FILM MAY 10, 2010
by Nicole LaPorte
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 544 pp., $28
The three of them, SKG, appeared in the Verandah Room of the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills on the morning of October 12, 1994, to say that they were going to do it. They were going to form a new movie studio, and it would be called DreamWorks—as in, the dream still works. S, Steven Spielberg, said that, “Hollywood studios were at their zenith when they were driven by point of view and personalities.” K, Jeffrey Katzenberg, looked at the three of them and told everyone, “It’s my Dream Team” (as in Olympics basketball, which the United States had come to dominate by sheer bullying). And G, David Geffen, an habitual loner, saw it as “a great opportunity to work with partners.” This was a very big event in a town where spin had so smothered point of view, personality, and pictures that no one dared to ask whether a new studio was necessary, or even plausible. The answer is that it wasn’t, except as a publicity event; and now we have the book.
There had not been a new studio in town since 1935. In that year, Twentieth Century had come into being, merging with Fox, while David O. Selznick and John Hay Whitney (a significant splash of old East Coast money) had formed Selznick International. Both were production houses, with studio space. Fox was also equipped with a distribution system, though Selznick would release whatever pictures it made through United Artists—until it made Gone With the Wind, which would require a special family deal with Selznick’s father-in-law, Louis B. Mayer, involving cash, Clark Gable, and Loew’s Inc, the releasing corporation that owned Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
That rudimentary history should help anyone understand what a movie studio was (stress on the past tense, please). It was a system with a particular attitude to the thing called the motion picture: despite economic slump in the ’30s, if you could make them right, the world was ready to go crazy over pictures—in which case you made a fortune. And so the movie studios, with sound stages, and a block for writers, for editors, for costumes and so on, with executive offices, a commissariat, and a parking lot, were all created in the years from 1914 to 1935. The next step in the process (and it sometimes took over movie studios as they fell into disuse) was the establishment of television studios in the 1950s. (Sometimes, as with Fox, a chunk of studio back lot was sold off to make Century City.) But television was a cool, modern thing in that the product was simply put on the electronic air-waves—whereas movies were cans of celluloid that had to be shipped to every small town in the union. The print of a movie could be lost or stolen, horribly scratched or capable of bursting into flame. Project it fifty times, and it was worn out. It lasted about as long as a shirt.
By 1994, the need for actual movie studios was merely sentimental, and Nicole LaPorte reminds us that Steven Spielberg (who is also described throughout as a ruthless businessman who prefers to avoid confrontation) was in love with the idea that he might have a new studio built for him—a home to rival the old Metro lot in Culver City, but with a lake and boats! There was a time when SKG were apparently sold on buying land in La Playa (approximately the area where Howard Hughes had built the Spruce Goose). That nightmare disaster was only averted because La Playa involved wetlands, and there were pressure groups in southern California who could grow indignant over the sacrifice of birds, lizards, and butterflies to some new Tom Cruise adventure. It is a measure of the history of movies that, earlier in the last century, as several studios were carved out of the land, hardly anyone knew what a wetland was, or cared a rat’s ass for a lizard’s life.
La Playa could have shortened the life of SKG. As it was, DreamWorks, in its idyllic sense of itself, lasted no more than ten years. But why did it happen at all? In answering this question LaPorte’s book becomes interesting and gossipy—or boring, depending on your point of view. Spielberg and Geffen were already made men before DreamWorks gathered. Spielberg was “Steven,” a Hollywood saint, the maker of Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark and ET. He had the AAA stamp of respectability; he had made a lot of money for a lot of people; and inasmuch as he had made Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park at virtually the same time, he had given irrefutable evidence that he was not so much human as an alien. He could deal with Auschwitz and the ambergris of very cinematic raptors in the same breath, as if to demonstrate that movie-making had transcended human limits (don’t laugh—this is our problem now).
