You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

DreamWorks Still an Anomaly After 20 Years

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

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.

More Voices

  • Hollywood Has Come Far With Diversity

    An Insider's Look at Hollywood's Diversity Efforts and How Far It Still Needs to Go

    I am a white man working in Hollywood. I grew up in Beverlywood, an all-white, predominantly Jewish, Los Angeles neighborhood sandwiched between 20th Century Fox Studios and MGM, where my elementary school had only one black student. I am compelled to write about diversity in Hollywood because “diversity” — in front of and behind the camera [...]

  • Venice Film Festival A Star is

    How Venice, Toronto and Telluride Festivals Stole Cannes' Luster (Column)

    In all the years I’ve been attending film festivals, I have never seen a lineup that looked as good on paper as Venice’s did this fall, boasting new films by Alfonso Cuarón (“Roma”), Damien Chazelle (“First Man”), Paul Greengrass (“22 July”), Mike Leigh (“Peterloo”) and the Coen brothers (“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”) in competition, [...]

  • Black Women in Medicine BTS

    Hollywood Needs to Include People With Disabilities on Both Sides of the Camera (Guest Column)

    In five years, nothing has changed. Despite open calls for greater diversity and inclusion, recent research shows that there was little change in the number of characters with disabilities in popular films in 2017. A study conducted by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found that [...]

  • Seven Seconds

    Fighting the Racial Bias at the Core of Hollywood’s Cop Shows (Guest Column)

    If fiction is the lie that tells a deeper truth, the TV crime genre has been, for the most part, the lie that simply tells a lie. As a storyteller (Veena) and an advocate for racial justice (Rashad), we collaborated for the past two-and-a-half years in an attempt to reimagine the roles of cops, victims, [...]

  • Harvey Weinstein Trial

    Column: Documentarian Barry Avrich Ponders Whether Harvey Weinstein Will Be Convicted

    Will Harvey Weinstein go to jail? That’s perhaps the most debated topic in Hollywood. It’s a question that makes me miss my friend Dominick Dunne, the controversial Vanity Fair columnist who would have already succeeded in interview-ing the chambermaids at Harvey’s sex-addiction clinic. Dunne once prophetically told me there would be a massive reckoning in Hollywood. He [...]

  • Janet Mock Pose

    'Pose' Writer Janet Mock on Making History With Trans Storytelling (Guest Column)

    I first met Ryan Murphy on location in Hollywood in July. The set was a nightclub, filled with background actors staged as glistening go-go dancers, shirtless revelers, and twirling drag queens. They were all basking under the glow of a spinning disco ball — a fitting setting for my first Hollywood job interview. I was [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content