, after it was bought by Viacom for $1.6 billion in 2006 and downsized into a production company, it distributed its films through Paramount. That arrangement proved short-lived, though, and in 2009, DreamWorks struck a new distribution deal with Disney covering as many as 30 films. A lot has changed since then, however.

At the time, Disney needed the product DreamWorks promised to provide, but following its acquisition of Marvel in late 2009 and Lucasfilm in 2012, Disney now has no trouble filling its release slate with high-profile titles. And DreamWorks, having quickly burned through much of its initial backing from India's Reliance Group, had to scale back its output. To date, it's released just 11 films through Disney, with four more on the way.

Disney takes 10 percent of all revenues for handling the release of DreamWorks pictures, but it agreed to give up some foreign territories when DreamWorks struck a 2012 deal with sales agency Mr. Smith Entertainment to handle foreign presales in Europe, Africa and the Middle East as a way of bolstering DreamWorks' production funds.

As the clock ticks down on DreamWorks' current deal with Disney, one insider says Spielberg — who has worked out of his Amblin offices on the Universal lot since the '80s — would prefer a deal at Universal, even if that means accepting less favorable terms. He came close to a Universal pact twice before. But Paramount's Brad Grey swooped in and nabbed DreamWorks in 2006 and then Disney won the current deal in 2009 over Universal by offering, among other things, a $100 million loan.

On the other hand, while Universal is positioned for an upbeat year — with Furious 7 and Jurassic World — Paramount, where Grey recently gave film group president Adam Goodman the boot, now is the studio in need of product. It has seen Marvel films go to Disney and DreamWorks Animation to Fox, so Paramount, which released only 12 titles in 2014, is looking to ramp up, and a deal with DreamWorks could be attractive.

But another source cautions that Disney shouldn't be ruled out, saying, "Financially, Disney doesn't need DreamWorks, but it could provide the studio with the sort of pedigree movies, like Lincoln and The Help, that win awards, and that's something Disney doesn't have." Spielberg, 68, is currently prepping two movies: Bridge of Spies, an espionage tale with Tom Hanks, which Disney will release Oct. 16; and in March, he begins the fantasy The BFG, set for July 1, 2016. Disney also has dated another DreamWorks project, Ghost in the Shell, starring Scarlett Johansson, for April 2017. Though longtime DreamWorks CEO Stacey Snider departed for Fox late last year, former Turner executive Michael Wright replaced her and has vowed to continue making films. 

Both DreamWorks and Disney declined to comment on the future of their relationship. Says a DreamWorks rep, "We love our partnership with Disney, and we'll be discussing it at the appropriate time." A Disney spokesman adds, "We have great respect for Steven Spielberg and the team at DreamWorks and are looking forward to some exciting upcoming releases, including two with Steven at the helm."