While Hollywood observers can rationally understand what Viacom CEO Phillippe Dauman meant when he told a room full of investors that Steven Spielberg's possible departure from his corporate family would be "completely immaterial" to his company's overall health, they also know that it was a catastrophic mistake not to immediately douse himself in gasoline after speaking those impolitic words, strike a match, and cry in anguish, "But the very thought of losing the greatest filmmaker—nay, human being!—in the history of this business we call show is so painful that this disturbing self-immolation you will now witness is the only thing that can stop my heartsickness." Slate's Kim Masters asks some insiders about Dauman's tragic failure to pay any kind of tribute to the national treasure's contributions, about Spielberg's likely feelings on the issue of immateriality, and about whether or not Paramount should just burn down the Melrose lot and start over after his inevitable departure:
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.
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." [...]
Meanwhile, Brad Grey—having failed to do anything much to brag about at Paramount other than buying DreamWorks—will probably get some time to collect himself. Next year's J.J. Abrams-directed Star Trek and (oh, the irony) Spielberg-directed Indiana Jones should buy him breathing room. After that, as one of our ex-studio chiefs puts it—he's "sitting there all naked.""
And it's at that precise moment—when a naked Grey is sitting behind his desk, plotting Paramount's next move—when the offended, slow-burning DreamWorks God will allow infernal troublemaker David Geffen to finally put the studio head to the test, stripping him of his riches, his livestock, and the "totally killer idea about an alien teddy bear that saves the world that Steve said is going to be a billion-grosser" to see if that succession of punishing trials will lead Grey curse Spielberg's name with the same accurs'd words spoken by his boss: "completely immaterial." If Grey endures these tribulations without blasphemy, Spielberg and Geffen will consider giving him a job reading scripts at their new venture.