According to reports in various newspapers last week, NBC-Universal is contemplating acquiring DreamWorks' live-action feature-film division, or as it used to be called, their movie studio. Regardless of whether the acquisition is consummated, it reflects a sad truth: Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen's dream of creating a modern major studio has failed.
When Spielberg & Co. first announced the idea of creating a studio, more than a decade ago, before they had even chosen a company name, their vision included creating a state-of-the-art sound stage and production facility in Playa Vista. That was the first part to be jettisoned like some shuttle booster rocket as it ascended into space.
Next, there was talk about the studio as a creative entity -- a place where "dream" projects would get made. United Artists, the company founded by Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford was cited. But United Artists never fulfilled its creators' aspirations, nor did First Artists, a company created in the 1960s for more contemporary dreamers such as Dustin Hoffman.
I remember a meeting in which I took part shortly after DreamWorks launched, at the Southwestern-style offices that formerly had been Spielberg's production company, Amblin -- or as I used to call it, The Adobe Disneyworld. Speilberg's Norman Rockwells were still on the walls of the hallway. The executive I met with, to whom I was pitching my own possible projects, has since moved on. But on this occasion, she told me about the freedom they had, and how they were open to all material "of quality." I left with no clear idea of what a "DreamWorks" movie was, and to this day I still can't say.
As for Spielberg, when he talked about creative freedom, I don't think most people understood that he was talking about the freedom to make most of his movies in partnerships with other studios.
Katzenberg, who began at the top of the pyramid, quickly stepped off to become president of production, and then retreated to run the animation division.
As for Geffen,, I'm sure somebody knows what he does all day but it's not me (my best guess: makes phone calls). Geffen was apparently in charge of strategy of which we are now seeing the fruit.
DreamWorks was intended to be a modern creative hot house -- an octopus with tentacles in any area the imagination might foster. That concept, however, falls well short of a viable business model.
DreamWorks launched one entity after another, including a game division that it later shuttered. And a television division it folded and a record label it also, in the end, jettisoned. As time went by, the company decided to focus on the core business: making movies -- feature films and animated films.
These movies ran the gamut: good ones that made money, good ones that lost money and bad ones that made money. It was never precisely clear how much money, if any, DreamWorks was able to make. As I understand it, DreamWorks entered into many co-financing, and distribution deals, which make it more difficult to determine when the studio actually made a profit, especially one that would satisfy its investors.
Last fall, DreamWorks spun off its animation unit as a public company. Which meant that finally, billionaire investor Paul Allen could achieve some payback. But going public had other consequences.
For those who followed the Michael Eisner/Michael Ovitz imbroglio, you may recall that Eisner felt Ovitz didn't understand that behavior at a public company is different than at a private one.
Apparently that's a lesson that Katzenberg, who has toiled at several public companies, including Disney, forgot. Typical executive behavior -- such as hyping upcoming releases or casting financial performance in a too-favorable light -- can quickly become the focus of an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). And the SEC is looking into DreamWorks Animation.
So why did the dream of creating a modern studio fail?
My theory of what happened begins by looking back to the early years of the industry in the first half of the 20th century. The original creators of the studio were, for the most part, Jewish immigrants possessed with a drive to make a living, filled with a hunger to make movies and also to make a profit. And they embodied, too, a desire to create institutions that survived them. They were dreamers pursuing their own "dreamworks." And they paid a price for their ambition -- their wives, their children, their health suffered. But the studio came first. One can also argue this dynamic also applied to the more recent crop of moguls, such as Lew Wasserman and Rupert Murdoch.
By contrast, it is easy to imagine Spielberg or Geffen saying "Why do I need this hassle?"
They are too successful, too comfortable -- they have full lives competing for their attention.
Katzenberg continues to work for the Dream, but it's more limited, and the longevity of his vision remains to be seen. DreamWorks seems fated to become a label at a studio, like New Line at Warner Bros. Perhaps one day the founders could say as Lord Byron did, "I had a dream which was not all a dream."
But today we mourn what could have been, even as we announce: Dream over.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week. Visit him online at www.tommywood.com.
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