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"The Dream Team" serves up some intriguing insights about how the New Hollywood really operates

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"The Dream Team" serves up some intriguing insights about how the New Hollywood really operates

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In October of 1994, when Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg first announced that they were about to launch a brand-new entertainment company ... Well, this trio of show business vets was thought to be so unstoppable that the Hollywood press corps dubbed them the Dream Team.

But 11 years later, that dream had pretty much run out of stream. Tinseltown's first new studio since 1919 was about to be absorbed by one of the industry's oldest, Paramount Pictures. And with DreamWorks Animation being the only unit of this once-genuinely-ambitious enterprise left standing ... Hollywood insiders were left to wonder how this Dream of a company could have eventually become such a disappointment.

Well, film critic Daniel M. Kimmel wondered the same thing. Which is why he first spent the past few years pouring over press accounts of DreamWorks SKG's history and then used that material to create "The Dream Team: The Rise and Fall of DreamWorks: Lessons from the New Hollywood" (Ivar R. Dee, Publisher; November 2006).

Copyright 2006 Ivar R. Dee

And Daniel's book does a pretty good job of charting the meteoric rise & fall of the DreamWorks corporation. Which started when three of the most powerful people in show biz suddenly found themselves at a career crossroads in the early 1990s (I.E. Spielberg because he had just won a long-sought-after Oscar for best director, Geffen because he had just sold off his music business, and Katzenberg because he had just been booted out of Disney). And Steven, David & Jeffery were all looking for new challenges, new worlds to conquer. Which is why it was almost inevitable that these three longtime friends would come together and create ... something.

Of course, given the circles that Spielberg, Geffen and Katzenberg travel in, we're not talking about a Mickey-and-Judy "Hey, my uncle's got an empty theater ! Let's put on a show !" sort of creation. Truth be told, one of the more seminal moments in the birthing of DreamWorks SKG came when Steven, David & Jeffrey were all attending the same state dinner at the White House back in September of 1994. Where the cream of Hollywood was joining then-President Bill Clinton to honor then-Russian president Boris Yeltsin.

Now where this gets interesting is that Geffen was actually a personal guest of Bill & Hillary Clinton that evening. Which is why he was slated to spend the night in the Lincoln bedroom. But since David was so excited about what he, Steven and Jeffrey were attempting to get off the ground, he wanted to leave the White House right in the middle of the night. So that Geffen could then go talk with his soon-to-be-partners at their nearby hotel about their future project.

But you see, the White House isn't the Red Roof Inn. And the Secret Service tends to really frown on people who try to leave that building in the middle of the night. Which is why David then found himself basically trapped in the Lincoln bedroom until the following morning.

 Copyright 1995 Time, Inc.

Soon after that (In October of 1994) the official partnership was announced. And soon after that, the papers were full of news about that $500 million state-of-the-art movie studio out in Playa Vista, CA. And the $100 million deal that DreamWorks Television had just cut with ABC (Which was to have allowed Steven Spielberg to personally pick out all of the programs that were to be presented in that network's Saturday morning line-up). And it all sounded so wonderful, exciting and ambitious ...

But then environmentalists got after the DreamWorks founders for planning on building their massive production complex right next to the delicate Ballona Wetlands. Which is why that project was eventually abandoned in 1999. And then when the Walt Disney Company acquired ABC / Capital Cities in August of 1995 ... Well, obviously Michael Eisner wasn't going to allow Steven Spielberg to hand-pick all of the cartoons that would then run on ABC on Saturday mornings.

Mind you, this wouldn't be the only time that Disney & DreamWorks would have dealings. Kimmel actually does a very thorough job of documenting the numerous times that these two entertainment companies butted heads. Take -- for example -- the whole "Antz" / "A Bug's Life" debacle.

As Daniel states in "The Dream Team" :

There was rather pointed speculation in some quarters that "Antz" had been rushed into production by Katzenberg knowing that Pixar's next film, "A Bug's Life," was being made before he left Disney. Katzenberg denied it, but Pixar's John Lasseter, who had directed "Toy Story" and was now doing "A Bug's Life," was furious. "We were about a year and a half into our movie when we heard the news. My reaction was 'Why? Why would Jeffrey do that? ' "

The real issue, though, was the film's release date. Katzenberg engaged in a game of "chicken" with Disney. "Antz" was announced as a March 1999 release. Disney then put "A Bug's Life" on the calendar for Thanksgiving 1998. In June, Katzenberg moved "Antz" to an early October release, seven weeks before "A Bug's Life." on your calendar.

And Kimmel isn't one to sidestep some of the more sensational aspects of this particular behind-the-scenes tale. Witness the part of "The Dream Team" that actually questions DreamWorks SKG's real motive for putting "Antz" into production in the first place:

Copyright 1998 DreamWorks Animation

Pixar chairman and CEO Steve Jobs claimed that Katzenberg tried to bribe his company to push back the release of "A Bug's Life." Jobs told "Newsweek," "Jeffery called us and asked us to convince Disney to delay the release of 'A Bug's Life' beyond the holiday 1998 season because that's when he wanted to release 'Prince of Egypt.' He said if we did that, he would kill 'Antz.' And we said, 'Don't go there.' " Katzenberg denied that he made any such call.

It's in discussing the animation side of things where I think that Daniel's book really shines. When it draws back the curtain and reveals how hugely troubled productions like "Shrek" struggled to reach the big screen:

Comedian Chris Farley was signed to voice the green ogre, but his death in December 1997 nearly derailed a year's worth of work. In one of the ways that would come to distinguish DreamWorks from Disney animation, the film had been built around Farley's personality, which had been allowed to inhabit and define Shrek. With the exception of Robin Williams' genie in "Aladdin," Disney's voice actors were secondary to the animated characters. "Shrek" got back on track with the signing of Mike Myers, who brought his own sensibility that would influence both the script and the look of the film.

