Steven Spielberg on DreamWorks’ Past, Amblin’s Present and His Own Future
With his 29th movie, 'The BFG,' about to debut, Hollywood's most successful and arguably greatest director answers questions about what happened at DreamWorks, what will happen at Amblin Partners and what (and who) will be the focus of his vast ambitions moving forward (hint: Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones does not die).
For 20-plus years, Steven Spielberg and NBCUniversal vice chairman Ron Meyer have shared lunch once a month at the Commissary on the Universal lot. They kept it up even as Spielberg, along with Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen, launched Dreamworks SKG in 1994 and had no formal business ties to the studio that launched his career. The tradition carried on after Dreamworks sold itself to Paramount in 2005, and then after Dreamworks made a deal to distribute its films through Disney in 2008. And they will continue now that Spielberg and his company — in its latest iteration as Amblin Partners — finally have circled back, striking a distribution deal in December 2015 with Universal, the home that Spielberg, throughout it all, never physically left.
You would like to listen in on one of these meetings between two Hollywood silverbacks who’ve done far more than survive in the jungle that is the entertainment business. “We’ve both been around for about 50 years, and we know pretty much all the players past and present,” says Meyer, 71. “We talk about it all, from politics to Shoah and everything in between.” Spielberg, who turns 70 in December, puts it this way: “Ronnie and I both suffer from a disease called terminal nostalgia.”
Hollywood certainly has changed, as Spielberg and George Lucas lamented in a much-discussed August 2013 talk at USC. There, Spielberg noted that Lincoln almost had to be an HBO movie. “Steven Spielberg and George Lucas can’t get their movies into a theater,” marveled Lucas, while Spielberg warned of a pending “implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.” Today, Spielberg still believes that the superhero genre will not last as long as the Western, which had a nearly-70-year run.
For its part, DreamWorks has passed through rough financial waters, but Spielberg sails on — still the industry’s titan, still commanding extraordinary deals. For serving as executive producer on Jurassic World, he’s said to have made more money than Universal. He still collects 2 percent of all ticket revenue at the Universal theme parks as well as a portion of park concession receipts. Forbes estimates his wealth at $3.6 billion.
But Spielberg’s return to Universal is complex. For one, Universal isn’t investing any money in Amblin Partners’ films. For another, the company still will have to negotiate, movie by movie, for good release dates and a satisfactory marketing spend. In the no-sure-thing box office of today, even arguably the greatest living director is forced to play by new rules.
And while no one ever doubts Spielberg’s productivity, some might wonder how much attention he will give to his new company. Even as he has established Amblin Partners at Universal, he has committed to make Ready Player One at Warner Bros. Amblin Partners will get his midbudget historical drama The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, and then he’ll direct the fifth Indiana Jones movie for Disney. Spielberg says he’s “super excited” about that movie, dated for July 2019: “I think this one is straight down the pike for the fans.” He won’t reveal plot details, except this: “The one thing I will tell you is I’m not killing off Harrison [Ford] at the end of it.” (Amblin Partners is not a financial participant.) And then, there’s a potential remake of West Side Story — which would be a Fox/MGM co-production — for which Tony Kushner is working on a script. Spielberg has dreamt of adapting it “for decades,” securing rights after trying to get them 15 years ago.
In truth, the DreamWorks saga, which Spielberg portrays as having completed a satisfactory arc, hardly is straightforward. Launched with giddy optimism as a full-service studio, DreamWorks struggled for financing — and for hits — for much of its existence and now is subsumed as a label under the new Amblin Partners banner.
Over the DreamWorks years, there have been issues over what Spielberg owed his backers (like Paul Allen and Reliance Entertainment) and whether the company paid in full — yet Spielberg seems unaware that some associates have raised such questions. As he sees it, he did everything for DreamWorks and certainly he made a lot of money for a lot of people. But he also followed his artistic impulses, working on projects for others in DreamWorks’ darkest hours.
For years, everyone has wanted all of Spielberg and taken what they could get. Spending limited time with him, I get the impression that he lives in a kind of bubble — protected by the privilege that comes with money, by aggressive partners, by loyal underlings and by the deference accorded to the most successful filmmaker in Hollywood history.
Spielberg is thoughtful and unassuming in conversation, though he draws a line forcefully when he doesn’t want to answer a question. (“No” to talking politics — though he allows that he supports Hillary Clinton.) But even when he does answer in words that feel completely sincere, there is a kind of force field around him — invisible and not easily penetrated.
Steven Spielberg was photographed May 31 in the Amblin Screening Room in Universal City.
