If you want to believe the current issue of Fortune Magazine, General Electric is the “most admired” company in the U.S. Fortune even quotes Shelly Lazarus, CEO of Ogilvy & Mather, as declaring, “People love being part of GE. It’s like the highest state of being.”
Well, the “highest state of being” seems to be suffering an exodus these days. First, DreamWorks petulantly announced its exit, then Stacey Snider, Universal’s chief of production, followed suit. And judging from the Olympics ratings on NBC, a major portion of the TV audience seems to have headed for the exits, too.
Surely the hierarchs at GE must find all this surreal — and they have a point. By their reckoning, they were still in serious negotiation with DreamWorks when David Geffen walked away from their final offer to close a deal at Paramount. Then came another surprise: DreamWorks executives suddenly were parachuting into key positions at Paramount and Jeffrey Katzenberg seemed to be establishing hegemony over international sales and marketing.
Along came Steven Spielberg, a man accustomed to getting what he wants, who promptly persuaded Snider to join the DreamWorks team, having already been handed a substantial portion of the Paramount production budget.
This meant that Snider, who has yet to extract herself from her Universal contract, would be setting herself up once again on the Universal lot (this time in the DreamWorks building) where she would start spending Paramount money on movies to be sold by Paramount under strategy significantly influenced by the ubiquitous Katzenberg. Then again, David Geffen, who shut the door on GE to begin with, is producing a major film on the Paramount lot titled “Dreamgirls” (not to be confused with DreamWorks).
GE’s corporate brass, accustomed to dealing with nuclear reactors and the like, probably will call in a team of Harvard management consultants to analyze these permutations. The resulting 500-page report will surely come down to the following: Show business people just don’t appreciate “the highest state of being.”
So what shoe will next drop?
On the most basic level, Paramount has to come up with a sum of money to settle out Snider’s exit visa at Universal. Then the famously good-natured Ron Meyer, a man who rarely gets pissed off but is thoroughly pissed off by these machinations, must recruit a new production chief. (He’ll likely stay within the Universal family.)
Finally, Paramount has to explain to its existing production staff and resident filmmakers how the studio will operate under the new world order. Who will be greenlighting pictures and formulating marketing strategy?
Brad Grey, who built a superb career as a manager, has a formidable new circle of “clients” to service.
His close associates insist that, after precisely one year in office, he is totally cool about these developments and still wears his “what me worry?” expression.
As far as Grey is concerned, he is successfully mobilizing his resources while at the same time significantly boosting profits and revenues.
The long-anticipated sale of the DreamWorks library will vastly reduce the cost of the acquisition and underscore its economic benefits.
So if Grey’s actions have created a great deal of “noise,” that, in his view, goes with the territory. Indeed, it’s the price of progress.
Good as gold
The Oscars have been dutifully dispensed, so it’s relevant to take a final look at the fiscal realities of last year’s movies.
First, even before the presumed “Oscar bump,” the worldwide performance of several of the “serious” films has been downright astounding.
“Brokeback Mountain” has grossed $127 million worldwide while “Crash,” produced for under $7 million, has grossed $87 million. Even George Clooney would never have guessed that his slight, black-and-white film, “Good Night, and Good Luck,” would gross $46 million by Oscar time.
Meanwhile, consider the formidable results of two art films essentially snubbed on the awards circuit: “The Constant Gardner” has grossed $76 million worldwide while “Pride & Prejudice” has rolled up $109 million. And, of course, the ultimate “snubbed” film was “Chronicles of Narnia,” which has cheerfully grossed some $666 million despite an absence of major awards.
While the so-called “niche” category yielded rich rewards around the world, there’s also the down side: Arguably two of the most expensive and artistically ambitious releases were “The New World” and “Memoirs of a Geisha.” Having had a bumpy ride in Asia, “Geisha” is now at $138 million. “New World” is a lost world at $20 million.
A case could be made that these were basically “niche” pictures with budgets that exploded toward tentpole territory, which proved to be a dangerous syndrome for the movie class of ’05.