DreamWorks book on what went wrong: ‘The whole company’s mandate was: Give Steven what he wants’

Posted: May 15, 2010 in BACKSTORY, HOLLYWOOD, NEWS STORY

Stev_spielberg

As I read Nicole LaPorte’s lively new history of DreamWorks, “The Men Who Would Be King,” I found myself transported to a time long, long ago, an era so far gone that when DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg once complained to titular DreamWorks production chief Walter Parkes that he didn’t have anything resembling a tentpole action extravaganza on the production slate, Parkes calmly replied: “If this is the kind of place where you need to have a big summer movie, well, maybe I’m not the right person for the job.”

Ah, those were the days. Founded in 1994 by Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Katzenberg when they were three of the uber-titans of the entertainment business, DreamWorks was supposed to be the studio that would transform the movie business, a modern-day media behemoth with its tentacles in music, TV, video games and all sorts of other gaudy new media arenas.

Instead of making dumbed-down comedies and  throwaway programmers, DreamWorks would offer glossy, sophisticated films that would appeal to quality-conscious moviegoers — and still make plenty of money in the process.

It didn’t pan out. For all the hoopla about DreamWorks being the studio of the future, it was very much a studio steeped in the past. Its aspirations had far more in common with the MGM of the 1930s and 1940s than the Pixar of the 21st century. DreamWorks turned out to be nothing more than just another struggling new movie studio — and quite a whopper of a dysfunctional studio at that — with its admirable output of quality fare ultimately outweighed by a host of costly live-action misfires and a mixed bag of animation releases.

In short, when you look back at all the high expectations, it was a pretty big disappointment. 

DreamWorks 2.0 is back in business, now run by Spielberg and Stacey Snider with its films being distributed by Disney. But as LaPorte’s book makes abundantly clear, the original DreamWorks was doomed from the start. Parkes’ reaction to Katzenberg’s initial concerns about the studio’s mandate is especially revelatory on several levels. Even back in the late 1990s, when the exchange occurred, studios were already turning themselves into franchise engines, filling up their slates with tentpole movies and tons of sequels.

But Parkes was simply reflecting the attitude of his real boss – -Spielberg, who as the book reveals, was so in awe of Parkes’ Ivy League erudition, good looks and certitude that as one observer put it, “If an alien from space landed in a room with Steven and Walter, it would think that Steven worked for Walter.” So Parkes was reflecting Spielberg’s vision for the company, as an artist-oriented studio that would do good works, an admirable vision, but not one that entirely reflected the views of Geffen, a man with a fierce desire to win, and Katzenberg, who having worked for years under Michael Eisner, had both feet firmly planted in the camp of making crowd-pleasing entertainment.

As the book also points out, the tension between Katzenberg and Spielberg, via Parkes, wasn’t just about a different attitude toward class versus crass. It also reflected Katzenberg’s not always unspoken feeling that after years of studio experience, he was far more qualified to run DreamWorks’ live-action division than Parkes, a talented writer-producer with, well, zero actual experience running a studio. But to Spielberg, Katzenberg may have been his partner, but he was still a schlepper. Parkes had good taste. So when “The Peacemaker,” DreamWorks’ first live-action film, went into production, shooting in Slovakia, its star, George Clooney, was furious to discover that he was always having to learn new lines faxed in from L.A. by Parkes, who it turned out wasn’t just the studio chief and a producer of the film but its rewrite man as well.

This sort of thing happened all the time at DreamWorks, which never managed to have any clear divisions of authority, except for the fact that Katzenberg had full sway over its animation wing. A series of production chiefs came and went, including such highly touted talents as ex-HBO executive Bob Cooper and ex-New Line production chief Michael De Luca, none of them lasting very long, quickly discovering that Parkes and his wife, Laurie MacDonald, were the real powers behind the throne.

Shortly after De Luca arrived, LaPorte writes that Parkes and MacDonald took him around town to introduce the new studio president at the top talent agencies. But over and over, De Luca and the other DreamWorks production execs were made to wait outside until Parkes and MacDonald finished the most important piece of business — offering a presentation of the movies they were producing themselves. “It was unbelievable,” one agent told LaPorte. “The writing was on the wall, right there. [Their] agenda was first, and Mike was an afterthought.”

After I finished reading the book last week, I asked LaPorte the obvious question: What went wrong? She has some intriguing theories about the company’s failure to live up to its high expectations. Keep reading:

Posted via web from MovieDriver – Hollywood Teamster

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