With his latest movie, The BFG opening July 1, Spielberg is prepping Ready Player One; the Warners thriller is scheduled to open in March 2018. Before that, he expects to finish Edgardo Mortara, set for release through Universal in November 2017. With Amblin Partners freshly financed by Jeff Skoll’s Participant Media, Reliance and Entertainment One, Spielberg is in the rare position to greenlight his own midbudget adult historical drama. He has other films on the runway, and there’s more — TV shows, theme park attractions, philanthropic projects, consulting on a virtual-reality venture. Spielberg remains a genius-level multitasker.
“I don’t know that there’s a time when he’s been more prolific,” says Katzenberg. “Make no mistake — he’s still the master storyteller of our time. If you look at the profitability and excellence of his work, he has no peer. You can take James Cameron, Chris Nolan or Martin Scorsese — all brilliant and in many ways his peers, but look at quality and consistency, and no one compares.” Also, Katzenberg says that with Spielberg’s seven children grown, “It’s been decades since he’s been as free as he is today.” (The kids, including one each from his and wife Kate Capshaw’s previous marriages, range in age from 19 to 39.)
With The BFG, Spielberg checks an entry off his bucket list: It’s his first movie for the original Walt Disney label. “I have directed films for every studio in Hollywood except for Walt Disney — until now,” he says. “Disney was truly, when I was a kid, my singular inspiration and also the source of most of my nightmares.” Yes, he means Bambi and Dumbo, too. “The separation of mother and child …” he says. “I mean, the killing of Bambi’s — it was just one of the most …” (Who can’t relate?)
Alas, Disney was an imperfect partner for the more adult stories that interested him by the time he and DreamWorks settled there. “We brought an alternative kind of entertainment that had trouble squeezing in between the branded summer and Christmas four-quadrant crowd-pleasers,” says Spielberg. Still, he thinks Disney was “very proud” to distribute films like The Help and Lincoln (both were profitable).
Associates said Spielberg was baffled and hurt when Lincoln lost the best picture Oscar to Ben Affleck’s Argo, but he brushes that off. The one that got to him was Schindler’s List. It gave him two Oscars in 1994, but he found he lacked a desire to go back to work. “I just didn’t,” he says. “I could not.”
Spielberg (right) and Liam Neeson, star of Schindler’s List, discussed a scene during production in 1993 in Poland. The film earned seven Academy Awards, including best picture and best director.
Asked whether he was depressed, he says yes — and then corrects himself. “I’ve never been depressed,” he says. “I was sad and isolated, and as well-received and successful as that movie was, I think it was the trauma of telling the story and forming the Shoah Foundation.” For a time, he was more engaged in sending videographers to interview Holocaust survivors than pondering movie projects. “I started to wonder, was Schindler’s List going to be the last film I would direct?” he recalls.
But the urge to get back to work “seized me one day like a thunderbolt,” he says.”I just needed time.” He went for popcorn fare: In 1997, he returned with a sequel to Jurassic Park.
By then, DreamWorks had been launched with fanfare, and at first, the company was on a roll: DreamWorks’ name was on consecutive best picture winners: American Beauty, Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind (the latter two co-produced with Universal). Its animation arm launched the Shrek franchise.
But there were costly losers, and DreamWorks soon faced money trouble. In 2004, it met pressure to pay off Paul Allen by spinning off its animation division as a public company run by Katzenberg. The next year, live-action DreamWorks sold itself to Paramount in a $1.6 billion deal. But by 2008, high-level power struggles (largely due to Geffen’s machinations) had soured the relationship to the breaking point. Spielberg and then co-chairman, Stacey Snider, launched what he calls “DreamWorks 2.0” as the recession hit. DreamWorks fell well short of its financing goal and released such misses as Cowboys & Aliens and I Am Number Four.
“We had these movies that simply did not perform,” says Spielberg. “What really hurt our company was Cowboys & Aliens [which cost more than $150 million to make]. Even though we shared it with Universal as a financier, just half of what we lost crippled us. And you know you’re underfinanced if one movie can cripple you.” He continues: “Stacey and I should have deferred forming the company for a few more years because we went into it half-baked.” But had they waited, DreamWorks would have lost the opportunity to lock up rights to 17 projects that it had developed while at Paramount. (Snider left in 2014 to become co-chair of the Fox film studio.)
From left: Katzenberg, Spielberg and Geffen announced the formation of the DreamWorks SKG studio at a Los Angeles press conference on Oct. 12, 1994. Each of the three men invested $33 million in the much-touted venture.
Having made its distribution deal with Disney, DreamWorks soon became an awkward fit as the guard and goals changed to focus on Marvel and other tentpole live-action movies. Often short of money, DreamWorks teetered until the operation was rebooted in late 2015 under the name of Spielberg’s original production company. Amblin Partners has more than $800 million in equity and debt, including $50 million from Spielberg himself. The company will make family movies under the Amblin Entertainment label, adult fare under the DreamWorks banner and socially conscious films under the Participant Media name.
