Frosh Dream team finds film legs

HIGH POINTS: Let’s face it, DreamWorks turned out three movies in ’97, displaying its sky-blue logo on the bigscreen for the first time. That ought to be worth a slap on the back.

The $50 million actioner “The Peacemaker,” with George Clooney and Nicole Kidman saving the world from terrorists, came out on Sept. 26 to a $12.3 million opening weekend and an eventual $41.2 million domestic gross. Overseas, it made $56 million, and climbing. Some people thought Steven Spielberg was crazy to put “Peacemaker” — and his new studio’s reputation — in the hands of first-time feature director Mimi Leder, but he had seen enough of her work on “ER” to believe she was up to the task. She was, although some of the reviews were tepid.

“Considering that movie made close to $100 million, I beg to differ,” said a studio insider who asked not to be identified. “We’re laughing all the way to the bank.”

While critics were quick to point out that “Peacemaker” broke no new ground in the action-adventure formula, “it seemed that DreamWorks itself, more than the movie, was being reviewed,” said distrib chief Jim Tharp. “We weren’t that worried. The only other movie up against it that same weekend was ‘The Edge,’ and we thought we had the edge.”

Next came “Amistad,” on Dec. 12, with Spielberg at the helm telling a harrowing tale of a legal dispute regarding an 1839 slave revolt. Trouble was, the movie was in the courts until just before its premiere, following author Barbara Chase-Riboud’s claim that DreamWorks used parts of her book “Echo of Lions” in its screenplay, without credit or compensation. The studio vehemently denied her allegations.

Next up for DreamWorks was the $38 million comedy “Mouse Hunt,” with Nathan Lane, released Dec. 19. By the end of the year, it had made $28.5 million. There was talk that company partner (and animation division overseer) Jeffrey Katzenberg, still wanting to get back at Disney, was having a private joke with the film’s title.

LOW POINTS: The hail of controversy that surrounded Chase-Riboud’s copyright-infringement claim over “Amistad” seriously dented the good will that the film might otherwise have generated.

“Amistad” opened with a weekend per-screen average of $14,000 at 322 venues. But by the end of the month, it had pulled in just $20.6 million, not even beginning to offset the studio’s $75 million production, marketing and distribution costs. “Schindler’s List” it wasn’t.

Although not directly related to DreamWorks, Katzenberg’s fight over money with Disney chief Michael Eisner, his former boss, added to the impression that the DreamWorks people spent more time sitting in court than huddled in soundstages (the two antagonists eventually agreed to settle). It also didn’t help that every time someone mentioned Playa Vista, where the studio’s 22-acre campus is supposed to be built, it was usually in connection with alleged violations of the Endangered Species Act or developers scrambling for funding.

Most of all, it was the carping about unmet expectations that got to the folks at DreamWorks.

“I don’t know what people expected,” said studio spokeswoman Terry Press. “You can’t win. I don’t know how they expected us, in our first year, to suddenly turn out 12 $100 million movies. The three movies we did prove that we’re capable of producing, marketing and distributing a movie, so you can’t say we’re not spending money, that we’re not in the ballgame.

“It seems as if we’re rolling a big, cement ball uphill and Hollywood is standing on both sides hoping that the ball falls backward and crushes us,” Press said. “The prevailing wisdom in Hollywood is that everyone wants everyone else to fail, but in our case, they really want us to fail.”

OUTLOOK FOR ’98: Regardless of what happens in Playa Vista — if anything — DreamWorks’ animators won’t have to worry about a roof over their heads: They are in the process of moving into the studio’s new animation facility in Glendale, where they will complete their first feature, “The Prince of Egypt,” scheduled for release on Nov. 8. The movie, which tells the story of Moses, is the work of 350 animators, artists and technicians and uses the voices of Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sandra Bullock and Steve Martin.

The five-picture ’98 slate will be rounded out by “Paulie,” a movie about a smart parrot, starring Gena Rowlands; “Saving Private Ryan,” a Tom Hanks/Matt Damon World War II drama with Spielberg helming; “Small Soldiers,” a Joe Dante war-toy caper with Kirsten Dunst; and “In Dreams,” a murder thriller by Neil Jordan, with Annette Bening and Robert Downey Jr.

REALITY CHECK: When you’re the new kid on the block and your daddy is rich, everyone wants to take a swing at you.

At least that’s the view from DreamWorks. Launched with blaring trumpets in October 1994, the studio has weathered more than a few setbacks, most glaringly that its proposed headquarters at Playa Vista remains a mirage in a swamp. Investors in DreamWorks have yet to see a return on their money, the output from its TV and music arms has been uneven — although its interactive and games division has fared better — and the studio was a year behind its avowed release schedule when it came out with its first feature film in September.

Given the high-profile players behind the company, it was inevitable that tongues would be wagging. What? No slate of blockbusters right off the bat? Shameful.

No new kid gets off easy.

– Nick Madigan

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