In its first year, DreamWorks has remained relatively quiet on the film side, but now it’s revving up for success.
It was over 10 years ago when I first visited Steven Spielberg at his adobe-style offices, which rise up unexpectedly amid the chaotic maze of soundstages, high-rise black towers and theme park rides on the MCA lot. Spielberg had not been an MCA tenant for very long, but even then he seemed intent on creating an environment that was in sharp contrast to his corporate surroundings. His offices were sunny and relaxed, and absolutely no one wore a black suit. There was a huge popcorn machine in his screening room, a game room filled with electronic toys and every day lunch was served free of charge to employees gathered in the central quad.
My mission at that time was to select a director for a forthcoming MGM/UA movie, and Spielberg, who even then had mastered the talent of seeming both intensely busy and utterly relaxed, graciously showed me some film shot by a protege of his while dispensing wise counsel about my project.
Now, a decade later, I ambled over to Amblin on a quite different mission. Spielberg’s low-key, low-profile offices had recently been transmogrified into the temporary headquarters of Dream Works, perhaps the most ambitious startup venture in showbiz history. In the year since the initial announcement, which triggered a media blitz, the three partners in Dream Works – Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen – have been fiercely intent on building their infrastructure while avoiding the glare of public attention.
While a few announcements had emanated from the company about TV deals and animation projects, Dream Works’ movie operation in particular has maintained a stony silence. Inevitably, some denizens of the Hollywood film community have begun to express doubts. Is Dream Works really going to become a major player in movies, or is Spielberg going to focus on his own career path as a producer-director?
Based on my scouting mission to Dream Works last week, I am persuaded that Spielberg and his colleagues are going for all the marbles. Not only does the startup plan call for nine major movies a year – that could mean an investment of at least $400 million a year in features alone – but Spielberg himself will attempt to accomplish what no other filmmaker has ever done. That is, he intends to continue his own astonishingly successful directing career while overseeing the development and production of a major slate of movies. In addition, he’ll preside over the construction of a vast new studio facility near Playa del Rey, which he and his partners believe will provide an ideal creative environment that will prove attractive to other filmmakers.
Sound ambitious? Definitely. Can he do it? If anyone can, my guess is that Steven Spielberg can. In directing as in management, Spielberg pursues his own effective but idiosyncratic style – one which is often sharply divergent from the “accepted” Hollywood way of doing things.
That style already is apparent in Dream Works’ approach to the movie business. One initial dictum at the company is that Dream Works will be writer-friendly, with the emphasis on mobilizing important screen material. This commitment already has been translated into action.
Dream Works has started negotiating several pricey term writer deals, for example, which offer not only significant gross participations rather than meaningless “net” points, but also provide a pool of gross receipts in all Dream Works movies, which writers will tap into whether or not they contributed to a particular project.
Among the writers now working on Dream Works projects are Michael Leeson (“The War of the Roses”), Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (“Aladdin”), Ebbe Roe Smith (“Falling Down”), Phoef Sutton (from TVs “Cheers,” “The Fan”), Scott Frank (“Get Shorty”), Michael Schiffer (“Crimson Tide”), Kevin Wade (“Junior,” “Working Girl”), Michael Tolkin (“The Player”) and Bruce Robinson (“The Killing Fields”).
“It starts with the writer- it’s a familiar dictum, but somehow it keeps getting forgotten along the way,” said Spielberg. “No film-maker, irrespective of his electronic bag of tricks, can ever afford to forget his commitment to the written word.”
In building a writer-friendly company, Spielberg and his partners significantly chose to put a career writer in charge – lanky, low-key Walter Parkes, who runs the Dream Works film company in partnership with his wife, Laurie MacDonald, a former executive at Columbia Pictures. The notion of a husband-wife team represents yet another Hollywood unorthodoxy, of course. Typically, neither Parkes nor MacDonald holds a formal title, nor do their six co-workers – a very lean executive corps by Hollywood standards. Again, Dream-Works hopes to make a high percentage of the projects that it puts into development – perhaps one in four compared with the one-for-15 batting average sustained by other majors.
“One of our most important opportunities, and challenges, is to build a company in which distribution serves production, not the other way around,” observes Parkes. That’s a pivotal advantage when filmmakers run their own company, he notes. Another advantage: In plotting construction of their projected new studio facility near Playa Del Rey, it will be the filmmakers who will super vise the “little things” – more space between stages, more rehearsal rooms, etc. Indeed the planned facility will be more like a campus than the traditional studio, built around an 8-acre lake and embracing every electronic device a filmmaker could desire.
The major challenge for the Dream Works team at this time, however, is to make the transition from their Amblin agenda to their Dream Works agenda. Under old commitments, Spielberg’s company must still start three Amblin productions this year. These are “Zorro,” a Mexican-set action picture to be directed by Robert Rodriguez and to star Antonio Banderas; “Men in Black,” an action comedy starring Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith, to be directed by Barry Sonnenfeld at Sony (“Get Shorty”); and the sequel to megapie “Jurassic Park,” which Spielberg may direct for Universal. In the future there are still further sequels to “The Flintstones” and “Casper” that will be turned out.
While this activity goes on, however, an inventory of material is being assembled for the new Dream Works slate. Last week the company paid more than $1 million to make its first book acquisition – a Michael Crichton-like novel called “Neanderthal” that tells the story of the discovery of a long-lost tribe of cave dwellers in a remote area of a Russian republic.
At the same time, Geffen, too, is starting to put material into development for his own small slate of films, while also pursuing his efforts at the music company.
“Dream Works will generate many of its projects from within and be closely involved in their planning and development,” says Parkes, a thoughtful, soft-spoken 44-year-old who could pass for a college dean. At the same time, the team wants to extend to filmmakers the same freedom from bureaucratic interference that Spielberg himself elicited from the studios, Parkes noted.
With all its intensive planning and considerable expenditure of money, the rub is that no major studio can be created overnight. Last week Dream Works execs screened the first seven minutes of “Prince of Egypt” for their staff, which reacted with exuberance. Given the complex processes of animation, however, the movie will not be ready for release until 1999.
The question that Hollywood has always asked about Dream Works is simply this: Will high-energy players like Geffen, Katzenberg and Spielberg have the patience to pursue the long and tortuous processes of building a company from scratch?
Anyone wandering around Spielberg’s adobe these days can sense a build-up in intensity. The once-tranquil building is humming with action, visitors jam the entrance and the phones ring incessantly. What was once the game room is now the site of intense business lunches. Though everyone still operates in jeans and shirtsleeves, the frenetic work habits of Geffen and Katzenberg, who are now in residence, contrast sharply with the laid-back style of the Amblin of old.
“No one around here is ‘amblin’ any more,” says one long-term Spielberg employee. “We’re flat-out running now.”