Tentpole titan makes plans for smaller budgets
Steven Spielberg, the father of the summer blockbuster, said he may make lower-budgeted specialty pics at DreamWorks now that it’s owned by Paramount.
The helmer’s comments came in an interview for the 100th episode of AMC’s “Sunday Morning Shootout,” hosted by Daily Variety editor-in-chief Peter Bart and veteran producer Peter Guber.
Presented in two episodes, the first part of the Spielberg interview airs Sunday.
In a wide-ranging discussion, Spielberg touched on a number of other subjects:
- He regrets that GE was unable to reach a deal to buy DreamWorks, saying Paramount execs always knew they were his “second choice.”
- He expects that DreamWorks Pictures, under recently hired chief Stacey Snider, will operate as an entirely separate entity from Paramount Pictures, led by Gail Berman.
- DreamWorks-produced specialty pics will nonetheless be distribbed by the newly redubbed Paramount Vantage, led by John Lesher.
- His onetime plan to make “Memoirs of a Geisha” at Sony on a $10 million budget, entirely in Japanese with subtitles, was not greeted with much enthusiasm at Sony.
In some of his most extensive comments about the surprise purchase of DreamWorks by Par, Spielberg said he originally hoped the studio would be merged into Universal Pictures.
“I can honestly speak about this because Brad Grey knows how I feel, and Tom Freston and Sumner Redstone. They know they were the second choice,” he said.
“I waited at the altar for GE to buy DreamWorks,” Spielberg added, saying the DreamWorks partners had reached a “handshake deal” with U’s corporate parent. Ultimately, he said, “They could never make the numbers work.”
While he said he and fellow DreamWorks founders Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen weren’t looking for a big payday, they felt obligated to pay off early DreamWorks investors such as Paul Allen. “Paramount gave us everything we wanted and more, and it turned out to be good for DreamWorks. But I was hoping it would be a Universal situation,” he said.
Par paid $1.6 billion and recently closed a deal valued at $900 million to sell the DreamWorks film library to a investor group led by financier George Soros.
Now that Viacom owns DreamWorks, Spielberg said that he expects it to retain its independence. “Gail Berman is running Paramount Pictures, and that’s separate from DreamWorks Pictures. And that’s something we’re trying to get the town to understand. Stacey Snider is running DreamWorks Pictures.”
He also said he plans to keep his office on the U lot, which has played a central role in his career ever since he snuck away from a tram during a studio tour to get a closer look at filmmaking. “That’s why even though Paramount bought DreamWorks, I’m still on (the Universal) lot. That lot, basically, to me represents home.”
Nevertheless, among his biggest regrets after DreamWorks launched in 1994 was not following through on a plan to build his own full-fledged lot with soundstages, a commissary and post-production facilities.
“I wanted to cry. It was so, so sad when that part of it didn’t come into play,” he said. “I really wanted — more than Jeffrey, more than David — I was pushing to have a homeland, to really have a base of operations.”
Now that DreamWorks is owned by Par, he wants the company to make more lower-budget specialty films, to be released and marketed by the revamped Paramount Vantage label.
Praising the quality of the recent pics put out by specialty divisions like Focus and Fox Searchlight and indies such as Lionsgate, he said, “They are truly inspiring pieces. These are not vanity projects.”
He added, “I would love to go off and make a picture like ‘Capote’ or George Clooney’s ‘Good Night, and Good Luck.’ ”
A number of years ago, when he was originally attached to direct “Memoirs of a Geisha,” he said he wanted to do it with a $10 million budget and entirely in subtitled Japanese but, he said, “No one wanted to make that movie — even with me.”
Ironically, that was about what it cost to produce “Jaws,” his over-budget film (shooting ran 105 days over schedule) that launched the modern tentpole era. “The difference is that in the 1970s, $10 million was a lot of money.”