David Geffen was a saint only to gay activists, but he was a tycoon of the record industry where he had probably made more money even than Steven. He was also a famously bad enemy and a telephone temper machine. (“I didn’t get to be the thirty-second-richest man in the world for nothing!”) And Jeffrey—K—he has to be the Kafka figure in the story. He was the youngest, and looked younger still: he was only forty-three in 1994, when Geffen was fifty-one and Spielberg was forty-eight. Katzenberg had been raised as a junior executive at the Paramount made by Michael Eisner, Barry Diller, and Don Simpson. He was not a moviemaker, but he was in love with animation, and when he and Eisner moved from Paramount to Disney, in 1985, Katzenberg took over an animation area in decline. Disney had invented the form in America, but then let it slip. K rallied the company’s commitment to hand-drawn animation with films such as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. Those were some of his hits, but he also presided over pictures like Pretty Woman, which altered the public’s idea of the narrative territory that “Disney” covered.
By your standards and mine, Jeffrey Katzenberg was a Hollywood success and a rich man. But he wanted more, and he found the sword of vengeance (in many ways the purest emotion to be had in Hollywood, then and now) when Frank Wells, the president of Disney, was killed in a helicopter crash. Katzenberg wanted Wells’s job, and he trusted that Eisner, the CEO at Disney, would give it to him. But Eisner decided to think that Jeffrey was unworthy—and that is when Katzenberg quit, in the spring of 1994. DreamWorks was, unquestionably, his brainchild, his weapon of Eisner’s destruction, his way of getting back. And he was clever enough to talk Spielberg and Geffen into making a trio when those two, S and G, were in positions of such power that they had no need of the extra
Of course there were ulterior motives: Spielberg yearned for a community of junior film people who would adore, honor, and obey him; while Geffen was ready to do whatever it took to nail Michael Ovitz, the most powerful agent in town (do you recall that dynasty, my dears?) and Michael Eisner’s pal. Indeed, in the summer of ’95, Ovitz would join Disney. That hiring lasted even less time than SKG, and was further proof of the artificiality of business alignments. It was all the start of a slippery slope for Ovitz that shows no sign of stopping yet.
So Katzenberg was the lever. When the three partners of DreamWorks agreed to put up $33 million each as start-up money—Paul Allen was the serious money—Katzenberg was the only one of the three who had to ask himself where such a sum was coming from. In time, it came from Disney, because Katzenberg filed suit against the company for a share of profits that he had been promised and that Eisner’s tyrannical and petulant whim witheld.
Does this view of boys playing major-league Monopoly interest you? If so, this could be your book, though LaPorte writes with a ragbag of cliches and action language that seems terrified of losing the reader’s attention if extended beyond a thousand words. She is a writer from Variety and the Los Angeles Times and part of a group of fierce-seeming young blades who cut up “the business” in southern California, and who put on a specious pose about the vulgarity and the duplicity of the business when they would happily trade away their word processor for a job in the very same despised business. In other words, when La Porte describes her subjects as “hard-charging bullies with paper-thin skins”, you want to cheer her acumen—but I suspect she is describing herself too. (She is bitter that S, K, and G all refused to talk to her, but they know how to press her “furious kid reporter” button.) I only wish that someone had taught her to write more carefully, with more sustained thought and more certainty that the movies—our movies—matter more than their deals. “Inside” Hollywood is not a pleasant or rewarding place to be, or to read about. In the end, what makes a Katzenberg tick is just not interesting enough. The simple answer is that he winds himself up every night out of greed, malice, and insecurity, and then lives in a community where those very qualities are flattered and indulged.
DreamWorks was distinctive only in the world of animation, because it did represent an opening for Katzenberg such as he might never have found without it. He built up the animation section at the new studio. He lured talent away from Disney and he presided over the making of The Prince of Egypt and the Shrek films. Inadvertently, through his urge to hold on to old-fashioned drawn animation (as opposed to the new computer generated type), he helped spur Pixar into being, and Pixar is plainly in the most creative phase of American animation since Disney of the late ’30s and early ’40s. (Let us stress American animation, since America is increasingly notorious in the wider world for an approach that cultivates the child audience as a way of disguising its intention of keeping the audience short of adulthood.)
