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Steven Spielberg: Tackling TV on His Own Terms

Cover Story: DreamWorks chief writes checks for bustling Amblin unit

Steven Spielberg has a bustling TV company led by trusted lieutenants and an insatiable appetite for producing smallscreen fare even as he stays busy as ever in film. But the DreamWorks mogul wants to work on his own terms, so he’s decided to write the checks himself.

Spielberg got his start in TV in a Navajo serape. He vividly remembers the looks he got from the seasoned Universal crew members, old-school down to their porkpie hats and vests, when he showed up sporting long hair and hippie garb for his first professional directing assignment. It was 1969, and he had just been given his big chance to impress the brass by helming a segment of the pilot for Rod Serling’s “Night Gallery” starring Joan Crawford.

Crawford was perfectly respectful to Universal’s boy wonder during the day’s work, but afterward she called the head of the studio to get him fired. Lew Wasserman told her she could go back to New York if she didn’t like the choice of director.

From that humble “Night Gallery” shoot, of course, an amazing career was launched. Yet for the heights Spielberg has reached in the film business — B.O. records, enduring franchises, Oscars — he’s never stayed away from television for too long. He loves the medium too much, as an artist and as a voracious viewer of everything from “Modern Family” to “Breaking Bad.”

Over the past few years, in fact, his commitment to television has run deeper than most people realize. Since the fall of 2008, when DreamWorks pacted with Indian conglom Reliance to finance its movies, Spielberg has funded the overhead and expenses of his busy TV company out of his own pocket.

The company, which changed its moniker from DreamWorks TV to Amblin TV about a year ago, is technically a separate entity, outside of DreamWorks Studios, which he runs with Stacey Snider. Both companies remain housed together in the Amblin complex, Spielberg’s adobe oasis on the Universal lot.

Spielberg and his longtime TV chiefs, Justin Falvey and Darryl Frank, could walk into any studio chief ’s office tomorrow and command a generous TV housekeeping deal with plenty of perks. But Spielberg has made a conscious choice not to tap the ATM of OPM — despite many invitations to access other people’s money — in order to maintain as much control over his television destiny as possible. Independence, in Spielberg’s view, breeds innovation.

“We all feel that if we have a crazy idea that might get laughed at, there’s nothing wrong with seeing if there’s a crazy writer out there who agrees with us and can take it to a crazy network and somehow bring something that’s a little bit daft and edgy to life,” Spielberg says.

Spielberg loves to work — to a degree that astounds his collaborators (“It’s Hogwarts over there,” writer-producer Michael Green says of the atmosphere at Amblin. “They spend all day making magic.”) — but on his own terms.

“That’s what’s fun about this. There’s no pressure,” Spielberg says. “We’re not a corporation. We’re not part of the larger DreamWorks brand. We’re a privately held company that I have made a personal investment in. We’re much more able to play the field as opposed to going steady with a studio or a big network where everything has to go to them first, and then we have to negotiate how to get things out if they don’t want to do them. By being fiercely independent, we can do a lot more and we can move a lot quicker than we can if we were tied to a big label.”

Spielberg writes the checks as the sole financier of Amblin TV, including staff salaries and general expenses. Once a project moves into the active development and production phase, Amblin will partner with a studio or network to shoulder the costs of commissioning material and deficit production financing, if warranted. The more shows Amblin has on the air, the more fees that flow in to help offset Spielberg’s personal outlay, which has ranged from six to seven figures a year.

He can certainly afford to pay those bills, thanks to the returns from four decades of megahits, starting with a certain shark that still thrills visitors on the Universal Studios tour every day. But Spielberg’s willingness to risk his own money, rather than to strike a deal that could line his pockets, still marks a rare example of a Hollywood power player choosing art over commerce.

“Because of how much movies cost, it’s dangerous to be experimental on one film after the other,” Spielberg says. “But we can experiment with television. We can do things that are fringe and bring ideas to the table that are offbeat and original.”

Indeed, Spielberg’s affection for TV is notable in light of his headline-making observation this month during a USC event that the studio tentpole business (which he helped invent) is headed for a “big meltdown.” No wonder then, that he’s so invested in his TV biz.

“Television has a different biorhythm than movies. I love the biorhythm of TV,” he says. “It means we get to be more experiential in delivering stories, the way life is experiential.”

Amblin/DreamWorks TV’s output in the past few years has ranged from pay cable fare (Showtime’s “United States of Tara” and “The Borgias”) to big-budget network vehicles (NBC’s “Smash,” Fox’s “Terra Nova”) to moody sci-fi and fantasy (TNT’s “Falling Skies,” ABC’s “The River”). At present, Amblin TV is home to two of the year’s most talked-about new shows: FX’s “The Americans” and CBS’ big summer bet “Under the Dome,” which bows June 24. Also on deck for the fall is the ABC ensembler “Lucky 7,” a remake of a British drama.

In the early years of DreamWorks, the company braved the deficit-financing model in fielding series including “Spin City,” “Freaks and Geeks,” “Undeclared” and “The Job.” But as the primetime biz became more challenging with the wave of industry consolidation in the late 1990s, the company’s approach inevitably shifted to partnering with nets and studios on a show-by-show basis. They’ve done so much work all over town that Amblin’s unique deal template is well established.

“The expectation in the community is that this brand is about big ideas and big swings,” said Falvey. “It’s something Steven encourages us to think about with every project we consider — he doesn’t want our shows to be safe or standard in any way.”

