DreamWorks Still an Anomaly After 20 Years

Bold venture by Spielberg, Geffen and Katzenberg has struggled to build consistency and fulfill its promise

Dreamworks at 20
Jeff Kravitz/Film Magic

I don’t get it.

That was the message of my column 20 years ago in response to a cosmic announcement from Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen. They had just told an excited assemblage of the world press that they had created a multifaceted media company that would effectively re-invent the institution of the Hollywood film studio.

The problem was that neither the announcement nor the business plan made much sense.

After two decades of turbulence, DreamWorks remains an anomaly.

Spielberg is devoting major time to building his own television slate at Amblin TV. Geffen is largely retired, and Katzenberg, of course, is running his publicly traded DreamWorks Animation, which is expanding aggressively into television with an exclusive Netflix series deal.

Meanwhile, DreamWorks’ live-action movie operation is struggling. Led by Stacey Snider, a smart and disciplined executive, and Spielberg, the most successful director in the world, the movie boutique has had to slim down its production slate and its ambitions. The company’s two most recent releases failed to deliver. “The Fifth Estate” managed a mere $3.3 million and “Delivery Man” $28.7 million to date at the domestic box office. Coupled with some earlier money-losers, including “Cowboys & Aliens,” the challenge for Snider and Spielberg is to sustain the financial backing of India-based Reliance, which is far from certain, as well as the distribution support of Disney (which struck a five-year deal with DreamWorks in 2009).

So let’s flash back to the Big Moment in DreamWorks history, circa 1994: The three moguls were bursting with enthusiasm as they disclosed their new film studio would occupy a major slice of L.A. real estate. Spielberg himself had designed the new lot to meet the needs of contemporary filmmakers: “There’ll finally be room to rehearse a scene,” he pledged. The most sought-after movie mavens were lining up.

How could the three moguls fail? asked the media. Spielberg’s previous two films had been “Schindler’s List” and “Jurassic Park,” Geffen all but owned the music business, and Katzenberg had just completed a great run at Disney.

But there were issues: The three titans had not yet been able to agree on a name for their enterprise. Nor could they decide on the location of the new facility. Nor would they reveal the details of their financing (Paul Allen’s $500 million commitment was still being negotiated). Further, distribution was left in the dark, as was the issue of diversification. Would this be a stand-alone film studio — always anathema to bankers?

The studio facility was never built. Efforts to push into music, TV and videogames have long since been abandoned, and animation was spun off in 2004 into a public company. And the live-action film side has been consistent for its inconsistency. The company seemed to be gaining momentum around 1999-2000 with “American Beauty” and “A Beautiful Mind,” but then sputtered with a series of losers; in recent years, flops like the aforementioned “Cowboys & Aliens” and “I Am Number Four” have taken some of the gloss off “The Help” and “Lincoln.”

The struggle to retain autonomy also was met with obstacles. DreamWorks thought it had found a home at Viacom in 2005, but that relationship became toxic after a couple of years. A flirtation with Universal for distribution was terminated when Disney aggressively pushed into the picture in 2009. Still, coming just a few months after the bountiful financing deal with Reliance was signed, the future seemed assured.

But it wasn’t. Funding may be compromised due to the absence of enough major hits. Bankers are again asking, does the notion of a stand-alone film company, without a franchise or a cable TV series, constitute a sound business plan?

The flashy ideas of two decades ago somehow seem to hold a lot less appeal.

Of course, I didn’t get it then. I don’t now. But I’d very much like to be proven wrong.