Underlying the DreamWorks saga is what could be called a Rashomon question: Did Spielberg do everything for the company — as he thinks he did — or not enough? From the start, Spielberg exercised his prerogative, spelled out in the original DreamWorks deal, to make whatever movie he wanted. He brought DreamWorks in on several major movies developed at other studios, such as Minority Report at Fox. But some former colleagues think the Spielberg-directed movies that belonged entirely to his company were his more adult, less commercial efforts. “He tried to make it OK. It was not OK,” says a company veteran. Citing a 2004 Spielberg-directed dramedy, this person continues, “The Terminal is not Jurassic Park. He created no franchises for DreamWorks.”
This tension hardly is new. After Spielberg’s mentor, Sid Sheinberg, launched his career and gave him the home he still occupies on the Universal lot, Spielberg began making movies at Warners. Sheinberg implored him to cut his home studio in on the action; thus, the Spielberg-produced 1996 hit Twister was shared between Warners and Universal.
At DreamWorks 2.0, Spielberg made two films entirely away from his company: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull for Paramount (2008) and The Adventures of Tintin for Sony and Paramount (2011). He did War Horse and Lincoln for DreamWorks. BFG is a co-production with Disney. Also outside DreamWorks, Spielberg produced Super 8 and served as executive producer of films including the Coen brothers’ True Grit and two Transformers movies. All had been developed by DreamWorks but were left behind in the split from Paramount.
Also apart from DreamWorks, Spielberg oversaw his Amblin television unit, which created the Peabody-winning The Americans on FX, the CBS series Under the Dome and the upcoming American Gothic. In 2014, Amblin TV co-president Darryl Frank told THR that Spielberg “looks at every outline, every script, watches every cut, signs off on every production designer, cinematographer and visual effects artist.” However gifted he is at multitasking, all these projects might have chafed those at then-struggling DreamWorks. (Going forward, Amblin TV’s projects will be part of Amblin Partners.)
At DreamWorks, says a longtime associate, “Steven had two jobs: He was an executive and a director. He was true to both, as best as he could be.” Another insider argues that Spielberg earned the right to do things his way. “He’s not an executive — he’s a creative maestro,” says this person. “He comes in at key moments. He was always available, always willing to help. He always came with ideas.” If Spielberg never launched a franchise at DreamWorks, adds this insider, some blame might lie with executives who didn’t find the right material to tempt him.
To Spielberg, any question about his focus during the DreamWorks era appears baffling. “I haven’t worked away from DreamWorks,” he says. “Since we formed the company in ’94, the only thing I’ve done away from DreamWorks is Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” (In the moment, Tintin doesn’t come to mind, and clearly he sees his other outside projects as entirely separate matters.)
Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts, who blessed Universal’s distribution agreement with Amblin Partners, obviously is aware that Spielberg will make films for other studios. But he knows his company can reap huge cross-platform benefits, particularly if Spielberg revives more of his long-dormant Amblin Entertainment properties at Universal. (The studio cannot make a move on earlier films such as Jaws, Back to the Future or The Goonies without the filmmaker’s consent.)
Universal chairman Donna Langley says that with her studio facing pressure to make a steady stream of tentpole and franchise films, “the types of movies that Amblin Partners is interested in making are complementary to our slate. They’re not coming in with things that we already have 12 just like it.”
Roberts says the joy of working with Spielberg is about more than movies: “It’s what he stands for in life. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t have other relationships. It’s such an interesting life he lives. How can you not want to be in business with him?”
For Spielberg, the move is freighted with emotion, too. When he went to his office after the deals to launch Amblin Partners and the distribution pact with the studio were done, he whipped out his iPhone to memorialize the moment: “20 years from now, I can remember how good it felt to drive back onto the Universal lot,” he says. “That’s my terminal nostalgia!”
In late April came news that Universal would acquire DreamWorks Animation, netting Spielberg nearly $200 million. The acquisition assembled two major pieces of the original company — but Katzenberg will not remain once that deal closes. Some saw this as the final death of the DreamWorks dream, but Spielberg says he does not. And who would tell him otherwise? He lives largely inside that force field, where few have the will to challenge his narrative. He’s a storyteller, and his story is that the life of DreamWorks is exactly how it should have been.
“It’s been thrilling,” he says. “To start the first studio in 60 years, you know? It’s been thrilling. I think what Jeffrey did for his shareholders in selling [DWA] to Comcast is a triumph for Jeffrey, and it’s a monster win for the shareholders. A dream that we had in 1994 really came true in 2016.”
Spielberg and Capshaw were flanked in 2013 by Jessica Capshaw (left) and Destry Allyn Spielberg, two of their seven children, who range in age from 19 to 39.
This story first appeared in the June 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.