DreamWorks' Stacey Snider Addresses Studio's Money Issues (Exclusive)

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UPDATED: "'The Help' went a long way towards helping us" after "Cowboys & Aliens" hurt the studio's bottom line, the executive admits to THR, adding that any talk of financial problems or a lack of support from its Indian backers is untrue.

Never was a movie more aptly named than The Help. Coming off a string of disappointments, the unlikely blockbuster’s box-office performance came at an opportune time for DreamWorks, which has stumbled with its first releases I Am Number Four, Fright Night and most notably, the costly Cowboys & Aliens.

Still, the industry is watching the reconstituted Steven Spielberg studio closely as speculation has intensified in recent weeks about the company’s financial status and the degree of support that it might -- or might not -- be receiving from its main backer, India’s Reliance. In particular, Hollywood will be focusing on the performance of the next pricey DreamWorks bet, Shawn Levy’s $110 million-budgeted Real Steel.

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In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, DreamWorks CEO Stacey Snider acknowledged that Cowboys was a big setback both personally and financially for the company. But she said any chatter that DreamWorks is in a financial squeeze is inaccurate. She said Reliance has not wavered in its support and specifically denies rumors that DreamWorks staff has been ordered to cut off expenses.

“We have not changed our expenses, we have not laid anyone off. We have no plans to lay anyone off or to reduce expenses,” she said. Snider also expressed confidence in Real Steel, a boxing drama starring Hugh Jackman and gigantic robots, which opens domestically Oct. 7.

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“There  is a financial loss, a hit that we took with Cowboys that we are able to absorb, not perfectly, but we are able to absorb it,” Snider said. “The Help went a long way towards helping us. And because of that, our partners can say, 'Keep going. We’re behind you. You’ve got the money -- make movies.’ . . . We have absolute support from our partners. That is real, it is expressed, it is explicit.”

One area where Hollywood might have noted a change, Snider said, is that DreamWorks has slowed its purchases of scripts. Though the company just optioned Roald Dahl’s children’s story BFG, DreamWorks will work with material that is already in the cupboard. “I have definitely said to our executives, 'Let’s turn these into movies, not meetings,’ ” she said. “I just think that’s prudent management.”

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DreamWorks covered half of Cowboys' $160 million budget, with Universal and Relativity splitting the other half. (Paramount distributed the film for a fee.) The Jon Favreau-directed sci-fi Western, released domestically in July by Universal, grossed only $98 million. The Paramount international release added only $64 million.

Snider acknowledges that Real Steel is “an important movie to us in a couple of different ways. We love it and really, really believe in it and it’s a sizable bet for us.” Two weeks out, awareness of the movie is not high and tracking is not strong among women. Snider says she is happy with the tracking and that the plan was to start out marketing to men and broaden to a general audience. But since the film is not associated with a well-known toy or game, she says marketing will be key.

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So far The Help, which cost $26 million, has grossed $155 million and counting. The film was in profit at the $60 million point, according to Snider, and while it only has opened in a few foreign markets, it’s off to a strong start -- in contrast to the expectations at DreamWorks that it would not perform overseas at all. Co-financier Participant Media ponied up a third of the budget.

DreamWorks faced challenges out of the gate, scouring for financing as the recession hit in 2008. The company set up $325 million in bank financing, which fell significantly short of its original goal. It also received a loan from Disney, which distributes its films, and Reliance matched the bank loans with $325 million in funding. After Real Steel, the next DreamWorks film will be Spielberg's War Horse at Christmas.

Email: Kim.Masters@thr.com
Twitter: @KimMasters

*Editor's note: Roald Dahl's name spelling has been corrected.