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A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
With Jurassic World crushing box-office records, Steven Spielberg has reminded Hollywood of his might, putting him in a powerful position as he negotiates a distribution deal for DreamWorks before its current arrangement with the Walt Disney Co. expires in August 2016.
Sources say the Spielberg-directed The BFG, based on the Roald Dahl book and set to unspool on July 1, 2016, will be the last released under the Disney deal, which began in 2009.
The consensus among those with knowledge of the situation: Spielberg’s likely future home is Universal, where he has maintained his offices even as DreamWorks distributed its films through Paramount and then Disney. Spielberg, 68, who was a hands-on executive producer on Universal’s Jurassic World, is essential to future dinosaur movies (the next already is dated for June 2018) as well as associated theme-park attractions. Sources say Spielberg commanded his rich director’s fee for Jurassic World — a percentage of profit worth tens of millions of dollars — from which he then paid helmer Colin Trevorrow. He also is key on potential reboots of other Universal franchises such as Jaws and Back to the Future. Universal declined to comment, as did DreamWorks. A Universal source says “the studio would welcome the chance to be DreamWorks‘ distribution partner” but any deal is premature.
DreamWorks will bring money to its new arrangement as sources say Jeff Skoll’s Participant Media is making an investment of $200 million and the company is said to be raising an additional $150 million to $200 million from other sources. That financing could enable DreamWorks to greenlight its own films and set budgets.
Spielberg, whose next film is the Tom Hanks Cold War thriller Bridge of Spies (Oct. 16), is not known for overspending, but in the current Hollywood climate, the studios are not investing much in the kind of adult fare that Spielberg often likes to make. As the low-profile Universal Filmed Entertainment chairman Jeff Shell hammers out terms with DreamWorks, says a longtime Spielberg associate, “This is a new generation coming to terms with Steven’s desire to make quality movies at whatever price.”
Several DreamWorks movies are in or near production. Lasse Hallstrom’s A Dog’s Purpose, filming now, might appeal to Disney but likely will be released by the company’s new partner, as will two other films: The Girl on the Train, with Tate Taylor (The Help) directing and Emily Blunt starring, set for release in 2016; and Ghost in the Shell, starring Scarlett Johansson, which is dated for March 2017 (Paramount will distribute that movie overseas.) Spielberg has committed to direct his next movie, Ready Player One, for Warner Bros.
A new deal could mean a fresh start for DreamWorks, which has faced struggles from the inception of the Disney relationship. Sources say the DreamWorks team felt something of a strain from the start because its deal was negotiated with Dick Cook, then chairman of the studio, with the understanding that Disney would invest in DreamWorks‘ films and invite DreamWorks to participate in some of its projects. But soon after the deal was made, Cook was ousted and Disney CEO Bob Iger set a strategy of fully financing Disney movies.
Given market factors at the time, DreamWorks was left to fight for financing. It found backing from Indian giant Reliance, which could retain some participation in a new deal, but money became very tight as DreamWorks hit a prolonged cold streak, with disappointments including Need for Speed and Delivery Man. Spielberg’s partner in DreamWorks, CEO Stacey Snider, left last year for a top job at Fox and was replaced by former Turner exec Michael Wright, who will maintain the job as the company transitions to a new distribution partner.
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