DreamWorks Still an Anomaly After 20 Years

Dreamworks at 20
Jeff Kravitz/Film Magic

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.

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  1. TheBigBangOf20thCenturyPopCulture says:

    Millennial America has lost way too much of its pop cultural innocence to support the type of quality films that DW would like to release. Filmgoers have been fed too much dreck to stomach old school matinees.

  2. Paul Suarez says:

    This is an odd piece that proffers a, to put it mildly, incomplete recitation of significant DreamWorks history. It’s problematic even if one sets aside the fact that Mr. Bart is a failed studio executive whose industry commentary needs to be taken with a shaker of salt. He frequently comes of as bitter, unbecomingly catty and perhaps jealous.

    Has the company delivered on all that many industry watchers, movie lovers and fans of each of the founders hoped for? No. But I think it is unfair to not to even mention some of the palpable obstacles DreamWorks faced.

    Bart mentions comparatively silly things which obviously got resolved, like a disagreement over the name of the company, but doesn’t mention the Ballona Wetlands / Robert Maguire quagmire that stymied DW’s bold efforts to build a new studio campus in Playa del Rey.

    Bart mentions the underperformance of COWBOYS & ALIENS but doesn’t mention the unprecedented successes of box office triumphs and critical favorites/Academy Award winners that DreamWorks gave us. Briefly glancing at just my Blu-ray collection alone, I see CHICKEN RUN, GLADIATOR, THE ISLAND, MINORITY REPORT, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, ROAD TO PERDITION, DREAMGIRLS and a little picture called TRANSFORMERS which has its third sequel coming to theaters this summer.

    Bart mentions “abandoned” efforts to get into the music business but mentions neither how much that business has changed in the past ten years alone nor the unprecedented successes the music division experienced in the earlier days. Being a country music lover, I can recall how big of a deal it was that Toby Keith and Randy Travis left their respective labels to sign with DreamWorks. THE PRINCE OF EGYPT had three soundtrack/score CDs, one of Hans Zimmer’s score and two others with source music appealing to different faith traditions.

    Bart mentions the financing troubles Spielberg faced after the Viacom separation but doesn’t mention that this was not a DreamWorks-specific problem: There was that little global meltdown in the credit markets. Frankly, it is more a testament of how bad things were everywhere that Steven freakin’ Spielberg was having trouble raising money to make films than it is any sort of negative reflection on DreamWorks.

    Bart’s second-to-last sentence intimates that just because the usual cyclical positions that Wall Street and bankers take about synergy or vertical integration or the best way to run/organize a studio have changed that that is somehow DreamWorks fault. Sony is facing analogous problems but he doesn’t mention that.

    What “I don’t get” is the timing, content and omissions of this piece. Bart and fellow failed exec Peter Guber kinda deserve each other. They should just go be quiet together somewhere. I’m kind of tired of hearing from both of them.

  3. LOL says:

    Write a book, Mr. Bart. You’re the best film columnist out there right now.

  4. Josh says:

    Very well written. Do Dreams Work? Dream works may be all but a dream. Passing thoughts, like ships passing in the night. Until they dock, and then the “dream” ends and the “work” begins. The reality of running a studio, or multifaceted conglomerate sets in. United Artist of old seemed to be an incredible model. But all energy need to go into one success to prevent future failures. Spielberg and the film company seemed the right course to set sail on. Movies which can spawn TV, cable, and film properties. Shrek was probably the biggest success, all things considered, that not a good thing. But when you’ve had enormous success individually in the past, it’s hard to duplicate that in a team. I have not heard of a franchise they are alined with, or books they are acquiring to give the company credible content. The team members won twenty years ago. Right now the three SKG members are on an extended victory lap vacation. Passion, maybe passing for just something to do in retirement. But when you’ve own and concurred and have nothing to prove, the only way to go is down….

  5. David Smith says:

    When I read, “The Men Who Would Be King”, about the origins of DreamWorks, I had the same reaction. 1 + 1 + 1 were going to add up to 3…period, I’m not connected in anyway the entertainment industry but if it was that obvious to me, wouldn’t it have been at least equally so to y’all? So what do they have to show for it all of these years later?

  6. Glenn C. says:

    Well written and true. Hollywood is full of dreams. Sometimes they dont come true.

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