An article earlier this week in the New York Times reported on dissonance at Paramount Pictures, Holson, L., “The Director Lines Up a Shot,” New York Times (Feb. 5, 2007). This type of article never would appear in the trade press; leave it to the NYT to call it like it is, or at least call our attention to whatever it is. The article’s propositional content is to the effect that Brad Grey, Paramount’s Chairman, seems to be having difficulties with the principals of DreamWorks SKG, which Paramount purchased last year. Those persons include Steven Spielberg, and David Geffen.
Evidently, Mr. Grey bungled an introduction of the film “DreamGirls” at its premiere, suggesting it was a Paramount release, not one from DreamWorks. Then, he got into some kind of a shouting match with Stacey Snider, DreamWorks’ highly-regarded President, at the conclusion of which, or so it is reported, he hung up on her.
Mr. Spielberg in turn is concerned DreamWorks is “losing its identity.” Well, what did he expect, having sold it to Paramount? The fate of all newly-acquired production companies is to be digested by their corporate overlords, both in music and in film. “’The moment that there was no longer a weekly DreamWorks entry in the box-office charts and it was Paramount, it was a tough pill to swallow,’ said Walter Parkes, a former top DreamWorks executive who is now producing movies for them. ‘It is important to protect the name of DreamWorks and the films it creates.’” Mr. Spielberg seconded these concerns, and has discussed them with Mr. Grey. “’He agrees we need to be looked at not just as another label,'” Mr. Spielberg is quoted as having said, regarding their conversation.
Mr. Spielberg further rues having signed a contract obliging him to stay with DreamWorks, though, as reported at the time, he is not obligated to direct pictures for Paramount. “I could have just, sort of, taken the money and run,” he is reported as having said. Sort of? How about, “in truth and fact”?
As correctly reported by Ms. Holson, the issue is not so much Mr. Spielberg’s contractual prerogatives, but rather, “how much freedom can someone even as powerful and respected as Mr. Spielberg command once they become part of a larger company.” This tension arises because, “Increasingly, moviemakers are being bankrolled by corporate financiers or media conglomerates whose executives are beholden to the vagaries of Wall Street.” Not only is this true for firms like Miramax Redux, which raised over $1 billion in financial commitments; but also to studios utilizing off-balance-sheet financing supplied by so-called “hedge funds.”
My purpose in this note is not to be critical of DreamWorks, or Mr. Spielberg, or Mr. Geffen. Rather, I would like to suggest Mr. Grey is the one who needs some recalibrating. As I observed in a recent post (“Is That Your Partner in the Wood Chipper?), the President of any creative company needs to dedicate himself/herself resolutely to maintaining facile relationships with that company’s key talent. Failure to do so invariably will lead to that person’s demise.
I have watched this happen time and time again over the years. My focus in that post was the Bob Shaye – Peter Jackson dispute over “Lord of the Rings.” However, it just as easily could have been about Harry Sloan’s deteriorated inter-corporate relationships with Sony Corp., now the owner of MGM (see the post, “Corporate Revolts”), or any of half a dozen other situations.
As Ms. Holson observes, “Mr. Grey has a vested interest in making DreamWorks happy. “ Furthermore, as a former talent manager, he should know about these things. But if Mr. Grey thinks everything now is sweetness and light, he should become doubly vigilant. Persons like Mr. Geffen and Mr. Spielberg do not readily take to being slighted. Furthermore, they have power and influence to a degree Mr. Grey doesn’t. While of course there are corporate overseers and hedge fund managers, if push comes to shove, they’ll gravitate towards the talent, not management – for the simple reason that the latter is expendable, whereas the former isn’t. Sooner or later the long knives will come out, and Mr. Grey will be efficiently dispatched before he even knew what hit him. And, Paramount’s new President will be none other than Ms. Snider.
The director lines up a shot, indeed.