Reading Nicole LaPorte’s sporadically snarky, fiendishly entertaining history of the rise and undoing of the DreamWorks multimedia empire, what comes to mind is an animation: cartoon kingdoms at war, their leaders huddling and scheming, thought balloons of retribution above their heads; armies of lawyers scuttling about, hatching mischief at the direction of the kings who hired them; and deep in the basements of each of the warring fortresses, adding necessary fuel to the fire, armies of young buff athletes shoveling stacks of thousand-dollar bills into furnaces at a furious speed.
To go by The Men Who Would Be King, the process of building a Hollywood studio from scratch is, like the genesis of sausage or a nation’s plan for war, not a pretty thing. When Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen formally launched DreamWorks in October of 1994, it was touted as a bid of moviemaking in the classic tradition of the moguls of old, the ones who made Hollywood Hollywood. DreamWorks would be different, a kinder, gentler studio: a lab and a community for aspiring filmmakers; a Petri dish for ideas from a wide range of entertainment visionaries; a one-stop shop for live action, music, animation and gaming properties that would rewrite the rule book on how entertainment was made.
The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; US: May 2010)
Spielberg read a mission statement that day at the announcement at L.A.‘s Peninsula Hotel: “Hollywood studios were at their zenith when they were driven by point of view and personalities. Together with Jeffrey and David, I want to create a place driven by ideas and the people who have them. I regard Jeffrey and David as pioneers. I’d like to be one, too.”
Other such maverick ventures have been tried before, to greater or lesser extent. In 1969, Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, Steve McQueen, Barbra Streisand and Dustin Hoffman formed First Artists Productions Ltd., with the intent of finding and developing their own projects. In March 1980, flush with cash and the successes of two Godfathers, Francis Coppola purchased a ten-acre movie production space (the old Hollywood General production lot on Santa Monica Boulevard) and announced plans to launch Zoetrope Studios, meant to bring the collaborative aspects of the repertory theater to the world of movies.
Indeed, the SKG troika, coming at the dawn of the digital age, was something else again. It seemed to have everything going for it: Spielberg, undisputed heavyweight champion of the movies; Katzenberg, Disney-trained king of animated features; and Geffen, multi-hyphenate entertainment impresario with strong business experience.
There was success in the early years. Films like American Beauty, Gladiator, Saving Private Ryan, Dreamgirls, and the phenomenally successful Shrek animation franchise; TV series like Spin City and musical acts like Nelly Furtado proved the DreamWorks brand of creative independence could work and work well. Yet despite the victories, what would ultimately transpire over the next 15 years was a story of how culture clashes, a fickle public, troubles with the wider economy, fear, obstinacy, towering self-confidence and naked greed could combine to poison this loftiest of pursuits.
In many ways, DreamWorks’ beginning began with an ending. On 3 April 1994, Frank Wells, the beloved president and chief operating officer of Disney, was killed in a helicopter crash during a ski trip in the Ruby Mountains of Nevada. Wells received much of the credit for Disney’s reinvention as an animation powerhouse in the’ 80s and early ‘90s.
Katzenberg had long toiled in the Disney animation vineyard; with Wells’ death, he had expectations of being the heir apparent. Michael Eisner, then Disney’s legendarily strategic CEO, refused to give the post to Katzenberg (whom Eisner had dubbed his “golden retriever”, LaPorte relates). Katzenberg was ousted in August 1994, amid an acrimonious dispute over millions he was contractually entitled to for his role in the profits of Disney’s successful animation features over the previous decade.
Weighing his next move, Katzenberg had the kernel of an idea: a new company. He sought out Spielberg, who’d been for years a fixture at Universal, where he directed such hits as E.T. and Jaws. The two had worked together before, on Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Spielberg, who was comfortably ensconced, nonetheless had visions of Selznick and Skywalker Ranch dancing in his head.
LaPorte, venturing into psychologists’ territory, suggests that Katzenberg’s pitch to Spielberg played on his similarities with the celebrated director:
Neither had ever felt completely in charge of his destiny. For Spielberg, this truth seemed to touch a nerve… The more Spielberg thought about it, the more enamored he became of the concept of his company… Spielberg had always essentially been a director for hire, working for one studio or another. By this time, he was the father of a growing household of kids, not to mention Oscars. He was truly ready to become the patriarch.
Then Katzenberg pursued David Geffen, the longtime Hollywood player who created Asylum and Geffen Records, homes to (among others) the Eagles, Jackson Browne and Guns N’ Roses. Geffen, a restless billionaire whose “days were spent flipping through his investment portfolios … wanted to be more than a rich, respected fixture … [he] wasn’t chemically suited to sitting on the sidelines. Geffen, his friends say, is determined to stay relevant. A new company could keep him in the picture”.
Almost from the start, DreamWorks was the subject of a cult of personality, The Place to Be. For those brief but heady months and years, the idea of DreamWorks was the reality, one with deep-pocketed believers. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen was an early investor, initially ponying up almost $500 million for an 18 percent stake in the company. Capital Cities/ABC put up $100 million for development of television shows with the new company. In all, various investors infused DreamWorks with $2.7 billion in startup capital, money the company would use in almost profligate ways.
DreamWorks spent lavishly on new and developing talents, raiding other studios (including Disney, Katzenberg’s nemesis) to get it. Animators wooed to the new studio found their old salaries doubled or tripled overnight. No expense was spared.
Jeffrey Katzenberg, Steven Spielberg, David Geffen