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Beginning in 2002, Snider and Parent worked to repair the relationship. By then Jackson had reached the top of the A-list with the first film in New Line’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. They made several trips on the Universal jet to New Zealand to meet with the director, hear his vision for “Kong” and, above all, talk about how they were different from previous management.

“One of the more critical meetings with any filmmaker is that first or second meeting about what kind of movie they are making,” Snider says. “It’s about their really knowing that you are an active listener, that you’re not just saying the right things to get it done and you figure you’ll fix it later.”

Snider felt it was critical that both sides were in agreement on Jackson’s vision and on the budgetary parameters.

With unanimous consent from the greenlight committee, Snider approved a production budget of $155 million. In contrast to Jackson’s original contract for “Kong,” the new deal had him getting $20 million (against 20% of the first-dollar gross), and by many accounts, the payday broke the salary ceiling for helmers.

In turn, Jackson assumed responsibility for significant cost overruns. (As of late August, as he began scoring the film in London and New Zealand with “Rings” composer Howard Shore, he was slightly under budget.)

Parent says that while Jackson has total creative control, he’s been willing to work with the studio. When Jackson and his team came to Los Angeles for their “Lord of the Rings” victory lap at the Oscars in February 2004, Parent spent several days in his hotel suite working on the “King Kong” script.

Considering Jackson’s average worldwide gross on each of the three “Lord of the Rings” films is $972 million, expectations are monstrous for the project. Already, like any studio making such a huge investment, executives are pumping up early cuts of the film with superlatives. With dramatic concision, Parent says, “It should be our biggest movie.”

Munich

Those expectations are compounded by the mystery surrounding another project. Early in the year, the studio’s slate received a prestigious addition when Spielberg decided to direct a project on the aftermath of the 1972 Munich Olympics. Originally brought to U by producer Barry Mendel, the film focuses on Mossad agents sent by the Israeli government to assassinate Palestinian terrorists after the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes.

Just as Spielberg was starting production in Malta, The New York Times called it “the most politically charged project he has ever attempted.” Not only was there the specter of controversy — with a storyline based on a turning point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — but Spielberg had a very tight schedule. Shooting started June 30 for a Dec. 23 release.

“Everybody knows — exhibitors know — that Steven delivers,” Rocco says.

She adds, a bit tersely: “When he says he is going to deliver, he delivers.”

While Spielberg was already ahead of schedule by mid-August and looking to beat his Sept. 30 wrap date, U executives said little about the project — other than that it seemed to conform to futurist Wacker’s mandate for “meaning.”

“There hasn’t been any controversy,” Snider insists. “I couldn’t speak to that, it’s so speculative. It’s an incredible screenplay by Tony Kushner, very exciting, and I think very relevant, hopefully. We believe its relevance will make it popular.”

The handling of “Munich” will be a test in getting it right and pleasing the superstar director. After all, it is Spielberg who could be their partner if DreamWorks comes under the U banner. And DreamWorks, which has averaged about 10 films per year, many of them co-productions, would help U boost its annual output. But it would still mean a major change in the studio pipeline of suppliers.

“A lot has happened, and (the U execs) are getting through it,” says one producer with a deal on the lot. “There’s certainly a lot of managing on the horizon. But Stacey is a formidable force, and she’s more than capable of absorbing any change that comes her way, whether it’s Imagine leaving or DreamWorks coming.”

Things did start looking up with the late-summer success of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,”which was bought over the phone for its title and high concept. The film grossed $21.4 million in its opening weekend.

As the rest of the slate unfolds (it also includes a feature version of musical “The Producers,” which was bought by the studio but not developed there), Stuber and Parent are completing their move into director Jonathan Mostow’s old offices and preparing to produce their first two films simultaneously, “Me, You and Dupree,” with Owen Wilson, and David O. Russell’s untitled film starring Vince Vaughn.

As Gordon arrives in October, Langley and her production team are overseeing eight films, including Michael Mann’s “Miami Vice”; “The Break-Up,” with Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston; the Weitz brothers’ “American Dreamz”; and Spike Lee’s “Insider Man,” with Denzel Washington and Jodie Foster. Ramping up are “Curious George,” with Will Ferrell, and “The Good Shepherd,” a CIA thriller directed by Robert De Niro and starring Matt Damon.

Any embarrassments this year could quickly turn instead into an embarrassment of riches. Four heavyweights — Howard, Spielberg, Mendes and Jackson — will be watching how U plays the Oscar race. Snider promises to devote resources and attention to all, which is no small thing coming from her. Don’t forget: It was Snider who took the gloves off when she felt there was a campaign to smear “A Beautiful Mind” during the 2001 Oscar race. She won.

At the end of a long day in August, Snider is circumspect. She seems weary of hearing about all the doubts and anxieties, especially speculation on GE-mandated cuts. She’s been through it before.

“As a company that has been turned over so many times in the last few years, we’ve had to hit our numbers regardless of who we were owned by, either because we were in play and it was the best way to protect our jobs, or because we had new owners that had their own expectations,” Snider says. “We’ve prided ourselves on being profitable for the last eight years. So there is no added pressure, but we want to do it. We want to hit our numbers.” –Gabriel Snyder contributed to this story

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