You might think that being Steven Spielberg has to be a pretty sweet deal: After all, you are revered as the guy who created Jaws, E.T. and the Jurassic Park series, among other hits. Everything you touch probably turns to gold, right? Except that’s not always the way things work in Hollywood.
Spielberg announced on Thursday that he is reinventing his long-time movie-making vehicle, formerly known as DreamWorks, by creating a partnership with eBay (EBAY) co-founder turned film producer Jeff Skoll. The result will be called Amblin Partners.
The reinvention is also in part a refinancing, since DreamWorks hasn’t been doing all that well financially in recent years, despite Spielberg’s fame. According to Variety, Skoll’s Participant Media has invested $200 million in the new entity, and DreamWorks’ original backers—Reliance Entertainment of India and Canadian-based film distributor eOne—have also invested.
In addition, Spielberg’s new vehicle has signed a debt-financing agreement with JP Morgan for a $500 million line of credit to finance new films and TV productions.
For the past six years, Spielberg has had a distribution partnership with Disney (DIS), but that deal expires next year, and the new entity has signed what is said to be a five-year deal with Universal (CMCSA). For Spielberg, this marks a return to his old stomping grounds—he got his start at Universal, and made both Jaws and E.T. for the studio.
Like a startup that can’t seem to find the right product-market fit, DreamWorks has now been through several iterations over the years. Spielberg originally created it in 1994 as a kind of star vehicle for himself, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen, with $500 million in financing from Microsoft (MSFT) co-founder Paul Allen.
Although DreamWorks had some big hits and critical successes such as Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind, and its animation arm had a hit with Shrek, the studio also made some expensive bets that didn’t pan out—like losing more than $125 million making Sinbad. Geffen later said that the studio almost went bankrupt twice.
Viacom (VIAB) acquired the company in 2006 to beef up its Paramount Pictures movie operation, but was mostly interested in its valuable film library. Two years later Spielberg ended his affiliation with Paramount and Viacom and announced a new version of DreamWorks that was backed by Reliance, which invested about $325 million.
Since that turnaround, however, the studio has had a fairly mixed track record at the box office, thanks to bombs like I Am Number Four and Cowboys & Aliens—although it has also had critical successes such as The Help. The company had to seek additional financing from Reliance in 2011, which invested another $200 million.
That makes the new Amblin Partners—which has DreamWorks as a separate subsidiary—the third attempt Spielberg has made to reinvent his original studio. Whether it will be a box-office blockbuster or a bomb remains to be seen.