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D’Works makes hit movies, needs hot deal

THE FORMIDABLE ABILITY of DreamWorks to hold center stage at the Oscars reminds us that it remains one of the great anomalies of showbiz.

What ever happened to that company’s master plan to re-invent itself? So far there seems to be no plan. Not even a new corporate benefactor to inject fresh funding or take over overseas distribution and video.

Amid all its glory, has DreamWorks quietly lost its way?

The men at the helm scoff at that idea. They maintain that macho deals are in the offing and that their 6-year-old company is just coming into its own.

All this may very well be true, yet no one can recall a time when such a celebrated company seemed stuck in such an anomalous situation. While it’s collected yet another batch of Oscars, its erstwhile “parental figure,” Vivendi Universal, seems willing to say bye-bye.

SO WHAT WILL BE DreamWorks’ home? Insiders are keeping a watchful eye on the deliberations with AOL Time Warner, where Gerald Levin apparently has a big appetite for the deal.

One reason is that he wants to prove his commitment to “content” now that the dot-com universe has imploded. He and his confreres also cling to the notion that market share is king. Finally, despite his cautious, semi-rabbinical manner, Levin has certainly matched Rupert Murdoch as the most voracious dealmaker in the history of the industry.

But some in his company are asking tough questions: Is it prudent for AOL Time Warner to toss a few hundred million in equity and loans at DreamWorks at this juncture? Are the terms of the deal too tough?

Paradoxically, DreamWorks thus finds itself closely involved with two corporate leviathans that are themselves still struggling with identity problems and turf wars.

IN SHOW BUSINESS, issues of personality and ego always simmer just beneath the surface.

Some of the executives at Universal who’ve dealt with DreamWorks for the past few years have told their Warners brethren that handling the micro-managing demands of Katzenberg and company is a full-time job. Inevitably, too, those running the Warners studio would prefer to preside over their own stepped-up production agenda rather than surrendering corporate resources to DreamWorks.

Then there’s the fascinating question no one but a few insiders can answer: Namely, has DreamWorks really been managed for profit or for more exotic aims? Since their company is privately held, no one on the Dream Team sees fit to share data with the press.

Even insiders, however, question whether its overhead is burdensome. The notion of building a staff of almost 1,300 seemed to make sense when the company aspired to conquer the worlds of TV, music, videogames and the Internet, on top of its ambitious feature and animation effort.

Of all these endeavors, however, only movies and animation have really paid off, though the music business is now strongly on the move as well. Some six DreamWorks albums now rank in the top 100.

The DreamWorks modus operandi continues to be a lavish one when it comes to film launches as well as Oscar campaigns.

Marketing execs at rival studios question what the DreamWorks’ take could ultimately amount to on some of its box office hits, such as Robert Zemeckis’ “What Lies Beneath,” given the hefty ad budgets as well as the generous split of first-dollar gross.

Then, too, DreamWorks’ structure has confused the town. The conceit of banishing corporate titles has not prevented corporate infighting. Further, Jeffrey Katzenberg’s much publicized stint as “production chief” ostensibly serving under Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald seems to have been phased out, with the hyper-kinetic executive focusing once again on overall management and animation.

BUT WHILE NAYSAYERS may carp at DreamWorks’ eccentricities, there’s no denying its impact on the industry. At a time when Hollywood’s output has faded to gray, DreamWorks continues to serve up a distinguished array of films.

Its remarkably savvy husband-and-wife team of Parkes and MacDonald has proven its ability to function as hands-on producers and yet also provide a forceful creative presence at the company.

With films like “A.I.” and “Time Machine” coming down the chute, this record is likely to build, and the upcoming Tom Hanks/Sam Mendes gangster film, “Road to Perdition,” underscores a shrewd dedication to revisiting old genres a la “Zorro” and “Gladiator.”

Similarly with “Shrek,” the delightful Katzenberg-nurtured release, DreamWorks demonstrates yet again that it alone can mobilize a significant rivalry to Disney on the animation front. Indeed, some think “Shrek” could turn into a major money machine that could further reinforce the company’s positive cash flow.

TO BE SURE, DreamWorks still runs counter to the conventional wisdom about show business. It controls no vast library, no theme parks, no global distribution mechanism. At a moment in time when everyone obsesses about the wafer-thin profits of the film business, DreamWorks essentially remains a pure film play.

So the question remains: Which of the corporate behemoths will step up to the plate? The razzle-dazzle press conferences of the Dream Team are all in the past. It all comes down to financial models and an appetite for content.

Brilliant content, mind you, but content nonetheless.

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