Is Spielberg’s Geisha Fee Too High For Dreamworks?

As Saving Private Ryan continues at the top of the box office–ending its fourth week there on Aug. 16–Dreamworks SKG partners Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen must be increasingly glad that Steven Spielberg is part of their troika. With Mr. Spielberg obligated to work for the financial betterment of the studio he helped found, Dreamworks is saving a helluva lot of money.

When the Hollywood trade press reported in April that Mr. Spielberg would next tackle a film adaptation of Arthur Golden’s best-selling novel Memoirs of a Geisha , the articles noted that the project had been acquired by Columbia Pictures for producer Douglas Wick, but that the film would be co-financed by Columbia and Dreamworks.

A month later, however, Dreamworks had cut itself loose from the project. At the time, Daily Variety reported that Memoirs of a Geisha , “with no major stars attached, was simply too modest to necessitate a co-production arrangement.”

But that may have been Hollywood spin for the Dreamworks partners’ realization that the odds of making money on Geisha were not great because Mr. Spielberg was charging full freight to work on the picture. Columbia spokesman Barbara Dixon confirmed to The Transom that the studio is happily paying Mr. Spielberg “full salary” on this picture. That salary is actually more like the gross national product of a small country.

It’s almost impossible to know what Mr. Spielberg’s deal is on a particular picture, but it’s safe to say that on each his successful films, he’s made tens of millions of dollars. Back when he was directing two of those pictures– Jurassic Park , which had $913 billion in domestic and international box-office gross, and Schindler’s List , which his Amblin Entertainment Inc. production company also produced–Mr. Spielberg’s deal was this: To direct the film, he got 17.5 percent of a film’s gross. On top of that, as a producer, Mr. Spielberg also got 50 percent of a film’s profits. (And as one knowledgeable industry source explained, Mr. Spielberg’s contractual definition of break-even is not the same as the one initially given to Art Buchwald.)

According to those familiar with the situation, Mr. Spielberg, having given Dreamworks a professional discount on his last two films, Amistad and Ryan , decided that this time around he wanted his full fee. (Mr. Spielberg’s spokesman, Marvin Levy, confirmed that Amblin will produce Geisha .) That would have put Dreamworks in a doubly unlucrative position: paying half the huge fee, and splitting half of any profits with Columbia. (That’s not accounting for Mr. Wick’s particular deal and screenwriter Ron Bass, who usually gets a producing fee for his troubles.) So, according to one source, Mr. Geffen, Mr. Katzenberg and Mr. Spielberg decided amicably that Dreamworks could not afford Mr. Spielberg this time around.

Mr. Spielberg apparently still wants to be seen as a director for hire, not just a company man. The reasoning goes that, Mr. Spielberg, feeling properly compensated by Sony Corporation-owned Columbia, won’t feel so bad about coming back to Dreamworks to work for bargain-basement prices.

Meanwhile, he won’t be working with strangers at Columbia. It was Mr. Wick’s wife, Lucy Fisher, vice chairman of Columbia Tri-Star Motion Picture Group, who brought the book to Mr. Spielberg’s attention. According to Ms. Dixon, Ms. Fisher and the director “have made 14 films together,” one of them The Color Purple . Ms. Fisher was not available to comment, but when The Transom tried to run the figures of Mr. Spielberg’s deal by Ms. Dixon, she replied: “Could be, who knows? All we know is we’re delighted to pay it. If that’s what it takes to get Steven Spielberg, we’re thrilled.”

Backing Up Betsy: How Much Is Wilbur Ross Really Worth?

When Lieut. Gov. Betsy McCaughey Ross changed her party affiliation from Republican to Democrat last October and announced her intention to run for Governor, pundits made her the instant front-runner for her new party’s nomination. That calculation was based somewhat on her name recognition, but mostly on the financial strength of her husband, investment banker Wilbur Ross Jr.

As the gubernatorial race gathers late-summer heat, Ms. McCaughey Ross’ campaign has underwhelmed those same pundits. And financial disclosures made by Mr. Ross during his 1995 divorce from his first wife suggest that he may not have the war chest that Ms. McCaughey Ross needs to run her dream campaign.

At a meeting of Democratic Party leaders late last year, Ms. McCaughey Ross confidently predicted she would spend as much as $15 million on her campaign. Yet, as of Aug. 10, she had barely spent a tenth of that. (Kevin Davitt, a spokesman for the McCaughey Ross campaign, said that her statements were made “in the excitement of the moment. It’s part of the innocence of your first campaign.”) The much anticipated onslaught of Ms. McCaughey Ross’ television and radio commercial campaign also has yet to materialize. In May, she told The Observer that she expected to go on the air with a major ad run before the state convention at the end of the month, but did not. In June, her spokesman told reporters that the campaign expected to place a major advertising buy by mid-July. The Ross campaign did purchase commercials that month, but it was a tiny buy. Mr. Davitt said the campaign has changed strategy a number of times, based on “who we [expect] to be our main opponent.”

Ms. McCaughey Ross certainly wouldn’t accuse her husband, a partner at Rothschild Inc., of being a skinflint. Over the last eight months, Mr. Ross has written checks to her campaign for $3.5 million.

