The 1990s were the financial apogee of Hollywood, a period when billionsin fresh capital flowed into the coffers of the studios in theexpectation that the world had an infinitely expanding need for Americanentertainment. With new cable networks launching to fill themulti-channel universe and huge multiplexes sprouting in shoppingcenters across the country, the demand for a steady supply of TV showsand movies to fill the pipeline was projected to be limitless. It was ahappy time to be a movie producer.
This is the economic backdrop for "The Men Who Would be King," NicoleLaPorte's exhaustively reported book about DreamWorks SKG, the first newmajor Hollywood studio in more than half a century. LaPorte's lengthynarrative is the definitive history of the studio, an achievement ofdispassionate reporting in the genre of corporate decline-and-fall.
Formed in 1994 by three of the most powerful figures in theentertainment business - music mogul David Geffen, director StevenSpielberg and fired Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg - DreamWorks wasgoing to be the model Hollywood studio for the 21st century, afilmmaker's Valhalla with a communitarian ethos where employees didn'thave titles and the commissary served free breakfast and lunch.
Eleven years later, the dream was over.
DreamWorks, the studio that during its chaotic, incandescent life begot"American Beauty," "Saving Private Ryan," "Gladiator," "Almost Famous,""Dreamgirls" and "Shrek," couldn't in the end financially sustain itselfand was sold to Paramount. Like a family splitting up, Geffen eventuallymoved out. Katzenberg took the animation division and its "Shrek"franchise to create a new public company, DreamWorks Animation. A fewyears later Spielberg and his new partner, Stacey Snider, were able tohave what remained of DreamWorks' "live-action" division, rescued by anIndia-based industrial conglomerate that wanted a foothold in Hollywood,and begin making movies anew.
For readers interested in the power players, inside dealings andtick-tock accounts of Hollywood filmmaking, "The Men Who Would Be King"provides all the necessary fixtures and referents. When it comes to theoutsized ambitions and maniacal personalities of the contemporary filmindustry, they don't come bigger than those of Messrs. Geffen, Spielbergand Katzenberg.
Each was already a billionaire (well, Geffen and Spielberg, anyway)before they launched DreamWorks, with a long history at the forefront ofthe popular culture machine. And each (Geffen and Katzenberg, at least)had starring roles in two of the best modern-day books about corporateHollywood, Tom King's biography of Geffen, "The Operator," and James B.Stewart's withering portrayal of former Walt Disney Co. chief executiveMichael Eisner in "DisneyWar."
Hollywood, with its penchant for sunny publicity and obsession forsecrecy, is a notoriously difficult business in which to uncover thetruth. LaPorte deserves credit for penetrating at a microscopic leveland reconstructing verbatim dialogue that occurred inside DreamWorks'meetings. Most reporters are not up to the task. LaPorte is.
Want to know the background on how "American Beauty" was made? There's achapter on it. The nasty Oscar war for best picture between Miramax's"Shakespeare in Love" and DreamWorks' "Saving Private Ryan"? One onthat, too. How the animated films "Prince of Egypt" became a hugedisappointment at the beginning and "Sinbad" nearly sank the studio atthe end? Ditto and ditto.
Indeed, at times it feels like there is a chapter on every film thatDreamWorks made, and though the detail is impressive, the cumulativeeffect is that LaPorte's narrative loses sight of the ultimate question:Why is the story about DreamWorks important, and why we should care?
The problem is, by the end of the book, we don't care. We just want thestory to be over and done. We are as exhausted as the people who workedthere and grew disillusioned. Yes, perhaps the DreamWorks principalswere chastened by the changes in the movie business they couldn'tfathom, but more likely they were satisfied with the millions they made,even though the company itself was managed haphazardly, and its chiefasset - Spielberg - spent much of his time at DreamWorks making moviesfor other studios.
We also are left, sadly, with no new insights into Geffen, Spielberg andKatzenberg. Even readers who may be only casually acquainted with theegos of Hollywood probably know that Geffen is ruthless and sometimescruel, Spielberg is cocooned by factotums and apostles, and Katzenbergis indefatigably ambitious and self-aggrandizing. Possibly the onlyindividual in Hollywood who has had more media exposure than those threeis Michael Jackson.
Still, "The Men Who Would Be King" will be required reading for anyoneinterested in the story of DreamWorks. Yes, it has a limited appeal, butfor a first book, it boasts the chops of a veteran author who can tacklea difficult assignment.
Based on the portraits she draws here, one hopes LaPorte will apply herskills to biography next.