As you’ve no doubt seen by now, the reports were true and, last Monday, Walt Disney Pictures signed a deal with Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks studio to distribute at least thirty films over the next five years. The first six films are slated to be released in 2010, and will be distributed through Disney’s Touchstone banner.
The Touchstone label had almost disappeared in recent years, due to new Disney CEO Bob Iger’s strategy of paring down the release schedule to focus on family-friendly and ultra-marketable franchise films for the Walt Disney Pictures brand. This reduction of new product left a great deal of unused capacity (and thus wasted overhead) in Disney’s distribution pipelines, which include not only theatrical release but pay-television (due to their long-term contract with Starz!) and home video. Six pictures a year from DreamWorks will help fill empty distribution slots and increase profits.
As part of the deal, Disney paid DreamWorks between $150-250 million (the amount varies among reports) to stabilize their finances and will receive a distribution fee of between 8-10% of each film’s gross.
Unfortunately, while DreamWorks is free to license its film properties to Disney for new park attractions, Spielberg’s existing contract with Universal prevents him from personally consulting on Disney theme parks. Spielberg’s deal with Universal, which dates back to the 1980s, earns him 2% of their parks’ annual earnings – reported to amount to as much at $50 million. While Nikki Finke recently reported that Universal raised Spielberg’s ire in recent negotiations when they expressed the desire to reduce that percentage, the deal stands for now and I doubt that Disney would care to make an equivalent offer.
It’s also important to underscore again that this deal does not include DreamWorks Animation, which is a separately traded company and which continues to distribute its films through Paramount.
DreamWorks already has a number of films in development; Jim Hill has reported that the first of their films under the Disney deal might be Spielberg’s long-anticipated Abraham Lincoln biopic starring Liam Neeson as the Great Emancipator. Hill claims that Imagineers are making plans to re-open Disneyland’s Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln in 2010 with a newly-recorded narration starring Neeson. Other media sources mention in-development DreamWorks projects like the Aaron Sorkin-scripted The Trial Of The Chicago 7, Steve Carell comedy Dinner With Schmucks, an action film based on the Secret Service called Motorcade, and an adaptation of the children’s fantasy book series The 39 Clues.