Beyond the animated films (and some of these were losers, like Sinbad and Madagascar), did DreamWorks make any movies that only DreamWorks could have made? There is one deserving case: American Beauty, written by Alan Ball and directed as a first-time venture by the Englishman Sam Mendes. LaPorte’s book does a pretty good job in showing that, despite knowing far too little about movie direction when he began, Mendes found the confidence sufficient to go beyond Ball’s original script and to deliver an acidic portrait of dysfunction that exceeds anything ever attempted by Spielberg. It is to Spielberg’s credit that he liked the film as soon as he saw it, and believed in it enough to push it. Of course, American Beauty is no more than American independent film had been doing for several years—but DreamWorks gave it a big studio imprimatur, which allowed this melancholy family study to find a larger audience than it might have had, and also Oscars. American Beauty is not universally admired (thank God), but it does benefit from Mendes’ ironic English understanding that we are still at ground zero in preparing America for a testing grown-up future.
Apart from America Beauty, I do not see DreamWorks having been decisive or original enough. Gladiator is silly dress-up; A Beautiful Mind is neither beautiful nor to do with the mind; The Island was unspeakable. Very little else justified a new studio—the TV work and the recordings from DreamWorks never figured seriously. Saving Private Ryan is a film of many striking scenes, and a banner for that rather unexplored patriotism that Spielberg and Tom Hanks noisily share. It is an exciting and tough combat picture muffled by stupefying book-ends—the scenes in which the aging Ryan attends a war cemetery in Normandy and wonders whether he has deserved the sacrifice by others that gave him life.
But this is exactly the kind of crass underlining that Spielberg cannot get out of his system—except for the single unspoiled film on his list, Empire of the Sun. Spielberg made Saving Private Ryan just as surely as he did Schindler’s List, Amistad, Munich and Lincoln (forthcoming): because he believes these vast, portentous fables deserve him. If Disney had never let Katzenberg go, Saving Private Ryan would still be what it is— the work of a unique filmmaker who always chokes in the crunch by being so moved by his own stuff.
Of course, this is a viable metaphor for the American film business as a whole, and of an art form that has reduced a figure like Martin Scorsese to a shambles of what he was and might have been.
What I mean by this, principally, is that American movies have had their head turned not just by money, but by the spurious solemnity that is supposed to revere “being businesslike.” This is disastrous—not just because money has such stupid weight in our county, but because it simplifies so many properly complicated issues. And, as one observer says in this book, in the end DreamWorks was no more than a way of ensuring that the rich guys got richer.
This is not a good book, though you can feel that LaPorte is a dogged reporter. Alas, she is too young to have a well-developed sense of what American film has been, and might be still. She seems unaware that she inhabits the last years of an empire that was the hope of mankind. About twenty years ago, it began to dawn on publishers that books on movie directors as artists, that explored the meaning and quality of films, were less viable than books about the business. That was a pretty accurate reflection of what was happening in Hollywood itself, a factory town of sorts where the deal memo on a film was often more instructive and predictive of the film’s worth than the script. So we
have gained a shelf of business books, ranging all the way from Steven Bach’s brilliant and wounded Final Cut (on the ruinous making of Heaven’s Gate) to this depressing and unshaded story. Along the way, Peter Biskind outlined the level of retrieved gossip that was important to such work and limned the sustained adolescence of life in the town.
The problem is that the business has now become as boring as the pictures—and LaPorte is banging her head against this brutal fact. The men she writes about are not really aspiring to be kings, let alone artists. They merely want to be the most feared person on the block. Their life model is not Orson Welles or Howard Hawks or Robert Altman, but Michael Corleone.
David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. The enlarged and updated fifth edition will be published by Knopf in the fall.