The size of Mr. Ross’ contribution is interesting in light of what he claimed to be worth at the time of his divorce. A tally of assets he listed in an affidavit of net worth, submitted in documents related to his divorce and obtained by The Transom, put his total worth just shy of $11.5 million in October 1995, just two months before he married the Lieutenant Governor.

According to court documents, Mr. Ross and his wife, Judith Ross, were to split their combined assets. Ms. Ross’ attorney, Bernard Clair, did not provide his client’s affidavit of net worth, but said that her assets at the time of the divorce amounted to “less than $250,000.”

Because most of Mr. Ross’ and Ms. McCaughey Ross’ holdings are private and state disclosure requirements are hardly rigorous, it is difficult to determine their current worth.

In the 1980′s, Mr. Ross made a name for himself representing creditors trying to recover assets from bankrupt companies. “I mostly work with troubled situations,” Mr. Ross told The Transom. He went head to head with the likes of Donald Trump and Texaco Inc. More recently, he has been focusing his energies in South Korea. On Dec. 23, 1997, his Rothschild “vulture fund,” which invests in distressed financial institutions, poured millions into Korean assets. A day later, the International Monetary Fund bailed out the South Korean economy, causing the vulture fund’s holdings to soar.

Mr. Ross has had much less good luck in an ongoing financial dispute between him and Ms. Ross. According to the terms of their divorce, Mr. Ross was to turn over shares in Mego Financial Corporation to her within 15 days of the divorce. But court papers note that Mr. Ross was six weeks late doing so; by the time he did, on Dec. 13, 1995, the stocks had allegedly lost more than half a million dollars in value. Ms. Ross has since sued, and her ex has failed to show up for his deposition three times.

“I want to know where the stock was,” Ms. Ross’ lawyer, Mr. Clair, told The Transom. “I want to ask him whether or not he knew in his position as a director [of Mego] anything that would presage this very drastic drop in value.”

In court papers, Mr. Ross has responded that Ms. Ross had in fact received an unexpected windfall because, once transferred to her, his restricted stock became unrestricted, and therefore, more valuable. His lawyer cited “business emergencies” as reasons for Mr. Ross not showing up to give his deposition. Asked about the legal brouhaha, Mr. Ross said, “I’m not going to try a lawsuit in the newspapers.” Mr. Clair, exasperated, has moved for default, and the judge has ordered both parties to show up in court Aug. 21.

Whatever Mr. Ross’ financial status, someone in his wife’s camp seems to be doing some creative thinking when it comes to his funding of her campaign. On Jan. 9, he wrote a check for $2.25 million for her campaign committee. The amount of that check may not have been an incidental: When the Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls announced their fund-raising totals on Jan. 15, the Lieutenant Governor had a $200,000 edge over her chief rival, Mr. Vallone, allowing her to claim front-runner status in the fund-raising race. Such victories are viewed as proof of a candidate’s credibility and can spur future fund-raising. Mr. Davitt, however, claimed his campaign had no way of knowing Mr. Vallone’s totals in advance and that, therefore, nothing about the $2.25 million was calculated.

In an unusual move, the day after the campaign filed its financial statement with the State Board of Elections, $2.25 million was invested in an interest-earning promissory note that came due in June and July. As news of this transaction began to leak, Ms. McCaughey Ross refused to discuss it, saying only that it would be fully disclosed on July 15, when another round of statements was due. The investment was listed in disclosures made to the Board of Elections, but omitted from copies of those records the campaign sent to The Transom.

“If it was my money, I would have done the same thing,” said campaign spokesman Courtney Carlson. “The money was put back [into the campaign] with the interest that was collected. That just boosted the amount of money.”

If the $2.25 million was intended to impress potential donors, it did not. As of Aug. 10, Ms. McCaughey Ross had raised only $500,000 from outside sources.

–Andrea Bernstein

The Transom Also Hears

William Styron was trapped. Trapped! Not by the usual piggish bores, sniveling sycophants or other time-monopolizers that pepper these kinds of Hamptons parties. No, Mr. Styron, the author of Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness , found himself hemmed in by a particularly pesky tangle of empty bamboo chairs at the Aug. 15 premiere party for A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries at the Sagpond Vineyards.

Mr. Styron had been attempting to join the crowd, which included authors Salman Rushdie and Norman Mailer, when he ran into the impenetrable waist-high wall that stood between him and the rest of the party. Hunching his frame, Mr. Styron pushed. He pulled. He lifted and tilted the suckers in an attempt to clear a path for himself. But the chairs had become lashed together by the straps of purses and abandoned goodie bags left among their legs.

“What the hell is going on?” Mr. Styron said to The Transom as we attempted to help him.

Eventually, he managed to wrench two of the cane bastards apart. As Mr. Styron made a break for it, The Transom, betting that he would feel kindly disposed to us, asked if Kris Kristofferson had appropriately played the character in the film that was based on his friend, the late author James Jones. A puzzled look crossed Mr. Styron’s face. Perhaps still annoyed by his struggle with the chairs, Mr. Styron replied, “It’s just too complicated,” and strolled off.

–Julie Lipper