DreamWorks’ Debt Finance Battle

Hollywood recently honoured Steven Spielberg with a two-hour retrospective on his 40-year career as a film director and producer. FT‘s Matthew Garrahan reports however that the celebrations may be shortlived: Spielberg cannot raise debt capital for his independent film company DreamWorks after talks failed with HBO and NBC Universal.

DreamWorks has endured a difficult 14-year history. Spielberg co-founded the film studio as DreamWorks SKG in 1994 with music mogul David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg who had just left Disney after a high-profile battle with Michael Eisner. Spielberg envisioned DreamWorks SKG as a 21st century successor to United Artists whilst Geffen and Katzenberg wanted their independence from the Hollywood establishment. However since 2004 the trio have rolled back their original vision and relied instead on the divestiture of the DreamWorks Animation division and distribution deals. They sold the studio to Viacom in 2005 partly because Geffen wanted an exit strategy from a daily operations role. Spielberg announced a $US1.5bn deal for independent films in September 2008 with India’s Reliance ADA Group which specialised in Bollywood films. The announcement was a world is flat moment worthy of Thomas Friedman: would India invade Hollywood as Japan’s Sony had done with its acquisitions of CBS Records (1987) and Columbia Pictures Entertainment (1989)? But as Garrahan notes, Reliance ADA Group’s funding of Spielberg’s independent vision was contingent on debt finance and distribution deals from other funding sources, which have now ended the negotiations.

There are several reasons for this outcome apart from the global financial crisis. Just before he announced the Reliance ADA Group deal industry analysts suggested that Spielberg had priced himself out of the United States market. Jeffrey Katzenberg’s attention is elsewhere: a charm offensive to raise the investor profile of DreamWorks Animation and its 3D releases. NBC Universal, HBO and other funding sources have their own reasons to be wary of DreamWorks: the fledgling studio was too early on digital television in the dotcom era, Geffen and Katzenberg adopted hardball negotiation tactics on earlier distribution deals which make a repeat game difficult. The ancillary and complementary markets in cable television, DVD and Blu-Ray sales face a volatile near-term future. Collectively, these factors may weaken Spielberg’s negotiation stance as the global financial crisis closes off other funding sources.

To have different negotiation options Spielberg may need to alter his game plan and overcome two barriers.

First, DreamWorks never developed the economies of scale and leverage to achieve Spielberg’s strategic vision as an independent studio. It overestimated demand for its Shrek and Transformers franchises and made money instead on mid-level romantic comedies and animation films. DreamWorks faced firm-specific risks from distribution partners which it hedged using ancillary and complementary markets to control revenue forecasts. Instead of the prohibitive cost structures of a studio Spielberg could model an independent DreamWorks on a smaller vision: Francis Ford Coppola‘s Zoetrope and Harvey Weinstein‘s Weinstein Company.

Second, Spielberg could look at other options to raise capital. He could follow David Bowie‘s example of asset-based Bowie Bonds and underwrite the films through commercial bonds on the future revenues of individual films or a production slate portfolio. Commercial paper may be an option as the global finance crisis recedes. A far more disruptive strategy would be if Spielberg adopted a microfinance model that would enable a broader range of investors to participate than the traditional debt and equity markets. DreamWorks’ legacy would then surpass the Hollywood studio system to encompass the bottom billion‘s dreams of financial independence.