Amblin, of course, is not immune to the high failure rate in TV. There have been high-profile commercial disappointments of late, in “Smash” and “Terra Nova.” “Smash” in particular engendered an unusual amount of online commentary about its creative shortcomings, chatter that had to hit home to Amblin TV’s boss, who was closely identified with the show, and had the initial inspiration to do a backstage drama as a weekly musical series. But Spielberg makes no apologies for trying to break the mold.

“The networks have to be more eclectic,” he says. “I want to work for a network that takes a chance and fails, as we all collectively failed with ‘Smash’ — but not qualitatively. ‘Smash’ fulfilled my vision of what I thought it could be.”

Spielberg believes the show could have had a longer run had it been on cable. But it was greatly handicapped after losing its “Voice” lead-in in its second season. “The weakness of the show’s concept, which I take full responsibility for, wasn’t enough to get the viewers back without some kind of ratings booster-rocket,” he acknowledges.

But “Smash” hasn’t scared Amblin away from being experimental. “If anything it’s invigorated our search for things that are new and different,” Spielberg says. “I’ll take risks and succeed, and I’ll take risks and fail, but I’ll never stop taking risks — otherwise there’s no fun in it.”

Spielberg’s devotion to the craft is awe-inspiring to those who’ve worked with him. He clearly loves the creative process and the talent-scouting opportunities that come with TV development. He reached out to Diablo Cody, more than a year before the B.O. success of “Juno” made her a star screenwriter, to flesh out his idea for a cable show about a woman with multiple personalities. Cody was floored to get the call at a time when she was still living in Minneapolis after he read her “Juno” spec.

Throughout the run of “United States of Tara,” she was impressed by his involvement in the show, even from afar.

“This was certainly not a ‘Steven Spielberg Presents’ situation,” Cody says. “I talked to him on a frequent basis. He was a true producer. I assumed that he would not have much time for a cable show created by a baby writer, but that was never the case. He really wanted it to succeed. (‘Tara’) was never able to pull as many viewers as we wanted, and there are people who would have given up on that show, but he never did.”

Spielberg’s dedication to TV is even more noteworthy as he works it in around his day job of running DreamWorks Studios. As a rule, he focuses on movies by day and TV by night, reading scripts and watching cuts of all DreamWorks/Amblin shows, no matter where he is in the world.

Falvey and Frank are crucial to making this round-the-clock equation work, for their boss and for all of the other parties associated with the shows. The two have been with DreamWorks since its inception in 1994, when the TV unit was part of the larger entity. After working together for so many years, there’s a level of trust among the trio that is like a “Vulcan mind-meld,” says “Falling Skies” creator Robert Rodat.

“It’s like you’ve got a three-headed man when you’re working with them,” Rodat says. “For a guy who has so many spinning plates as Steven, having two people who understand him so well is enormously valuable.”

Spielberg echoes Rodat’s sentiment. Falvey and Frank have been at the helm of the TV company since 2002. They joined DreamWorks within weeks of each other in the fall of 1995.

“I give total credit to Darryl and Justin,” Spielberg says. “Without them, we would not have this company.”

When Reliance entered the picture for DreamWorks Studios, there were initial discussions about including TV as part of the financing pact. In the end, the decision was made to keep that deal focused on film, given the differences in funding demands for TV series as compared with features. Spielberg stuck with the DreamWorks TV name even after he started paying the bills, but eventually decided it made sense for him and for Reliance to make the companies distinct in the public eye.

“I realized that because our partners in Mumbai are not paying for this, they should also not be held responsible or accountable to maybe controversial television that wouldn’t reflect well on their values,” Spielberg says. “I thought the safest thing to do was to dust off Amblin Entertainment and bring back an older television brand.”

The Amblin TV structure by design is a guerrilla unit that generates impressive output for its size. In addition to traditional TV, the company is working with Xbox on an adaptation of “Halo” that may also have an iteration on premium cable.

“We have a frighteningly small staff,” Spielberg says. “Everybody who works for Amblin Television has to do five jobs.”

In addition to co-presidents Falvey and Frank, Lindsey Springer oversees development with help from Emma Miller, while Leslee Feldman oversees casting, as she does for DreamWorks Studios and DreamWorks Animation.

Although the Spielberg association is a welcome marketing hook for networks, the Amblin boss is selective about the projects he puts his name on as executive producer (depending on his level of contribution), and even more careful about how much nets are able to tubthump his involvement. “That gets tired fast,” he says.

But whether Spielberg puts his name on a show or not, a similar standard applies.

“Our only barometer here is if one of the three of us is passionate about something, we pursue it,” Frank says. “If it’s not a show we all want to work on or watch, we don’t do it.”

For Spielberg, the fascination with TV started when he was a toddler, with commercial television in its infancy, too. When he was about 4, he remembers his father taking in radios and TV sets to repair to earn money on the side from his job at RCA. The family had an early Philco-made TV set that “looked like a radio with a circle in the center that looked like a porthole.” That porthole was compelling to him then, and still is.

Spielberg enjoys the challenge of thinking about storytelling in 100-episode increments. Those who’ve worked with him cite his razor-sharp instincts about story and character.

“I would come out of meetings with him feeling like I’ve just been working with the smartest, best-read eighth-grader in the universe — just in terms of his excitement about the process of rolling up your sleeves and talking about story,” says Green, who was an exec producer of “The River” and has since worked with Spielberg on feature projects.

“There is such a juxtaposition of how incredibly auspicious he is and the sheer humility of the guy,” Green says. “He doesn’t have any of the pretensions you might expect. He comes in happy to play at everyone else’s level, to throw ideas around and have fun and laugh.”

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