Geffen, Spielberg may walk

DreamWorks, Paramount under strain

Though Paramount’s acquisition of DreamWorks has often been termed a major dealmaking coup, there are signals their relationship may be unraveling.

Unless wounds are healed, there’s a possibility that David Geffen and Steven Spielberg may walk in 15 months, according to sources. If a schism occurred, Geffen and Spielberg could retain the DreamWorks name but would lose ownership of their negatives, development deals and nearly all their staff.

While acknowledging that Geffen and Spielberg receive no salaries and have non-exclusive deals, one key Paramount executive disputed their contractual right to walk away from their studio relationship.

Sumner Redstone, the chairman of Viacom, has knowingly or unknowingly emerged as a lightning rod in the relationship, DreamWorks sources alleged. Redstone himself insists his relations with Spielberg are friendly, but sources said both the filmmaker and Geffen feel the Viacom chairman has cold-shouldered them, thus aggravating earlier perceived snubs and credit-grabs by the studio.

Geffen himself, calling from his yacht, insisted Friday that “Steven and I are very happy with the performance of Paramount’s marketing and distribution teams in handling our films.” He cited Rob Moore and Jim Tharp, among others, as contributing to the success of such DreamWorks-Paramount releases as “Transformers” and “Disturbia.”

DreamWorks Animation, headed by Jeffrey Katzenberg, also has had a successful summer thanks to the success of “Shrek the Third.”

Katzenberg maintains voting control of DreamWorks Animation and has long reiterated his insistence on maintaining his autonomy and not becoming an integral part of the Paramount operation.

DreamWorks sources acknowledge the efforts of Brad Grey, Par’s chairman-CEO to heal the tensions between the two entities.

Grey’s supporters suggest a degree of “seller’s remorse” has lately been displayed by the DreamWorks team. Given the abundance of equity in the marketplace, they note, Geffen’s team surely could marshal billions to fund a new venture. The $1.6 billion pricetag paid by Par to acquire DreamWorks seemed like a healthy number at the time, but that transaction is now being second-guessed by financial gurus. Par pounced on the deal in late 2005 after General Electric repeatedly stalled efforts by its Universal subsidiary to bid for DreamWorks.

Because of the “key-man clauses,” Stacey Snider could theoretically join Spielberg and Geffen if they chose to depart the Par lot. Other DreamWorks employees would have to remain at the studio, sources said, and projects still in development would also be left behind. The contractual relationships are complex, both sides agree, and any possible separation could result in litigation.

Redstone, meanwhile, also seems headed for litigation in his dispute with his daughter, Shari, over her future role at Viacom. Redstone dispatched a letter to Forbes magazine on Friday in which he pointed out that his daughter had made “little or no contribution” to building his entertainment empire. Shari Redstone is president of National Amusements, the Redstone family exhibition complex, and also has been serving as a director of Viacom, in addition to figuring in possible succession plans.

Redstone reiterates that, while he loves his 54-year-old daughter, decisions about his possible successor reside with the boards of Viacom and Paramount.

Going public with the dispute, however, has compounded Redstone’s image as a contentious corporate warrior. Starting with his public firing of Tom Cruise and his dismissal of the popular Tom Freston, the Viacom chairman has found himself embroiled in a series of high-profile incidents. At the same time, Redstone has vastly increased his philanthropic contributions and, in an almost nightly succession of dinners, has tried to strengthen relationships with key executives.

The DreamWorks team has proved a tough sell, however. DreamWorks alumni have filled many key positions in the Par hierarchy and its leaders believe that they’re responsible for more than one-third of the studio’s profits and most of its luster on Wall Street. In return for these contributions, they’re understood to feel that their independence has been marginalized and that Redstone in particular has remained somewhat aloof.

These tensions will either be resolved in the coming weeks or signals of dissatisfaction will intensify.

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