FILMMAKERS HAVE an annoying habit of pinning playfully facetious names on their personal production companies — names like Indie Prod. or HunkerDown — but, as names go, I’d nominate Amblin as the single most inappropriate. The word Amblin suggests nonchalant and easygoing, two traits that hardly apply to Steven Spielberg, who created Amblin 15 years ago as his personal “loanout.” While most such entities tend to doze, Spielberg’s has burst forth as the Microsoft of personal production companies — a billion-dollar multinational that has helped rewrite the records of the worldwide entertainment industry. As evidence, consider how Spielberg’s been “amblin’ ” through the summer of 1997. “The Lost World’s” global gross will likely touch $ 500 million, while “Men in Black,” now setting records across Europe, might very well equal that. “ER,” an Amblin TV show, continues to stand proudly atop the ratings charts. And then there are the myriad animated TV shows like “Animaniacs,” “Tiny Tunes,” “Freakazoid” and “Pinky and the Brain.” Not to mention toys, interactive projects, and on and on. What all this demonstrates, of course, is that Spielberg, at 50, has somehow managed to subdivide himself, amoeba-like, into three separate personas. There is Spielberg the prolific director who, having wrapped “Amistad,” has already started shooting “Saving Private Ryan,” starring Tom Hanks, in London. Then comes Spielberg the showman, who, as executive producer of “Men in Black,” managed to rescue that project from development hell and steer it through the ever-shifting shoals at Columbia. He replicated that act with “The Mask of Zorro,” a fall release from TriStar and next year will doubtless turn his attention to the ever-enticing sequels business — “Twister,” “The Flintstones,” “Casper” and, of course, “Men in Black.” There’ll perhaps even be another dinosaur caper. Finally, there is Spielberg the entrepreneur, who serves as a full-fledged partner in DreamWorks. In that capacity, he has helped promulgate the soon-to-be-released “Peacemaker,” and two just-completed projects, “Deep Impact” and “Mouse Hunt.” If DreamWorks ever gets its real estate act together, Spielberg has said that he intends to be actively involved in designing the new studio.
AND THIS MAN THINKS he’s “amblin’ ” through life? I’d suggest he is catapulting and, as such, seems destined to rival Bill Gates as potentially the richest American. Now Spielberg lets it be known that he’s embarrassed by talk of his great wealth, so if you’re out there, Steven, please stop reading. For the rest of you, I’d like to revisit the saga of “Men in Black” — an entrepreneurial case study that even the Harvard Business School couldn’t conjure up. Based on a skimpy comic-book story, “Men in Black” was hobbling along for a couple of years at Columbia under the stewardship of a producer-writer named Walter Parkes. In the midst of their labors, Parkes and his wife, Laurie MacDonald, were hired by Spielberg to become co-heads of production at Amblin. Parkes had no intention of abandoning “Men in Black,” however, and shrewdly decided that the Spielberg brand on the movie would surely help its chances. Suddenly reinvented as a Spielberg picture, “Men in Black” indeed took on a new life at Columbia and practically hurtled into production. What did it cost Columbia? Best I can figure, Spielberg’s gross participation should equate to something between $ 15 million and $ 20 million, depending on esoteric accountings of video and other matters. And Columbia is not unhappy about its bargain. Though no one would suggest that the Spielberg name alone helped make “Men in Black” a megahit, executives at the studio report that Spielberg conscientiously came up with script notes, found time to comment on dailies and even presented useful insights about the first cut.
IF I WERE AN INVESTOR in DreamWorks and had a chance to compare the profits of that company with Amblin’s, I might get a little green with envy. I’m sure “The Peacemaker” is a nice picture, but wouldn’t you prefer to invest in the sequel to “Men in Black” — which, of course, will belong to Amblin, not DreamWorks? I might also get jealous knowing that my genius auteur is supervising sequels to “Twister” and “Casper,” while DreamWorks is preparing to release such relatively “serious” fare as “Amistad” and “The Prince of Egypt.” To be sure, investors in DreamWorks were readily aware they were buying only one part of the multifaceted Spielberg machine, and they should be more than satisfied with that. Especially if they were granted a private meeting with the man himself, who, even in the midst of turmoil, always seems to be unhurried and downright courtly in his style. And that, after all, is the biggest enigma about Spielberg. He actually seems to think he’s “amblin’ ” through life, scarcely noticing that others are racing at breakneck speed to keep apace.