DreamWorks scores a triple play

<b>Thompson on Hollywood</b>

The DreamWorks team is on a winning streak.

They’re 3-for-3 in 2007, with the Eddie Murphy gross-out laffer “Norbit,” the Will Ferrell skating comedy “Blades of Glory” and now the teen thriller “Disturbia.” Total grosses: $207 million.

Under its own banner, meanwhile, parent company Paramount delivered “Freedom Writers,” “Zodiac” and “Shooter,” tallying $112 million combined.

So what did DreamWorks do right? And what’s Par got to do to make things right?

In retrospect it’s easy to see all three of the DreamWorks pictures as easy commercial sells. But it’s not that simple. Every studio in Hollywood tries to pack its slate with modestly budgeted genre winners, but there’s many a twist and turn between a greenlight and an opening weekend.

Somehow, all three movies walked that slender line between familiar but fresh, edgy but not off-putting, youth-oriented but family-friendly. And all three boasted a marquee name — even if “Disturbia’s” 20-year-old rising star Shia LaBeouf mainly lured teenage girls.

So who claims the credit?

Well, it helps that when Stacey Snider left Universal to run DreamWorks’ movie division a year ago, she transitioned seamlessly without losing valuable momentum. Instead of complaining that the cupboard was bare or that the company needed fixing, she championed a slate of movies that were already well under way under Steven Spielberg and his production chief Adam Goodman. She could have let Goodman go. Instead she wisely kept the pipeline moving. Hollywood got the message: same team, new boss.

“Norbit” came about because DreamWorks Animation’s Jeffrey Katzenberg signed “Shrek” voice star Murphy to star in a followup live-action movie. The studio had to find the comedian just the right vehicle, and “Norbit” proved to be a natural extension of the multiple-character family comedy genre Murphy had created with “Dr. Doolittle” and “The Nutty Professor.”

Luckily, while chairman Brad Grey rebuilt Paramount’s corporate DNA, the studio’s marketing side remained steady under president Gerry Rich, who after three years is looking like a Paramount veteran.

With “Norbit,” it was a question of not giving away too much story or too many jokes.

” ‘Norbit’ and ‘Blades’ felt like big summer comedies available to the public in the off-season,” says Rich. A populist alternative to the season’s tony Oscar fare, finally, “Norbit” was just offensive enough.

Katzenberg can also lay claim to making the original deal with comedy producer-director Ivan Reitman’s Montecito Pictures, which delivered DreamWorks a raft of commercial comedies like “Road Trip” and “Old School,” which broke out Ferrell. After “Old School” hit, DreamWorks execs Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald swiftly retrieved “Anchorman” from turnaround and pushed it forward. “Blades of Glory” was a product of Ben Stiller’s long-term deal at DreamWorks and his prolific relationship with Ferrell.

DreamWorks’ Goodman, who grew up at the studio, has always been “good at comedy,” says one senior agent. And a Stiller/Ferrell comedy well inside the star’s comfort zone was a no-brainer. Snider instantly put the high-concept comedy on the fast track.

But the marketing of “Blades” was still tricky. Ferrell’s male audience wasn’t interested in figure skating, which appeals to women. And Rich didn’t want Ferrell and co-star Jon Heder to look gay, either. American audiences can be skittish when it comes to sexual content. Paramount had to reach men and women without alienating either.

“We set it up as an outrageous comedy about the pairing of two rivals,” says Rich.

As for “Disturbia,” Reitman, partner Tom Pollock and producer Joe Medjuck developed their update of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” with their own discretionary fund when DreamWorks wasn’t thrilled with Chris Landon’s original draft about a troubled teen who becomes a suburban voyeur. But they came around after Landon simplified the story — and Montecito put up half the $23 million budget. LaBeouf was Reitman’s idea. He started wooing the young star of Disney’s TV show “Even Stevens” and feature “Holes” two years ago at the Toronto Film Festival.

And it didn’t hurt that Spielberg was involved with the movie. While he tends to stay hands-off with Reitman’s low-brow comedies, Spielberg talked D.J. Caruso into directing “Disturbia,” and was so taken with LaBeouf that he cast him in “Transformers” as well as “Indiana Jones 4.” “Steven knows thrillers better than anybody,” says Pollock.

And for the second time in his career, Spielberg went with Reitman to successfully appeal the MPAA’s R-rating.

“There was no sex in it, little swearing and no drugs,” says Medjuck. “It was very intense; we cut back a bit on the violence. It was never anywhere near a slasher movie.”

That was “Disturbia’s” strength. After a rash of R-rated gore-fests, “Disturbia” was not about torturing the co-eds of Eastern Europe. “It was more pleasurable and relatable to young audiences,” says Rich, who enthusiastically backed his marketing team’s iconic binocular campaign. “The R-rating is often the obstacle for teens.”

As soon as Paramount saw how well “Disturbia” played, execs screened the hell out of it to spread the word through America’s teen population. And Snider eyeballed a hole in the April schedule way ahead of their originally planned opening in August, which was looking uncomfortably crammed with scary behemoths like “The Bourne Ultimatum,” “Super Bad” and “Rush Hour 3.”

“I always thought the film could be opened on its concept,” says Tom Pollock. “Rather than ‘Transformers’ helping to make Shia a bigger movie star, our movie could help make Shia a bigger movie star and help ‘Transformers.’ ”

Supervising 10 movies a year is a cinch for old pro Snider, who has Spielberg behind her, along with Paramount’s marketing muscle. Snider, Goodman and marketing chief Christine Birch work closely with Rich and his team.

This summer, Paramount’s tentpoles are Katzenberg’s animated sequel “Shrek the Third” and Michael Bay’s $150 million f/x extravaganza “Transformers,” which now looks like an even iffier roll of the dice, because the studio’s partner on the non-sequel (it’s based on Hasbro’s toyline and TV show) is its own sister company. Spielberg has been supervising closely.

So what happened to the Paramount side of the slate equation?

Brad Grey looks canny for showing the business sense to buy DreamWorks. But how good will he look when the hits on the DreamWorks side aren’t balanced at Par by better box office performers than “Zodiac,” “Freedom Writers” and “Shooter”? All three movies were well-reviewed, but misfired due to a combination of factors, from length to lack of star power to flawed release strategies.

A studio is only as strong as all the decisions that contribute to delivering the best, most accessible movie possible. The real question is, when will the Paramount side start delivering on all cylinders?

Winning streaks tend to come and go. Some of DreamWorks’ upcoming pictures mark a return to its old upscale identity as a prestige movie purveyor, from the Warner Bros. co-production “Sweeney Todd,” directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp, to the Susanne Bier relationship drama “Things We Lost in the Fire,” starring Halle Berry, and Marc Forster’s Afghanistan-set “The Kite Runner.”

And while Paramount’s two Brads, Grey and production head Weston, have lined up some strong pictures on paper, from Brad Pitt and David Fincher’s “Benjamin Button” and Jon Favreau’s Marvel Comics movie “Iron Man” to J.J. Abrams’ reinvention of “Star Trek,” “The Spiderwick Chronicles” and George Lucas and Spielberg’s “Indy 4,” there are miles to go before they all come out winners.

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