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The End of the Road

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This state of grace couldn’t go on forever. DreamWorks needed product. It was a deficit that LaPorte tidily explains:


DreamWorks’ resistance to following in the footsteps of the major studios with full production schedules was starting to seem less noble than wrong-headed. However formulaic the studios’ system might be when it came to building a slate — based on the notion that X number of summer tent poles were needed every year, coupled with Y number of cheap comedies and Z number of gross-out flicks — the system produced product, which is something that DreamWorks was in desperate need of.


Early offerings from the TV and music divisions were unpromising. Some costly misfires happened at DreamWorks Interactive, the gaming division. When films came from the studio, they came slowly. Despite the pedigree of the people involved, the studio’s early releases were less than blockbusters.


LaPorte’s narrative arc blends a grasp of modern business personality with a sense of almost Shakespearean hubris.

Or they created other problems: one DreamWorks film, Amistad, the story of a true slave uprising and the Supreme Court ruling that followed, was the focus of a lawsuit alleging that the story was lifted from an author’s previous work without compensation.


LaPorte, who worked for Variety and is now West Coast reporter for The Daily Beast, writes of others in the cast of characters: Walter Parkes, the flamboyant, territorial producer and longtime Spielberg associate tapped for executive duties beyond his skill set, a man whose “incessant intrusions were causing filmmakers to question DreamWorks ‘artist-friendly’ credo”. Michael Ovitz, the superagent whose role as a Disney executive after Katzenberg’s departure would be a thorn in his side, and that of Eisner, who hired Ovitz and almost immediately regretted it. Terry Press, the acerbic, irrepressible Katzenberg aide whose uncanny sense of what worked and what didn’t helped shape some DreamWorks movies.


The DreamWorks saga is also informed by battles for turf — both actual land and the figurative real estate of the calendar. LaPorte ably relates the gamesmanship involved when Disney snapped up almost 100 acres of land it had rented for 30 years in Glendale, home base of Disney Imagineering’s division — a move widely seen “as a means of preventing Katzenberg from geographically expanding [DreamWorks’] animation empire”.


“Another salvo was launched from the Magic Kingdom in DreamWorks’ direction when Eisner announced that Disney was planning a theatrical re-release of Beauty and the Beast for November 1998 — the same month Katzenberg’s pet project, Prince of Egypt, DreamWorks’ debut animation release, would hit theaters.”


Eventually, the combination of various economic forces, the need for distribution partners, and DreamWorks’ jaw-dropping burn rate (LaPorte quotes one estimate that the company spent $400 million a year) led to a situation in which DreamWorks’ independence — the main reason for the studio existing in the first place — was endangered. Before it disappeared.


In December 2005 the company was sold to Paramount, leading to a clash of cultures between the button-down ways of the oldest studio in Hollywood and the khakis-and-sweaters ethos of DreamWorks. During that time, ironically, Transformers, released after the Paramount acquisition, was DreamWorks’  biggest film ever — one that showed the value of the very studio system DreamWorks was created to escape.


Geffen moved on, chastened by the experience. Katzenberg, who’d parlayed the successful DreamWorks animation and its Shrek franchise into a new public company, left to focus on that company. In early 2009 DreamWorks live-action division was rescued in part by Reliance, a Mumbai, India-based conglomerate that hoped to establish itself as a Hollywood player. By then the impact of the global recession made “DreamWorks 2.0,” as the company came to be known, a more modest, less independent enterprise than before.


For all her big-picture journalistic abilities, LaPorte is no stranger to the telling human anecdote. We find that, to decide the millions of dollars in distribution rights, Geffen and Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone flipped a coin which studio — DreamWorks or Paramount (owned by Redstone’s Viacom) — would get the more cherished domestic rights. “Redstone called ‘heads’. DreamWorks called ‘tails’. It was tails”.


Another aside reveals a thwarted possibility, one of the what-might-have-beens that made DreamWorks’ collapse that much more disappointing. After DreamWorks had lost leverage as an independent company, “Spielberg lost the right to partner on and produce the biopic Lincoln. For years, the project — set to star Liam Neeson, who’d cleared his schedule for a spring-summer 2009 shoot — had been Spielberg’s passion, his Schindler-to be. But no …”


LaPorte’s narrative arc blends a grasp of modern business personality with a sense of almost Shakespearean hubris. With as much sadness as schadenfreude, she writes of how DreamWorks foundered on the rocks of reality and institutional inertia — the industry’s and its own. Even as the company brain trust seized the moment in trying to institutionalize a change in Hollywood, they failed to comprehend the resistance to changing the institution of Hollywood. Past performance can be a guarantee of future results. Doing things The Usual Way is hard to challenge. Especially when it works. 


With energy and a candor reflecting a veteran journalist unworried whether she’ll eat lunch in that town again or not, LaPorte shows the parallels between the DreamWorks story and that of any dream’s road to either reality or perdition: how visionaries can be captives of their own pasts; how the best laid plans are often undone by the egos of those who birthed them; how dreams and works are sometimes incompatible, for all the wrong reasons.


Michael E. Ross writes frequently on the arts, race matters, politics and American culture. He has worked as a reporter, critic and editor at various news organizations, including The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury News and msnbc.com. He blogs on politics and media at Short Sharp Shock. American Bandwidth, a book of essays and blog posts spanning the 2004 presidential election and the dawn of the Obama administration, was published by Authorhouse in October 2009.


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