By FRANK SWERTLOW

Staff Reporter

DreamWorks SKG is having its headaches.

The much-heralded film arm of the studio founded by Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg has now released three films, none of which looks to be the kind of box-office smash some people in Hollywood had expected.

Its latest offering, "Mouse Hunt," a comedy starring Nathan Lane, opened in 2,152 theaters nationally Dec. 19, but drew only $6 million for its first weekend. The Paramount-Fox film "Titanic" took in $28.6 million and MGM's 007 thriller "Tomorrow Never Dies" opened at $25.1 million.

"The opening of 'Mouse Hunt' was clearly soft," said Arthur Rockwell, an analyst for Los Angeles-based Yeager Capital Markets.

With "Mouse Hunt," DreamWorks obviously was looking to make a splash with families and young children during the all-important Christmas season.

"It was well marketed and advertised," said Rockwell. "It at least did better than 'Home Alone 3' and 'Anastasia.' But this is not an auspicious beginning."

The tepid opening comes in the wake of the disappointing performance of "Peacemaker," the company's first film. And Spielberg's directorial debut for the company, "Amistad" is doing only modest business in limited release.

Steve Cesinger, managing director media/entertainment for Los Angeles-based Grief & Co., said DreamWorks is not dismayed by the early returns. The company, he said, has a strong management team that goes beyond Spielberg, Geffen and Katzenberg. Such strength will prevail in the long run, he said.

Cesinger added that DreamWorks has the deep financial pockets to withstand growing pains. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, for example, has invested $500 million in the company.

"A Paul Allen can sit back for 10 or 15 years and not worry about current cash flow," Cesinger said.

He said an undercapitalized company would have more strains at this point to deliver hits.

"If Moe, Larry or Curly were running this company, they would have to hit some good home runs immediately or they wouldn't last," Cesinger said. "You can't last that long in this business because it consumes capital so quickly."

So far, DreamWorks has been hitting singles and doubles not the home runs expected from three Hollywood titans.

"Peacemaker," for example, which starred George Clooney and Nicole Kidman, cost $50 million to make and generated $41.3 million domestically at the box office. Although it earned $100 million worldwide, industry observers said it would have had to make $100 million domestically to become a hit.

"Peacemaker opened respectably but it is clear that it will not make a lot of money," Rockwell said. "I think they were hoping that 'Mouse Hunt" would be the Little Engine That Could, but it will be off the charts early in the year."

DreamWorks officials declined comment for this story. But in a Washington Post interview earlier this year, Katzenberg said expectations for immediate success were never realistic.

"The instantaneous results they looked for were never something we expected to deliver," he said. "We're trying to build a foundation, an infrastructure. We're on course, and we feel great about it, in most respects."

Indeed, the slate of upcoming DreamWorks Pictures projects for next year appears to be a mix of "quality" and "commercial" projects: "Paulie," a comedy about a talking parrot, "Saving Private Ryan," starring Tom Hanks and directed by Spielberg; "Small Soldiers," a live action/computer-animated kid's adventure yarn; "Prince of Egypt," the company's first full-length animated feature about the story of Moses; and an untitled psychological thriller directed by Neil Jordan and starring Annette Bening and Robert Downey Jr.

DreamWorks executives had cause for optimism about "Amistad," the compelling tale of a mutiny aboard a slave ship in the early 19th century. Spielberg has called the film his more important movie.

But despite mostly positive reviews, the $75 million film has earned just $10 million in limited release. Even so, the the film is being positioned for several Oscar nominations, which could, in turn, generate better returns at the box office.

As a prelude to the Oscars, "Amistad" drew four Golden Globe nominations from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, including best picture and best director.

But marketing and promotion aside, "Amistad" labors under a cloud of plagiarism accusations that taint the film, the screenwriter and the director. An African American novelist, Barbara Chase-Riboud, has claimed that her novel "Echo of Lions" was the basis of the film. She is suing for $10 million.

The movie division of DreamWorks is not the only headache that the company has to handle. Geffen, who became a billionaire record-industry executive, has not generated much sizzle in his new company's music division. DreamWorks' TV division has not developed a major hit. And a deal to develop the studio's Playa Vista campus still hasn't been cut.

"We don't know how healthy they are financially because they are not a public company," Rockwell said, "but clearly they have not had an instant hit in TV, clearly they have not had an instant hit record and they have not succeeded instantly in the theatrical film business This is not a great start."

Cesinger remains bullish about the future of DreamWorks, despite the sluggish start.

"It's too early to measure them at this point," he said. "They will continue to produce quality productions, some will be successful and some won't. But they have been under the microscope and people tend to want to bash them."

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