Ever think to yourself, “How great would it be to run a movie studio?” Well, you may have second thoughts after reading Nicole LaPorte’s The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 491 pages, $28). The book explores the inner-workings of DreamWorks Pictures, the ambitious studio started in 1994 by three of Hollywood’s elite—Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen. As LaPorte describes, however, starting the company and continually producing profitable, high-quality movies was not as easy as it looked.
All three men had different agendas and working styles. Spielberg preferred taking a backseat role, identifying with moviemakers and giving them support while shying away from critiquing their creative choices. Katzenberg was the opposite—a power-hungry former Disney exec who took a pushy, overly hands-on approach to the animated movies the studio was producing. Geffen, meanwhile, stood back from it all, only taking an interest in the most pertinent matters. It wasn’t exactly a match made in heaven.
At the beginning, the studio was selective about which films to produce. Spielberg brought on producing partners (and married couple) Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald as the presidents of DreamWorks. Parkes and MacDonald still viewed themselves as producers, and brought an eagle eye to each of the films on DreamWorks’ plate. While 1997 (the year in which the studio’s first slate of films was released) featured lackluster fare such as The Peacemaker and Amistad, the studio soon struck gold in 1998 with the much-praised Saving Private Ryan (which won five Oscars in 1999).
For the next three years, the Best Picture Oscar winners would be DreamWorks films—American Beauty, Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind. DreamWorks also found much success in its animation department (overseen by Katzenberg, who was intent on becoming a rival to Disney), with such smash hits as the Shrek franchise, Madagascar and Kung Fu Panda. But trouble was stirring for the company.
As LaPorte says, “DreamWorks was changing. Having hit the five-year mark, its days as a family-style company, where everyone hung out in the courtyard and ate cookies, were over. It was now a corporate animal more in need of hits to stay alive. As divisions were shut down in order for the company to stay alive, the mood changed.”
What was once perceived as a place of creative freedom distanced from the other cash-hungry studios soon became just that—another movie studio almost exclusively concerned with making a profit. Making things even more difficult was that several of DreamWorks’ expected summer tentpole releases, such as Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas and The Island, bombed badly at the box office. The company was coming close to bankruptcy. A partnership with Paramount was struck in 2005. In early 2009, a new deal was announced that partnered DreamWorks with Universal.
According to LaPorte, one of the central problems with DreamWorks was an attempt to tackle too many big-budget, would-be blockbusters that didn’t make their money back, rather than make films in the American Beauty model (which the company never repeated)—modestly budgeted films that could reap in both rave reviews and stellar box office.
LaPorte’s writing style is direct and to-the-point. The amount of research is impressive. At times, though, the book gets a bit too bogged down in the technical aspects of deals and mergers. While those interested in the business side of the industry might find these details fascinating, the average movie aficionado might regard these technicalities as a bit dry. Also problematic is that early on, LaPorte seems to set up the company as some kind of tragic Hollywood tale, although the results were not exactly disastrous. While DreamWorks could undoubtedly be looked upon as a disappointment, the studio is still doing fairly well (though, admittedly, not functioning on its own). Its animation department in particular is still going strong, and recently released the mega-hit How To Train Your Dragon.
In the end, LaPorte says, “more than anything else, DreamWorks was a failure of expectation, one that resulted from all of the relentless hype. Spectacular success was not so much a goal as an assumption. How could these guys fail?” As The Men Who Would Be King suggests, the downfall of being the most powerful people in the film industry, is that anything less than monumental achievement will be looked upon as colossal disappointment.