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Parks lay golden eggs for Spielberg

Hollywood, June 24: Universal Studios theme parks are known for jaw-dropping experiences.

But prospective buyers of the operation are about to encounter one spectacle that hasn’t been advertised: an extraordinarily lucrative deal for director Steven Spielberg.

According to several executives with knowledge of the 1980s-era arrangement, Spielberg gets an unusually rich participation in receipts from some park operations in return for acting as a consultant to the unit.

The director collects 2 per cent of the gross — from tickets to concession sales — from Universal’s two parks in Orlando, Fla., sources said.

He also gets a piece of Universal Studios Japan, the sources said, with terms more complicated because of that park’s complex ownership structure with investors and the city of Osaka. He doesn’t share in Universal Studios Hollywood, they added, because that park predates his deal, nor in a Spanish theme park in which Universal is a major partner. What makes the arrangement even more of a whopper is that it continues in perpetuity, meaning generations of Spielbergs to come could share in the riches. A spokesperson said the director doesn’t comment on his deals.

Because of the arrangement’s complexity, and because Universal doesn’t break out financials for individual theme parks in its parks-and-resorts unit — which overall has revenue of about $900 million a year — Spielberg’s interest is difficult to value. But some former Universal executives say it could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars over time. Even without the theme-park deal, Spielberg is one of Hollywood’s richest individuals. The recent Forbes 400 pegs his net worth at $2.2 billion.

Spielberg’s profitable consulting arrangement was quietly negotiated during the regime of Lew Wasserman and Sidney Sheinberg, who ran Universal’s then-parent MCA Inc. until 1995, when Seagram Co. bought the company.

The MCA executives had given Spielberg his break when he was a fledgling filmmaker in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The director rewarded them by becoming Universal’s most important creative asset, directing such Universal blockbusters as Jurassic Park, Jaws and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, many of which spawned theme park attractions for the company.

Sheinberg declined to go into detail about the deal, but termed it an appropriate reward for the director’s creative role in helping shape Universal’s theme parks. “He was hardly a passive participant,” Sheinberg said.

Spielberg’s influence goes well beyond attractions tied to films he directs.

Indeed, films Spielberg has produced, but not directed, also have been turned into popular Universal attractions, including Men in Black, Back to the Future and Twister. And one of Universal’s most heavily promoted attractions is the new Shrek 4-D based on the blockbuster animated film from the DreamWorks SKG studio.

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