Dream team raises curtain Studio: DreamWorks SKG, known for its superstar founders, hopes to turn the focus to quality and freedom with its first movie release, 'The Peacemaker.'

September 26, 1997|By David Kronke | David Kronke,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

LOS ANGELES -- The good news: Before it had even released a movie, DreamWorks SKG had won an Academy Award.

The bad news: It was for a failed TV pilot. "Dear Diary," a sitcom starring Bebe Neuwirth that had been rejected by the networks, won this year's Best Short Film Oscar.

Ah, well, the test begins in earnest today, when DreamWorks, the first new major Hollywood studio in 60 years, releases its premier film, "The Peacemaker," a political thriller starring George Clooney and Nicole Kidman.

Those running DreamWorks' film division insist that no studio philosophy should be inferred from the fact that its first product was a big-budget, international action flick.

"I don't think we looked at it that way," suggests Walter Parkes, who along with his wife, Laurie MacDonald, heads DreamWorks Pictures and is one of the film's producers. "There are so many projects that come your way that have the potential of being something special, you just learn to trust your judgment and you just go for it."

Parkes and MacDonald come to DreamWorks after functioning in the same capacity for Amblin Entertainment, created by one of DreamWorks' founders, Steven Spielberg. "The fact that it was a big, adult thriller with political overtones was interesting for us in that it didn't fit into what some people might perceive as the Amblin mode," Parkes explains.

It has been a month short of three years since Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen first announced that they were creating a new entertainment conglomerate incorporating film and television production, a record label, an interactive company and an animation department.

Spielberg, Parkes and MacDonald would run the film division, Katzenberg would oversee animation and television and Geffen would handle the music label. Departments later were added focusing on toys, special-effects creation and amusement centers.

Then the growing pains began.

Most humbling has been the experiences of its television wing. Its first project, "Champs," barely aired on ABC; its projected newsmagazine, "Connie and Maury," starring the husband-and-wife team of Connie Chung and Maury Povich, never got out of the development stage.

Last season, the studio brought four series to prime time: "Ink" and "Arsenio" were flamboyant failures, while the cop series "High Incident" was gunned down by NBC's Thursday night lineup. Only "Spin City," with Michael J. Fox, remains in production.

DreamWorks' music label has fared better, with a successful debut album from the eels and decent showings from alternative acts Morphine and the Rollins Band. A Chris Rock comedy album fared well, and the recent release of Forest For The Trees was well reviewed. George Michael's highly hyped comeback disc met with shrugs, however.

DreamWorks also has been confounded by environmental groups who have stalled construction at the studio's projected site in Playa Vista, south of Los Angeles. Executives continue to work out of Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment offices on the Universal Pictures lot. The animation department, on the other hand, is going up as planned in Glendale, mere miles from the Disney studio Katzenberg left.

But bragging rights in Hollywood still come from movie success, and this is where DreamWorks, by virtue of its close association with Spielberg's Amblin, would seem to have its trump card. Amblin, after all, brought audiences the two highest-grossing movies of the year so far, "Men in Black" and "The Lost World: Jurassic Park."

In December, DreamWorks will release "Amistad," based on the true story of a slave-ship rebellion and Spielberg's first serious film since "Schindler's List"; a month before that comes the slapstick family comedy "Mouse Hunt," starring Nathan Lane of "The Birdcage."

Mimi Leder, an Emmy-award winning director (for "ER") who makes her feature-film debut with "The Peacemaker," is enthusiastic about the new studio.

"The great thing about DreamWorks is that it's a studio run by filmmakers," she says. "So you have as the head of the studio Steven Spielberg, one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, giving me notes. It was great to be taken under his wing."

Parkes amplifies the point: "At most studios, the higher you go up in administration toward ownership, the farther you get away from people who make films for a living. At DreamWorks, the higher you go up in administration toward ownership, the closer you get to Steven Spielberg."

DreamWorks' bureaucracy is also far more streamlined than other studios, adds MacDonald.

"Last summer, we produced ['Peacemaker'] along with 'Men in Black,' and it was interesting to compare the two," Parkes says. "With 'Men in Black,' we had to take a long time to get people to say yes to it, four or five years. This movie, we embarked upon relatively recently."

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