So far, Dauman (or, should we say, Sumner Redstone, for whom Dauman speaks) is not winning many points for his bold statement. It is one thing to throw Tom Cruise out on his boodle. Steven Spielberg is a whole different bag of tricks.
We took a little poll of current and former studio heads and top-level Viacom types. All agreed that Dauman's words—though true—were ill-chosen. "It's so awkwardly put," says a source. "It's probably correct from a legal point of view because the movie company is such a small portion of the total number. So he's probably correct technically but it's just silly. I think [Spielberg] is pretty material."
Just looking at the studio, of course, DreamWorks is exceedingly material. Paramount dashed across the $1 billion mark in box-office grosses in record time this year, and the vast majority of that money came from DreamWorks movies. "The immaterial number is the number that Paramount produced," says a studio veteran. He means from movies like Hot Rod and Stardust and Freedom Writers.
Most concurred that Dauman, having given up on the DreamWorks relationship, was trying to do Wall Street damage control. In the process, says one current studio boss, Dauman inflicted a great deal of damage on its film studio. "It hurts them in ways they haven't felt yet," he says. After what's happened to Viacom talent—executive and creative, from Tom Freston to Tom Cruise—this observer continues, "You have to say, what reason is there to be there?"
To which a Paramount source responds: "Paramount's been around for 100 years. It'll be around for 100. We'll do another six movies a year [to replace those provided by DreamWorks]." This executive adds that DreamWorks would have to leave behind all its projects in development, so some of those six movies will come from the DreamWorks larder. And there you have the Viacom party line.
But it's hardly so simple. Considering how strongly DreamWorks has been batting lately, a few of those extra six movies will have to do a lot better than anything Paramount has generated in recent memory. Still, our insider is not fazed. "As long as you have a checkbook," he says, "the talent is going to come."
As for DreamWorks, our source notes that Geffen and Spielberg have been bitching about Paramount from the start, and that hasn't endeared them to Dauman (i.e., Redstone). "How many times can you read that people are unhappy?" he asks.
It is useful to remember that when Paramount outbid Universal for DreamWorks, the price seemed pretty rich. DreamWorks had been through a turn in the barrel, and Geffen needed to get a deal done to extricate investor Paul Allen. But then the DreamWorks world changed, transformed by Transformers, among other hits. (DreamWorks had a great year but the most important of its hits was Transformers, because it's a franchise.)
According to one up-close Geffen and Spielberg observer, that great deal with Paramount began to lose some of its luster: "David Geffen—who believes he is and may be the greatest deal-maker of all time—believes he left $1 billion on the table."
Meanwhile, Spielberg will really dislike being called immaterial. "With Steven Spielberg, it's about being made to feel you're the most special person in the world," says this source. And in Hollywood, says a top-level Viacom veteran, he is the most special person in the world—so special that no executive should ever suggest that losing him would be immaterial. "You don't say it to Spielberg," he says. "He's not talent—he's God."