Dreamworks CEO earns Hollywood's respect

As Hollywood remains fascinated by the ongoing chess moves between Sumner Redstone and David Geffen, another key player in the Viacom vs. DreamWorks saga is often overlooked.

While Steven Spielberg, currently filming “Indiana Jones 4,” is usually credited with supplying the juice behind DreamWorks’ extraordinary recent box office run, his second-in-command, Stacey Snider, also steered the division’s winning course.  

You’d think everyone at Paramount and DreamWorks would be delirious about their industry-leading $1 billion hot streak, which will spawn a litter of “Transformers” sequels and more. But now that DreamWorks has scored so big, it looks like the 12-year-old studio gave up too soon and accepted too little ($1.53 billion) to be acquired by Viacom.

Geffen, Spielberg and Katzenberg have made no secret of their unhappiness with Redstone’s less-than-friendly approach to talent relations. But no matter how unhappy Spielberg and Geffen are (Katzenberg’s animation division is stuck with a Paramount distribution deal through 2013) it still doesn’t make sense for them to walk away from DreamWorks at the height of their success and try to start over. It took them 12 years to get where they are today.

Fact is, they had never achieved this level of success — or forward momentum — before they had Snider running things. DreamWorks’ live-action division never entirely delivered on its promise, because Spielberg and his lieutenants, producers Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald, had their own agendas as gifted filmmakers. They weren’t as effective at running a studio as Snider. It simply wasn’t in their skill set.

A no-nonsense career executive trained by the likes of Peter Guber, Ron Meyer and Jonathan Dolgen, as Universal motion picture chairman Snider learned the media business in bootcamps run by Vivendi and General Electric. She commandeered billion-dollar global release slates, juggled budgets and survived big-budget fiascos. She went toe-to-toe with gonzo gorillas like Barry Diller, Brian Grazer, Michael Mann and Russell Crowe.

Hollywood respects Snider as a clear-eyed, organized, tireless, hip, reasonable, accessible, script-savvy executive who can handle talent. And that includes Spielberg.

As the proposed deal between DreamWorks and Universal went south in late 2005, Snider was depressed at the prospect of losing the DreamWorks team. “Can you take me in your suitcase?” she asked Katzenberg.

He took her off-handed quip seriously. And take her with them they did.

Snider wanted to continue working with Hollywood’s reigning top filmmaker and talent magnet, knowing that Spielberg would lure the best projects in town. The prospect of continuing to run Universal without him in the mix was painful.

Snider may also have foreseen a string of clinkers coming up at the studio.She left such pricey duds as “Miami Vice” and “Evan Almighty” to her successors.

Facing a looming deadline to pay back their debt to billionaire Paul Allen, Geffen, Spielberg and Katzenberg sold DreamWorks to Viacom for $1.53 billion.

For his part, Paramount chief Brad Grey was thrilled to have a supply of pictures to fill his release pipeline. And Snider didn’t lose a beat as she pushed through a slate of movies developed under Spielberg, Parkes and MacDonald and production chief Adam Goodman. She rolled up her sleeves, made notes on scripts, assessed their commercial potential, and fast-tracked the ones she deemed ready to roll. And she met weekly with Paramount’s marketing team, led by Gerry Rich.

The effort yielded gross-out comedy “Norbit,” starring Eddie Murphy; Ben Stiller and Will Ferrell’s sports spoof “Blades of Glory,” and the PG-13 rated teen thriller “Disturbia” and Michael Bay’s”Transformers,” both starring Shia LaBeouf. All performed like gangbusters.

When Snider was approached by Tim Burton’s producer Richard Zanuck as Par’s “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” project was falling apart, she brokered a deal with Warner Bros. to co-finance the $55 million “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” directed by Burton and starring Johnny Depp. The R-rated Sondheim musical rolls out wide this December.

As soon as David Benioff handed in his adaptation of the bestseller “The Kite Runner,” Snider put together a deal between financier Sidney Kimmel, producers Bill Horberg, Rebecca Yeldham, Parkes and MacDonald and director Marc Forster, and greenlit the $20 million foreign-language pic. Paramount Vantage will release the film in November.

Snider made a priority of whipping into shape the script for the Farrelly brothers’ remake of “The Heartbreak Kid,” which quickly moved into production. Also on the fall slate is the $16 million Susanne Bier relationship drama “Things We Lost in the Fire,” starring Halle Berry and Benicio del Toro and produced by Sam Mendes.

Coming up in 2008 is Mendes’ film version of Richard Yates’ “Revolutionary Road,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, as well as yet another Parkes and MacDonald Korean horror remake, “A Tale of Two Sisters.” Stiller is shooting “Tropic Thunder,” a war comedy with Robert Downey Jr. and Jack Black. DreamWorks won the bidding for Peter Jackson’s $70 million adaptation of “The Lovely Bones,” which starts production in October. And DreamWorks is producing another hot director’s next project, Joe Wright’s “The Soloist,” the true story of a homeless musician, starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr., in partnership with Working Title. Also heading for production is D. J. Caruso’s action comedy “Eagle Eye,” starring LaBeouf.

In development, producers Jinks/Cohen are prepping “Dinner for Schmucks” a remake of a French comedy with Jay Roach directing Sacha Baron Cohen. And DreamWorks has acquired remake rights to the documentary “The Chicago Ten,” with Aaron Sorkin scripting. Snider is also charged with supplying Spielberg with a selection of movies to direct. After he finishes “Indiana Jones 4,” which Paramount is co-financing with Lucasfilm, Spielberg is expected to take on the Abraham Lincoln biopic starring Liam Neeson.

Under different circumstances, the cloud of such box office duds as “Stardust,” “Freedom Writers” and “Zodiac” might have Paramount’s Grey contemplating a change in his marketing team. But given that Rich has scored brilliantly with all the DreamWorks’ titles, that scenario is impossible. Which means that Grey’s production topper Brad Weston looks more vulnerable.Paramount insiders insistthat Par production topper Brad Weston’s 2008 slate will soon even up the score with DreamWorks. The roster under Weston includes Brad Pitt and David Fincher’s romantic drama “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (which boasts Grey’s first budget north of $150 million), J.J. Abrams untitled “Cloverfield” project and “Star Trek,” Jon Favreau’s Marvelcomicbook actioner “Iron Man” and the fantasy franchise “The Spiderwick Chronicles.” Paramount executive Scott Aversano is still ramping up production at the Nickelodeon and MTV labels.

If the DreamWorks troika were to ditch their relationship with Paramount, which is actually working even if it is uncomfortable, they would leave behind all of their development, including the “Transformers” sequels. On the other hand, they have the right to take the DreamWorks name, and could buy their way out and take some projects with them.

The most likely scenario (advanced peace talks are already under way): DreamWorks will stay and renegotiate its deal with more cash, or persuade Redstone to buy Katzenberg’s DreamWorks Animation (two more “Shrek” sequels are promised). If DreamWorks were to leave, it might be tempting for Snider to remain behind and take charge of all her projects. But that’s not likely to happen: Snider has cast her lot with Spielberg and with him she will remain.

Spielberg is still at the apex of the Hollywood pyramid, as he has been for some 30 years. The best that Hollywood has to offer is at his disposal. And that includes Snider.

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