TCA 2012: David Geffen on the Waning Power of Stars, Crazy Rumors and What's Wrong With Hollywood

David Geffen
David Geffen
 Getty Images

When David Geffen allows the camera to be turned on him Nov. 20 for an American Masters documentary titled Inventing David Geffen, he will be described by friends, peers and adversaries as “passionate,” “neurotic” and “giftedly non-diplomatic."

Such traits were on display Sunday as the notoriously press-shy billionaire greeted the TV press at the Television Critics Association semiannual press tour. He joined Masters creator Susan Lacy on stage to discuss his upcoming PBS installment, which will focus on how he helped shape popular culture as an agent, manager, record industry titan, Hollywood and Broadway producer and billionaire philanthropist.

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Steven Spielberg, Barry Diller, Tom Hanks, Arianna Huffington, Rahm Emanuel and the late Nora Ehpron are among the 50-plus who are interviewed for the doc, which includes extensive interview time with Geffen as well. Lacy said she opted against having Geffen narrate, selecting to weave his responses throughout the two-hour program.

To hear Geffen tell it, he had been a big fan of the American Masters series -- he claims to have seen Jerome Robbins' entry 10 times -- and was approached by Lacy to participate. “She didn’t have to convince me,” he insisted, having flown in from Sardinia to address the packed ballroom. “When she called and said she wanted to do one of me, I was flattered.” Lacy noted that it was far harder to convince Geffen to show up for Sunday’s press conference than it was to get him to do the film. (He left the ballroom immediately following the panel, leaving no time for a scrum of reporters to form around him.)

Though Geffen claims he is not entirely convinced he’s a worthy subject for PBS, he is pleased with the final product. “I don’t tend to think about the past. I really don’t reflect on my career, and I don’t like to talk about myself. So when I saw the film, I thought, ‘Wow,' I was impressed,” he said to laughs. He claims he “had absolutely no input in” in the film. He is careful to reiterate that, clarifying that he had no involvement in selecting the interview subjects or editing what or how much they would say.

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In his half-hour or so before the press, Geffen, who was both terse and reticent, opined on a host of different topics:

On the Music Industry Then

Though the story does not make it into his film, he revealed that he was once asked by Art Garfunkel if he thought Garfunkel should drop out of architecture school to pursue a career in music. “I told him to stay in school,” admitted Geffen, who said there were plenty of acts that passed on working with Geffen, too, including REM, which signed with Warner Bros. at the time. "It's not about the ones that say no; it's about the ones that say yes," said Geffen. "Your life isn't made up of people who aren't in it." He acknowledged that he had set out to make a career in the movie business but was told early on that he’d have better luck with musicians as a young agent because they, too, were young.

On the Music Industry Now

Asked his thoughts about the opportunities and challenges of entering the music business as a producer or executive today, he deadpanned: “I’d kill myself.” And it’s no easier to break in as an artist now, he notes, attributing the difficulties to the absence of Top 40 radio and an outlet like MTV to air music videos on a loop. “You need repetition,” he said of what he describes as a crucial element of discovery. “You need to be able to hear things a lot.”

On the Waning Power of Movie Stars

As he sees it, movie stars lack the leverage they once had. “The story means more today than the cast means, and that’s a big change,” he said of a business he suggests is in decline care of the DVD’s demise, adding: “The biggest movies today don’t have stars in them.” Having ticked off such current examples as Avatar and Avengers, he recalls the era in which a movie’s gross could be tied to the caliber of its stars. When one critic attempted to help him make his case with the example of Tom Cruise’s latest bomb, Rock of Ages, Geffen stopped her: “It was a bad movie,” he said. “And it’s unusual when a bad movie succeeds.”

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Geffen on Geffen

Geffen, who is on tape suggesting "ego" isn't a "pejorative" term in his mind, insists he never saw himself as the smartest person in the room at any point during his career, revealing that he did poorly in school -- “I thought I was dumb,” he said -- and was fired from a number of early jobs coming out of high school. In fact, he said the only reason he had the confidence to go after a gig as a William Morris agent is because he believed it rewarded a different skill set, and one that he had: the ability to “bullshit on the phone.” Decades later, he’s enjoying his time away from the business – at 69, he said, he doesn’t “want a job” -- and noted that he’s content spending weeks at a time lost in books and newspapers. (Other Geffen facts: He’s never carried a cell phone, has never texted anyone and doesn’t own an ATM card.)

On the Newspaper Business

He acknowledged that he had tried --and failed-- to buy The New York Times, but noted that he had never considered doing so as an investment opportunity. “I think The New York Times is essential,” he said of his proposal, which if successful would have made the paper a nonprofit. He’s less convinced regional papers can survive and confirmed that he had tried to look at the books of the Los Angeles Times, but said he had no interest in owning a paper now. As for other billionaires who have invested in the newspaper business, he simply said: “I hope they make a lot of money. I have no feeling about what other people do.”

On His Role At DreamWorks

While he's heard the company's upcoming film Lincoln is "wonderful," he is adament that he has no involvement at DreamWorks today. (When Lacy tried to suggest he sold his stake years earlier, he corrected her, noting that he still owns several million shares in DreamWorks Animation through his foundation.) In the her doc, Geffen talks about raising $2 billion in one week to start the independent studio with Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg in 1994, a task he said would be "impossible" today. "The business model has changed," he explained, adding that he couldn't raise that much that fast in today's environment.

On Those Silly Rumors

If you’ve heard the one about Carly Simon suggesting her song “You’re So Vain” is about Geffen, he assures you it wasn’t. “Not that I’m not vain; I’m just not her vain,” he shrugged, adding that the one about him marrying Keanu Reeves – an actor he said he had never met at the time of the report -- was similarly untrue.

Email: Lacey.Rose@THR.com; Twitter: @LaceyVRose

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