By FRANK SWERTLOW

Staff Reporter

On the surface, "Saving Private Ryan" looks like one of the surest hits of summer.

Steven Spielberg is directing. Two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks is starring, and newcomers like Matt Damon and Ed Burns will help pull in the younger crowd.

Any studio would like the profits from this kind of film to itself. But "Private Ryan" is a co-production of DreamWorks SKG and Paramount Pictures.

Why the deal? One reason is that Paramount owned the project, but Spielberg wanted to make the movie about the heroic attempt to save a soldier whose three brothers were killed in battle. But another reason is that, on closer inspection, the $65 million film is considered something of a risk, and neither studio wanted to bear the weight of a money loser.

"This is being seen as a big, important movie, like 'Schindler's List' and 'The Godfather,' " said Al Ruddy, the producer of "The Godfather." "But it may not be an audience pleaser, like Carmen Diaz in 'There's Something About Mary.' "

DreamWorks and Paramount refused to address concerns about the film's profit potential, but analysts and studio executives cite a number of reasons why "Private Ryan" may not be a surefire hit.

The movie is rated R, limiting the size of its audience. And war films in this case, a movie being already described as particularly bloody are not date movies.

So DreamWorks followed what has become a new rule in Hollywood: When in doubt, get a co-producer.

"It's the trend," said Marion Boucher Soper, an analyst at Bear, Stearns & Co. in New York. "Wall Street likes it, investors like it. It makes sense as the cost of talent and the cost of making movies becomes so huge."

Fear, she said, has been a great motivator in these marriages.

"They are being smart businessmen," the analyst said. "There is such uncertainty about the tastes of audiences, and there is too much product out in the multiplexes."

Indeed, a film like "Godzilla," which has made more than $135 million, might have been considered a hit two years ago. Now it is considered a disappointment because of the high price of making it.

"The basic theory concerns reducing the risk, as pictures become more and more expensive to make," said Michael Nathanson, president of MGM Pictures. "If you split the cost of making a $100 million movie, it leaves you with $50 million to make another movie in which you own 100 percent. You increase your volume and still maintain your position."

While co-productions are not new, "Private Ryan" is the latest in a recent spate of joint studio ventures. The most notable was Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.'s pact with Paramount to co-finance the $200 million-plus "Titanic" following a series of cost overruns.

Among other recent co-productions is "Small Soldier," a pact between Universal Studios Inc. and DreamWorks. Walt Disney Co.'s boutique Miramax unit got together with Paramount in "Sliding Doors." "Deep Impact" is a marriage between Paramount and DreamWorks.

Under terms of these co-productions, one studio usually takes the domestic distribution of a film and the other gets the foreign rights. The revenues are pooled and then split.

"It's risk transfer," said David Davis, an analyst at Houlihan, Lokey, Howard & Zukin. "A few years ago, a film might cost $60 million to $80 million to make. Now it's $130 million to $150 million. By taking a half interest, you take half the risk."

But as you limit the downside, you also limit the upside. Had Fox gambled on going alone with "Titanic," all the profits would have gone into its own vaults and not been split with Paramount.

Frank Price, former chairman of Columbia Pictures, likened co-productions to bettors going to the track and putting their money on a show finish.

"It isn't really about running out of money on one of these productions," he said. "It's really about how much risk you are willing to take."

Price said that during his tenure at Columbia from 1978 to 1984, he frequently pursued co-financing and co-production ventures. Two such films were Spielberg's "1941" with Universal and "All That Jazz" with Fox.

Despite rising budgets, not everyone wants a co-production. No matter what the budget on a "Lethal Weapon" movie, Warner Bros. wouldn't want a partner in this highly successful franchise. MGM wouldn't want to split up its interest in its James Bond sagas, produced by its United Artists division. Films like these are considered low-risk ventures.

"If there is anxiety at all about the total commercial viability, you'll see a co-production," Ruddy said. "Anything that looks dicey or expensive, you try to lay off 50 percent."

Cassian Elwes, a film executive at the William Morris Agency, said he anticipates that co-productions will continue for big-budget films. "Studios will always need big tent-pole movies," he said. "But if there is a limit on how much they are willing to spend on the slate, co-financing is a way to halve the risk and the investment."

Harold Vogel, an analyst at Cowen & Co., prefers the days when studios put all their marbles on big films themselves.

"I think they should take the plunge," he said. "I know the argument is they want partners to soften the risk. Right now they are all blinking."

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