The Men Who Would be King - the story of DreamWorks

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An interview with author Nicole LaPorte about the behind the scenes drama at the DreamWorks studio
Author: 
By Mark R. Gould

The fate of the much heralded DreamWorks studio is the subject of one of the great behind the scenes reads about the movie industry to come along in years.   The Men Who Would be King: an almost epic tale of moguls, movies and a company called DreamWorks was written by Nicole LaPorte, who interviewed more than 200 sources. It is a page turner that helps readers understand how enormous expectations, larger than life egos, and ambition prevented the studio from reaching its potential. 

Founded by Steven Spielberg, music mogul David Geffen and Jeffery Katzenberg, DreamWorks was the first movie studio created in the last 60 years. Hopes were high that it would be a bastion of artistic integrity and success; but it did not turn out that way.

Nicole LaPorteLaPorte, who worked for Variety and is now the West Coast editor of the The Daily Beast, talked to her many sources “under cover” after the three DreamWorks principals refused her interview requests. Jeffery Katzenberg told dozens of people not to talk to her, she says. LaPorte was also warned by colleagues that she may be committing career suicide.

The dynamic narrative has won over many critics, who gave the book strong reviews: “This unauthorized chronicle of DreamWorks will no doubt seal LaPorte’s status as persona non grata in Hollywood, but readers will love it,” according Vanessa Bush of Booklist.
 

Everybody knows Steven Spielberg, director and producer of dozens of popular films, including Jaws, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, War of the Worlds, Saving Private Ryan, and Munich. David Geffen founded Asylum Records and Geffen Records and signed and nurtured the careers of the Eagles, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, Tom Waits, Jackson Browne, and many others. Jeffery Katzenberg helped turn around an ailing Disney Studio’s live action and animation divisions. He oversaw the development of Aladdin, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and The Little Mermaid. At DreamWorks, Shrek and its sequels are among his most inspired films.

LaPorte writes that talented people were drawn to the reputations of the principals and their stated mission to turn DreamWorks into a utopian environment where creative ideas trumped “stale movie formulas.”

 “The three kings of DreamWorks represent the last generation of Hollywood raised on the visions of Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, and other outsize, sometimes outlandish personalities who built Hollywood….,” writes LaPorte. “The golden age of those colorful men has been replaced by the corporate age, an era in which movies have more in common with amusement parks and video games than the old classics.”
 

For a bibliography on this topic, check below. You can go to your local library and find many resources about the motion picture industry and DreamWorks. .

Recently, Nicole LaPorte was interviewed for the @ your library.org website.

 

MG: What interested you in writing this painstakingly researched book?
 
NL: I first became interested in DreamWorks when I covered the company as a film reporter for Variety. The studio stood out as unique and different from other Hollywood studios in that it was decidedly un-corporate, extremely private, and run by three titans. By the time I was reporting, in the early 2000’s, DreamWorks was well past its glory, but when I went back and traced its origins—how it was the first movie studio to be formed in 60 years; how it had hoped to be a sprawling, multi-media empire; how, with backing from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, it had had nearly $3 billion in start-up capital—I was very intrigued. And dying to know: What went wrong? How could an entity with so much star-power, so much money not work? As I started to uncover some of those answers, I knew there was a book to be written. The entire process took me four years, partly because I continued to work full-time for the first year or so of research, and partly because it was my first book and I’d never worked on a project of this scale before. In all, I spoke to over 200 sources, ranging from DreamWorks employees to agents, producers, filmmakers, and bankers—basically anyone who had ever worked at or done business with the studio.   
 
 
MG: As you noted, you were warned about the consequences of writing this book.
 
NL: Knock on wood, at this point the book has only been good for me. I’ve gotten a lot of great feedback from people who say they appreciated that I went ahead and, despite warnings that I’d “never eat lunch in this town again,” wrote it. These people also felt that a book about DreamWorks was and is a historically important part of Hollywood history. Should I ever want to become a filmmaker (and at this point I do not), I doubt I will ever be able to make a movie at DreamWorks. And there have been hints that DreamWorks may have dissuaded certain media outlets from promoting my book, but I have no concrete evidence of that. At this point, the biggest blow-back has been from Russell Crowe who wrote on his Twitter account that I was a “lying horse’s ass” for things I wrote about his less than gentlemanly behavior on the set of Gladiator. He also stormed out of a radio interview after the host asked him if the allegations in my book were true. I imagine if I were to run into him, it would not be a very pleasant encounter!
 
 
MG: Is it possible to run a studio in this day and age without unlimited amounts of money?
 
NL: It is possible, but it is incredibly difficult. The movie business is by definition all about risk. Not every movie is going to be a blockbuster, let alone profitable. And, as DreamWorks learned, without the financial ballast of a library, which studios rely on to get them through tough times, or residuals from a hit TV show, which can add up tremendously over the years, it’s very hard to start from zero. That said, if a company starts slowly and builds gradually (neither of which DreamWorks did), I think it is possible to succeed, if a studio can offer up a product that actually is different from what else is on the market, and that proves to be something the market is craving. (Lions Gate is a good example of this; it’s a lean operation that specializes in genre films, like the Saw franchise, and Tyler Perry films, which have a huge following among African-American audiences.) Again, DreamWorks didn’t do this. Although it promised to be different and better than other Hollywood studios, for the most part it made the same kinds of movies everyone else was making.
 
