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Spielberg’s DreamWorks Won Oscars, Lost Its Way: Book Review

The cover jacket of "The Men Who Would be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies and a Company called Dreamworks." The book is the latest by Nicole Laporte. Source: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt cia Bloomberg

When Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen created DreamWorks in 1994, it was touted as an artist-friendly multimedia company that would shake up the movie business.

But DreamWorks SKG -- the initials represented the last names of its founders -- didn’t live up to its billing.

While it produced Oscar winners such as “American Beauty” and “Gladiator,” along with the blockbuster “Shrek” and “Transformers” series, the studio faltered because of huge egos and conflicting agendas. DreamWorks was eventually sold to Paramount, which treated it like a stepsister, then started over in 2009 with financing from India’s Reliance ADA Group and a distribution deal with former rival Walt Disney Co.

The company’s roller-coaster history is told in “The Men Who Would Be King,” Nicole LaPorte’s gossipy, excruciatingly detailed book about how three entertainment titans failed to turn Hollywood’s viper pit into a Garden of Eden. LaPorte, who covered DreamWorks as a Variety reporter, regales us with more feuds, double-crosses and backstabbing than all three “Godfather” movies combined.

We learn that Russell Crowe threatened to kill a “Gladiator” producer with his bare hands and that George Clooney threw a tantrum on “The Peacemaker” set in Slovakia because the script wasn’t finished.

Katzenberg’s Revenge

Those antics were child’s play compared with the corporate intrigue, office politics and creative battles that LaPorte recounts through interviews with more than 200 sources, many of them unnamed. Spielberg, Geffen and Katzenberg refused to talk to the author, a decision that seems understandable once you learn how dysfunctional their movie, TV and record empire was.

LaPorte has a punchy writing style and a boatload of telling anecdotes, but the book eventually wore me down with minutiae and repetition. Particularly annoying is her compulsive listing of the box-office figures for every DreamWorks movie, as well as many others.

DreamWorks was Katzenberg’s idea. After reviving Disney’s animation unit, he was fired by his boss, Michael Eisner, who felt Katzenberg hogged the credit. So Katzenberg decided to start his own studio, largely to get back at Eisner.

Spielberg, one of Hollywood’s richest filmmakers, and Geffen, who made a fortune as a record producer, had no problems coming up with their initial $33 million investments in DreamWorks. Katzenberg had to take out two mortgages to make his one-third contribution.

Disney Settlement

Their personalities and interests were as different as “Jaws” and “Schindler’s List.” Spielberg was the artist overflowing with ideas. Katzenberg was a workaholic micromanager. Geffen, while removed from the day-to-day business, acted as a deal-closer and fundraiser who persuaded Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen to invest $700 million in the studio.

Katzenberg’s bank account soared at DreamWorks. First, Disney paid him $280 million to settle a lawsuit over bonuses he claimed he was owed. Katzenberg struck it rich again when DreamWorks Animation was spun off into a separate company and went public in 2004, boosting his stock holdings to $336 million.

At heart, the book is about the intersection of finance and entertainment. While Spielberg and his favorite producers -- the husband-and-wife team of Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald -- concentrated on Oscar-worthy pictures, others wanted to make movies with broader appeal and better financial prospects. The contrasting philosophies led to bitter conflicts and, eventually, a realization that DreamWorks couldn’t survive as an artsy boutique studio.

Oscar Wars

Some of the juiciest stories are about the public-relations wars between DreamWorks and Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax over their Oscar contenders. After Miramax outmaneuvered DreamWorks for the best-picture award in 1999 -- “Shakespeare in Love” upset Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” -- DreamWorks vowed revenge. It got bragging rights the next three years, taking home best-picture Oscars for “American Beauty,” “Gladiator” and “A Beautiful Mind.”

Today, Spielberg remains part owner of DreamWorks and Katzenberg heads DreamWorks Animation. Geffen is no longer involved in the company.

“DreamWorks was a failure of expectation, one that resulted from all of the relentless hype,” LaPorte writes in her epilogue. “Spectacular success was not so much a goal as an assumption. How could these guys fail?”

“The Men Who Would Be King” is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (491 pages, $28). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Rick Warner is the movie critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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