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Almost Infamous

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At this moment, of course, the two are justifiably resting on their record, and simply point out that they have long working relationships with writers like John Logan, who did Gladiator, and Steve Zaillian, who's returning to do a polish on the upcoming Sam Mendes-Tom Hanks film Road to Perdition. "Micromanagement? In certain cases, it's absolutely true," says Parkes. "On other movies, I just hope to be as supportive and hands-off as I can." Screenwriter Scott Frank (Saving Private Ryan, Minority Report) agrees: "Walter's very good at problem-solving. He's saved my ass on a number of occasions."

And Spielberg, Katzenberg, and Geffen are rewarding them for their efforts. Under the terms of their recently renegotiated deal, Parkes and MacDonald will be allowed to take producer credits (and reportedly first-dollar gross) on certain DreamWorks films, a situation rife with potential conflicts of interest.

But such cross-purposes are built into the DNA of the company, nowhere more than in the multiple roles played by Steven Spielberg, DreamWorks' first among equals. Because of Spielberg, DreamWorks has been able to pad out its production schedule by cherry-picking other studios' development slates, turning films like Saving Private Ryan, Deep Impact, A.I., and Minority Report into lucrative co-ventures. When Spielberg toyed for a few weeks with directing Universal's Meet the Parents, with Jim Carrey, the project turned into a joint Universal-DreamWorks production. (Spielberg and Carrey dropped out, but the deal remained.) "Spielberg's name is invoked quite a bit," says a top agent. "It's the trump card they pull."

Yet except for the box-office disappointment Amistad, Spielberg has not made another movie solely for DreamWorks, and depending on directing commitments, his day-to-day involvement ebbs and flows. He was, for instance, barely involved in the production of Almost Famous, but he did impulsively tell Crowe to "shoot every word" of the 172-page script -- most scripts are 120 pages -- which may explain why the intimate comedy's budget grew to $60 million.

A-list screenwriters and prominent actors have been asked to cut their fees for the privilege of working with the director. "Every dollar that DreamWorks pays is like his own, I guess," says one former colleague. Consider the case of Paul Attanasio (Quiz Show, Donnie Brasco), who was commissioned to write a screenplay based on Scott Berg's Lindbergh biography. Attanasio produced a treatment that presented Lindbergh as a tortured hero with a complicated marriage and a nasty anti-Semitic streak. Spielberg wanted The Spirit of St. Louis. DreamWorks demanded that Attanasio return his start money, something that is practically unheard of in Hollywood. The amount in question was nearly $500,000, and Attanasio, a top screenwriter, is indeed giving a chunk of it back.

Spielberg's deals represent a big chunk of money that's not going into the company coffers and this gets to the crux of the company's curious state. Is DreamWorks just Amblin writ large?

When it comes to negotiating his own compensation, however, Spielberg plays another kind of hardball. His take generally includes an astounding 50 percent of the back end, which is part of the reason the first Men in Black left a residue of ill will. Spielberg, who merely executive-produced the Sony film, earned an estimated $100 million back end, while director Barry Sonnenfeld earned . . . considerably less. Indeed, when former Fox chairman Bill Mechanic initially did the math on Minority Report, a film that is burdened with not only Spielberg's back-end deal as director but also Tom Cruise's as star, he realized that both Fox and DreamWorks, which were jointly funding the film, would just "be doing it for the fun of it." The deal was about to fall through. But Geffen was able to convince Spielberg of the merits of Mechanic's argument. In the end, Spielberg and Cruise relaxed their demands, and the movie is on track for production next year.

Spielberg's deals represent a big chunk of money that's not going into the company coffers, and this gets to the crux of the company's curious state. Is it just Amblin, Spielberg's old personal production company, writ large? At least at Amblin, Universal had to absorb the losses; now he, Katzenberg, Geffen, and financial partner Paul Allen are responsible for the flow of red ink.

Though several sources at the studio have heatedly denied that the partners are looking for what industry watchers call an "exit strategy," over the past two years they have indeed been exploring various avenues that would significantly change the structure of the company, ranging from merger talks with Universal to an unsuccessful attempt to bring Joe Roth's Revolution studio under the DreamWorks umbrella.

Early this year, they sold off the foreign rights to Almost Famous, Everlasting Piece, and Ivan Reitman's upcoming comedy Evolution to Sony for $100 million, a quick cash infusion that allowed them to negotiate better refinancing terms on one of their loans. Moreover, they are renegotiating the terms of their distribution deal at Universal -- and they are looking for an equity investment in the company, which would allow them to further pay down their considerable debt.

A number of top Hollywood executives still wonder if DreamWorks can survive in the long run, despite its recent blush of prosperity. But it would be a shame if it failed. "In the days of the people who founded the early studios, you had to live or die based on your skill at making movies," says Bill Mechanic, who is currently in talks to hang his production shingle at DreamWorks. "Now they don't want to take responsibility. They run away from it. You have corporations who don't give a shit about what they're making. The movies have suffered. I like that DreamWorks is there for that one reason."

As for Katzenberg's new hairdo, those close to the mogul insist that it has no psychological implications. Apparently, he just decided to let it go gray. Sometimes a haircut is just a haircut.


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