Having achieved a certain cinematic royalty through his string of hits, Steven Spielberg faces new challenges with both his company and his directing career.
To: Steven Spielberg
From: Peter Bart
Re: the creative blahs
If a subculture existed called cinematic royalty, Steven, you’d be at its apex. No Hollywood filmmaker has ever been wealthier, exercised more power or traveled in more exalted circles.
At your company, DreamWorks, some of the younger employees refer to you as Sir Steven, a term that reflects a combination of awe and a tinge of mockery. In a company that disdains titles, after all, no one disputes that you are king.
Having said all that, let me pose the dreaded question: Is it possible that Sir Steven is suffering a case of the middle-age blahs? Has the man who always makes magic somehow misplaced his wand?
The majority of critics and filmgoers have found your recent movies to be — another dreaded word — ordinary, Steven.
“The Terminal” struggled past $65 million last week and certainly proved a disappointment at every level. “Catch Me if You Can” was effective on its own terms but still a blah movie. And while “Minority Report” performed well at the box office (its domestic gross was $132 million), your previous film, “A.I.,” which I greatly admired, ran out of steam at $78 million.
Then there’s your company, Steven.
DreamWorks originally was to represent your shining city — not just a production entity, but an entire studio replete with state-of-the-art soundstages, rehearsal halls and theaters.
It didn’t turn out that way. The physical studio never happened, and the company, despite some amazing highs (“Shrek,” “American Beauty”), is also going through a blah period.
Take “Shrek 2,” that Katzenbergian miracle, out of the equation and you find yourself with the overseas rights to “Stepford Wives” and the likes of “Eurotrip,” “Envy” and “Win a Date With Tad Hamilton!” (I thought “Anchorman” was very funny, but it won’t be around at Oscar time).
The problems at DreamWorks go beyond that.
At the grand-opening press conference, you and your two partners, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg, heralded the birth of a distinctive company that would create distinctive product. The films emerging from DreamWorks, however, are essentially indistinguishable from those of any other studio, except for the fact that there are fewer of them.
So there’s the dilemma, Steven: The blahs seem to be contagious.
Some observers point out that you’ve had “down” periods before, but they’ve always ended dramatically. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” rubbed out memories of “1941”; “Schindler’s List” made everyone forget “Always.”
Those who know you (and few are willing to talk) suggest that you are spread too thin, between your own directing projects, various producing ventures outside DreamWorks (like the sequel to “The Mask of Zorro”) and your widespread philanthropic interests (not to mention a wife and seven kids).
Then there’s another theory that you’d like a lot less, namely: that at the age of 58 your life has become so rich and cushy that you’ve lost your edge. This would certainly be consistent with the career arcs of many other prominent Hollywood filmmakers who suffered burnout at the peak of their powers.
Not surprisingly, you’ve become increasingly furtive about your own plans and those of your company, Steven.
Variety has carried reports that you’re rushing ahead with a project dealing with the Mossad and the aftermath of the 1972 Munich Olympics, so it’s understandable why you’d want to keep all that quiet.
You also seem to be circling other projects: What other director can cherry-pick not only from those scripts offered him but also from those being developed by his company? That unique position, however, only serves to further raise expectations.
But then DreamWorks doesn’t seem to be generating that much excitement on its own. Agents doing business with the company report that its decisionmaking machinery seems idiosyncratic. Sure, no one has a title, but there are many layers of titleless decisionmakers, including Mr. and Mrs. Walter Parkes, who are also intent on nurturing their own distinguished producing careers.
Circumstances can change abruptly in the movie business, Steven — we’ve all seen that. A big hit can turn a studio around, or, for that matter, the career of a filmmaker. The next year might see that happen at DreamWorks.
There’s no reason why the blahs should be, well, terminal.