New DreamWorks book on what went wrong: 'The whole company's mandate was: Give Steven what he wants'
As I read Nicole LaPorte's lively new history of DreamWorks, "The Men Who Would Be King," I found myself transported to a time long, long ago, an era so far gone that when DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg once complained to titular DreamWorks production chief Walter Parkes that he didn't have anything resembling a tentpole action extravaganza on the production slate, Parkes calmly replied: "If this is the kind of place where you need to have a big summer movie, well, maybe I'm not the right person for the job."
Ah, those were the days. Founded in 1994 by Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Katzenberg when they were three of the uber-titans of the entertainment business, DreamWorks was supposed to be the studio that would transform the movie business, a modern-day media behemoth with its tentacles in music, TV, video games and all sorts of other gaudy new media arenas.
Instead of making dumbed-down comedies and throwaway programmers, DreamWorks would offer glossy, sophisticated films that would appeal to quality-conscious moviegoers -- and still make plenty of money in the process.
It didn't pan out. For all the hoopla about DreamWorks being the studio of the future, it was very much a studio steeped in the past. Its aspirations had far more in common with the MGM of the 1930s and 1940s than the Pixar of the 21st century. DreamWorks turned out to be nothing more than just another struggling new movie studio -- and quite a whopper of a dysfunctional studio at that -- with its admirable output of quality fare ultimately outweighed by a host of costly live-action misfires and a mixed bag of animation releases.
In short, when you look back at all the high expectations, it was a pretty big disappointment.
DreamWorks 2.0 is back in business, now run by Spielberg and Stacey Snider with its films being distributed by Disney. But as LaPorte's book makes abundantly clear, the original DreamWorks was doomed from the start. Parkes' reaction to Katzenberg's initial concerns about the studio's mandate is especially revelatory on several levels. Even back in the late 1990s, when the exchange occurred, studios were already turning themselves into franchise engines, filling up their slates with tentpole movies and tons of sequels.
But Parkes was simply reflecting the attitude of his real boss - -Spielberg, who as the book reveals, was so in awe of Parkes' Ivy League erudition, good looks and certitude that as one observer put it, "If an alien from space landed in a room with Steven and Walter, it would think that Steven worked for Walter." So Parkes was reflecting Spielberg's vision for the company, as an artist-oriented studio that would do good works, an admirable vision, but not one that entirely reflected the views of Geffen, a man with a fierce desire to win, and Katzenberg, who having worked for years under Michael Eisner, had both feet firmly planted in the camp of making crowd-pleasing entertainment.
As the book also points out, the tension between Katzenberg and Spielberg, via Parkes, wasn't just about a different attitude toward class versus crass. It also reflected Katzenberg's not always unspoken feeling that after years of studio experience, he was far more qualified to run DreamWorks' live-action division than Parkes, a talented writer-producer with, well, zero actual experience running a studio. But to Spielberg, Katzenberg may have been his partner, but he was still a schlepper. Parkes had good taste. So when "The Peacemaker," DreamWorks' first live-action film, went into production, shooting in Slovakia, its star, George Clooney, was furious to discover that he was always having to learn new lines faxed in from L.A. by Parkes, who it turned out wasn't just the studio chief and a producer of the film but its rewrite man as well.
This sort of thing happened all the time at DreamWorks, which never managed to have any clear divisions of authority, except for the fact that Katzenberg had full sway over its animation wing. A series of production chiefs came and went, including such highly touted talents as ex-HBO executive Bob Cooper and ex-New Line production chief Michael De Luca, none of them lasting very long, quickly discovering that Parkes and his wife, Laurie MacDonald, were the real powers behind the throne.
Shortly after De Luca arrived, LaPorte writes that Parkes and MacDonald took him around town to introduce the new studio president at the top talent agencies. But over and over, De Luca and the other DreamWorks production execs were made to wait outside until Parkes and MacDonald finished the most important piece of business -- offering a presentation of the movies they were producing themselves. "It was unbelievable," one agent told LaPorte. "The writing was on the wall, right there. [Their] agenda was first, and Mike was an afterthought."