 
MG: What is a key business lesson to be learned by DreamWorks?
 
NL: I think the biggest lesson is that complacency and an assumption of success are deadly for any start-up company. Because of who was running DreamWorks, there was always an implicit assumption that things would work out, coupled by a sense of entitlement. DreamWorks was better than the rest of Hollywood by definition: Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen were at the helm. This hurt the company in the long run because it meant that people weren’t always hungrily working to find a new way to do things, they were simply relying on the formulas that had worked in the past. I think another lesson is that, no matter what kind of razzle-dazzle leaders you have, a company needs a shrewd and hard-nosed business person to be obsessing over the bottom line, or at least paying close attention to it. David Geffen was meant to be this person, but Geffen is ultimately a brilliant deal-maker and negotiator, not a CFO.  
 
 
MG: Was DreamWorks a victim of the recession?

NL: I think more than the recession, DreamWorks was, to some extent, a victim to changes in the entertainment industry over the last decade-plus. A few years after DreamWorks Records was formed, the music business imploded. The television industry, meanwhile, was transformed when the fin-syn laws were done away with, making it virtually impossible for a stand-alone television studio like DreamWorks TV to survive. And as for movies, they became much more expensive, and thus much more risky, another factor that made it harder for an independent studio to succeed. I wouldn’t say these factors were DreamWorks’ biggest impediments, but they certainly did not help the company’s growth.
 
 
 MG: What is David Geffen doing these days?
 
NL: After Geffen extracted DreamWorks from Paramount, which bought DreamWorks in 2005 and where DreamWorks unhappily existed for two years, he washed his hands of the movie business. Now worth $5 billion and having done just about all there is to do in the entertainment business, Geffen was very open about wanting to move on. He’s still very active in politics, but he seems to, at least for now, want a break from Hollywood. Perhaps wanting to follow in the footsteps of Rupert Murdoch, a friend, he looked into buying the Los Angeles Times. And more recently there were rumblings that he might want to buy the LA Lakers. But as of yet, there have been no major moves. As for revenge, Geffen’s enemy remains Viacom chieftain Sumner Redstone over the disastrous DreamWorks-Paramount marriage, a feud people have compared to the decades-long war between Geffen and (super agent) Michael Ovitz.
 
 
MG: The perception of Spielberg as a mensch seems slightly revised by your book.  How would you describe him today as a colleague and person who helps artists achieve their goals?
 
NL: Spielberg relishes his image as an avuncular mentor who’s helped filmmakers like Robert Zemeckis get their careers going. And there is a generosity he has when it comes to supporting other filmmakers. But ultimately, Spielberg is an artist himself and is first and foremost about his own career, and making his own films. In the book I talk about how director Brad Silberling, a Spielberg protégé who was attached to direct the first Harry Potter film, learned that Spielberg was up for the job when Spielberg called him with the news—seemingly oblivious that Silberling’s involvement with the film had been heavily publicized. Silberling was very hurt by what felt like big-footing, but that’s how it is with Spielberg. In Hollywood, he’s the 900-pound gorilla who gets what he wants and is accustomed to getting what he wants. The other reality is that Spielberg doesn’t have time to be a hands-on mentor in the way that some filmmakers, I think, romanticized his role when they came to DreamWorks. Directors like Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire) signed with the company because they thought they’d be working side by side Spielberg, or at least getting a lot of input from him. But as a director, producer, and studio head, who has countless non-Hollywood commitments and interests, Spielberg is, at this point in his career, not the elder statesman who’s sitting around, bestowing his wisdom on up-and-coming filmmakers. He’s a busy guy!
 
MG: Jeffery Katzenberg. Is he an animation genius?  What are his greatest talents?
 
NL: If Katzenberg is a genius, he’s a genius at understanding the business of making movies. At DreamWorks, especially in the early days, he made the mistake of thinking that he was a genius at actually making, or creating animated movies, to the point that he would override a film’s director on creative decisions. The result was a slew of films (The Road to El Dorado, Spirit, and Sinbad) that were bombs. No one works harder than Jeffrey Katzenberg. No one is more dogged or thorough. And no one is a bigger cheerleader for whatever cause he’s promoting—at the moment it's 3-D films. But to compare Katzenberg with a real artistic genius like Pixar’s John Lasseter is simply wrong. Just as Lasseter shouldn’t be running a studio and dealing with the business of managing a company, Katzenberg shouldn’t be calling the artistic shots on movies.

Visit your library to borrow the films of Spielberg and produced by Katzenberg, or hear the music created by the artists from Geffen’s companies.

 

Resources

The Men Who Would be King: an almost epic tale of moguls, movies and a company called DreamWorks
by Nicole LaPorte

Steven Spielberg: the unauthorized biography
by John Baxter

Walt Disney: the triumph of the American imagination
by Neal Gabler

The Operator: David Geffen builds, buys and sells the new Hollywood
by Tom King

The Keys to the Kingdom: The rise of Michael Eisner and the fall of everybody else:with a new epilogue
by Kim Masters

Steven Spielberg: A biography
by Joseph McBride

Disney War
by James B. Stewart

 

 

Photo credit: (Houghton Mifflin, Harcourt) from left, David Geffen, Steven Spielberg, Jeffery Katzenberg

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