At its peak, DreamWorks SKG churned out an array of hits including American Beauty, Saving Private Ryan, Gladiator and Shrek. But the studio founded in 1994 by three of the richest and most powerful men in Hollywood, David Geffen, Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, lost its independence in 2005, sank two years later, and was refloated by Spielberg as a small production company with Indian backing.
So what went wrong? A new book tells a sorry story of clashing egos and tantrums, corporate largesse, loss-making ventures into video games, music and TV production, and, most crucially, an inability to make consistently profitable pictures.
“The DreamWorks story was rife with mysteries,” says Nicole LaPorte, author of The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks. A correspondent for The Daily Beast, LaPorte writes, “As a private company that held its secrets even closer to the vest than most studios—where information is doled out on a need-to-know basis by militias of publicists—DreamWorks was teeming with them. Why did Spielberg, who already had everything in Hollywood, do it in the first place? Why did he ban Katzenberg from the coveted live-action studio? Why was Geffen so absent?”
Getting the answers wasn't easy as all three principals declined to co-operate and discouraged their colleagues and friends from talking. “I've got phone records,” she alleges Geffen told one employee. “I'll find out who's talking. We'll get you.”
The animation division turned out a number of critically and commercially underwhelming films such as Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, The Prince of Egypt and The Road to El Dorado until the jolly green ogre turned around its fortunes. But the book describes Shrek as a troubled production that went through multiple writers and directors until Kiwi Andrew Adamson, a special-effects director, took over. Adamson refused to be intimidated by Katzenberg and persuaded him to agree to inserting sexual jokes in the script and adding Guns 'n Roses to the soundtrack. Katzenberg left in 2004, converting DreamWorks Animation into a public company.
The book reveals some juicy tidbits about bad behaviour by stars on the sets of DreamWorks movies. While making Gladiator, Russell Crowe is said to threatened to slit a producer's throat and refused to recite the film's signature line. (When that was reported on Gawker, Crowe tweeted that LaPorte is a “lying horse's ass.”
George Clooney is reported to have erupted on the set The Peacemaker after being asked to star in the film by Spielberg, only to discover that Spielberg had very little to do with the production and studio executive Walter Parkes was rewriting the script while cameras were rolling.
LaPorte concludes, “DreamWorks was a true Hollywood tale that demonstrated how the town's core belief, its absolute faith in the kind of icon it believes in most—a time-tested filmmaker who brings in bucks and blockbusters—is sometimes misplaced.”