After I finished reading the book last week, I asked LaPorte the obvious question: What went wrong? She has some intriguing theories about the company's failure to live up to its high expectations. Keep reading:
"DreamWorks was ostensibly a start up company, but it was really the inverse of a start-up," she told me. "It was a start-up with nearly $3 billion in capital and tons of resources, but no real strategy. The whole business plan was cooked up in a couple of weeks with a vague mission statement about what the company would be. It was so much, so fast, so soon."
LePorte believes that while Spielberg, Geffen and Katzenberg were huge talents, they were unsuited to be studio chiefs, in large part because they were essentially two businessmen and one artist, with the business guys always deferring to the artist, since he was the world's most successful filmmaker.
"The whole company's mandate was Spielberg Inc., as in give Steven what he wants," she says. "Whatever Steven wanted, they'd give it to him, whether it was allowing him to direct movies at other studios or starting a video-game division or hiring Walter and Laurie to run the live-action studio even though they didn't have any experience ever running a studio before. Steven was the sizzle for the company, but so much went into making him happy that it really hurt the company."
As LaPorte discovered, Spielberg, like many powerful people with thinly papered-over insecurities, hated confrontation. So no one ever wanted to give him any bad news. "That was the culture, first at Amblin and later at DreamWorks," LaPorte says. "Steven couldn't stand confrontation. He was the Sun God and that was the DreamWorks mentality. He lives in a sort of non-reality and I guess you shouldn't have someone like that making business decisions if you want to have a successful company."
None of the Big Three founders would speak to LaPorte for her book, though she did speak to a host of lesser DreamWorks functionaries and filmmakers who made movies there, including Sam Mendes, Alan Ball, Gore Verbinski, Mark Johnson, Bruce Cohen and Scott Frank. She said that she was told, at first, that even if the original partners wouldn't talk, they wouldn't get in the way of her reporting. But after a few months of her doing interviews, things changed.
"I kept running into people whom Jeffrey had told not to speak to me," she says. "It became a nightmare. Everyone was nervous about being seen with me. I ended up meeting with a lot of people at places like a Denny's in El Segundo or one of those '50s diners on Ventura Boulevard where the pea soup is 99 cents."
Everyone will have their own opinions about why DreamWorks fell so short of its lofty ideals, but after talking to some people who run studios today, I have a few thoughts to share. First off, a movie studio can't have three kings. It has to have one boss, someone with a strong vision about the company's creative aspirations and commercial goals. As one studio chief pointed out to me, DreamWorks was also always behind the eight ball because its virtually impossible to start up a new studio without a development slate (a mistake that you'll notice DreamWorks 2.0 isn't making, having acquired a sizable number of projects from Paramount when the two companies went through their painful recent split). But I suspect that DreamWorks' biggest failing may have been rooted not just in its bigger-than-life founders, but when they started the company.
The most successful entertainment and new-media companies are launched by people still full of the exuberance and daring of youth. That was true of the fabled founders of the movie business, who were largely men in their 20s when they started the studios that became Disney, MGM, 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros. and Paramount. It's still true of the young men who dreamed up Apple, Google, Facebook and Twitter. All young, one and all.
By the time the founders had officially christened their new company in January 1995, David Geffen was 51, Spielberg was 49 and Katzenberg was 45. In showbiz terms, they were grizzled veterans, having all been successful for decades. When you are rich and powerful, you are the prisoner of your past experience. Your goals revolve more around building a legacy than creating a new paradigm. Put simply, DreamWorks was afraid to do what every successful studio has to do -- aim low and miss. They won Oscars, their movies often had a lot of class, but they almost always cost way too much, whether it was "The Last Castle," a failed Robert Redford prison thriller with a $72-million budget, or the Harrison Ford-starring "What Lies Beneath," which may still be the most expensive horror film ever made.
Finally, after years and years of missteps, DreamWorks figured out how to make franchises like "The Ring" and "Transformers," the kind of movies that pay the bills for years to come. But by then, as LaPorte's book so vividly demonstrates, the dream part of DreamWorks had been frittered away.
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Photos: (from top) Steven Spielberg and his wife, Kate Capshaw, at the White House Correspondents' Assn. Dinner earlier this month; Jeffrey Katzenberg at a launch of the DreamWorks Animation film "How to Train Your Dragon." Credits: Top: Brendan Hoffman / Getty Images. Below: Jeff Zelevansky / Getty Images.