Katzenberg had a moment of panic when Myers saw the film with his voice track. Myers hadn't found the voice for Shrek, later recalling it sounded like Myers himself with a thicker Canadian accent. Myers asked that they scrap his audio recording track and let him start again as he searched for the perfect voice for the character.

Explained Katzneberg, "I don't think Mike understood what was going on in my mind, which was literally one third of [the scenes with] his character had already been animated." Katzenberg could have been the budget-conscious boss and told Myers to live with it, but instead he let the actor have his way.

That decision added an estimated $4 million to the film's budget, since now the animators would have to redo numerous scenes so that Shrek's lips would match Myer's new line readings. But when Myers came back with the new Shrek voice -- which he described as "the Scottish accent of somebody who'd live in Canada twenty years" -- Katzenberg knew he had made the right choice. "It was like we had junk and now we had gold," he said.

 Copyright 2001 DreamWorks Animation

And now ... Well, all that's really left now is DreamWorks Animation. Which is gearing up for next month's release of "Shrek the Third" to theaters.

You know, as I read through Daniel M. Kimmel's "The Dream Team -- The RISE and FALL of DreamWorks : Lessons from the New Hollywood," it was honestly hard not to be sad about all the promise & potential that was ultimately unfulfilled here. But was it because Spielberg, Geffen and Katzenberg had a few bad breaks? Or more because at least two of these partners never really seemed to throw their considerable influence and/or creative energy behind the company?

To get the answer to that question ... Well, you're just going to have read Daniel's book. Which I highly recommend, by the way.

Speaking of Mr. Kimmel ... On Thursday, April 26th, Daniel will be appearing at the Barnes & Noble at Boston University (Which is located at 660 Beacon Street). Where -- starting at 7 p.m. -- Kimmel will be discussing the history of DreamWorks SKG. After his talk, Daniel will then meet with his fans as well as sign copies of "The Dream Team -- The RISE and FALL of DreamWorks : Lessons from the New Hollywood." So if you'd like to meet Mr. Kimmel and/or learn more about this once-promising entertainment company, then I suggest that all you Boston-based animation / film fans attend his talk next week.

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  • This article just makes me hate Katzenberg and dreamworks animation all the more.

  • Hollywood used to be all bout having a good time making films, now it's bout $ or special effects. The article gives us a very  decent insight on Hollywood's dream team, always wondered what other studidos were almost/consumed by Dreamworks. Though they make good cash with the Shrek series, some of their films are semi rip offs of Disney/Pixar. Spielberg defintly knows how to get your mind racing with the plot especialy in Hook, Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones. Wonderful article Jim, really appericate it.

  • Katzenberg can deny the stories of greenlighting films just to steal Disney's thunder all he wants, but there are too many such tales for there not to be some truth behind them.  The nasty jokes in the Shrek films show how petty Katzenberg can be towards Disney, so I wouldn't put anything past him in his attempt to hurt them.  You spoke earlier of companies who feel that in order to succeed, their enemies must fail.  Dreamworks Animation has always been such a company.  "Shrek the Third" is in a much weaker position (sandwiched between two other blockbusters) compared to "Shrek 2" (which practically had a month ceded to it by the other studios), so I suspect a big comeuppance for Dreamworks Animation is in the offing.

  • I think their first mistep was their inability to get an actual studio built. The whole Playa Vista affair wasted a lot of time and energy from the begining. There was plenty of empty studio and warehouse space all over the valley that would have serve as a suitable spot to build a studio, but it seemed like it was more important that they build their own little Shangrila out by the beach. The animation studio was never anything more than Katzenberg trying to stick it to Eisner, Katzenberg had no prior interest in animation until he came to Disney (with the original objective of shuting down the animation studio) and really, he was the only one that actually needed a Dreamworks to exist--Geffen had his own successful production company, and Speilberg already had a permenant office on the Universal lot (Amblin). He could have been president or CEO of Universal if he wanted--it's not like anybody would have told him "no" if he had expressed any interest in running a studio. After all, the films he made for Universal had already made that studio billions in Box office revenue and Theme Park attendence. Plus Universal already had an existing animation studio and a consumer products division that could have used a little direction. It seems to me that the only reason Dreamworks came to be in the first place was that Jeffery needed a job.

    Temporarily, Disney was the big loser in all of this. Through the late 90s,(because of the talent drain caused by Disney being suddenly torn in half) the animation studio stagnated while Eisner and Katzenberg spent more time looking over each others shoulders than anything else. Fortunately for everyone, Pixar stepped in at just the right time. (whether you like Pixar's output or not, their influence has been positive for Disney, and Lasseter deserves some credit for creating some new characters and for leading the call to bring back hand drawn animation, so I'm going to wait and see how HIS story plays out)

    If it hadn't been for Shrek, Dreamworks animation would be long gone, and even THAT film's success is based on a series of nasty pot shots at Disney's expense, proving that DWA could not really exist on its own without some other studio from which to plagerise.

  • In fairness to Dreamworks and the character assassination they usually have to suffer from the Disney loyal, PRINCE OF EGYPT was far from an attempt to "stick it" to Disney... On the contrary, it is an absolutely magnificent film that is better than anything Disney has ever made. The animation, the story and the music came together wonderfully to make a compelling film about a subject that Disney fairytales and Pixar "secret life of toys/bugs/monsters/superheros/fish/cars/rats" couldn't even hope to touch.

    ANTZ is pretty much irrelevant... Sure it probably was a direct shot at Disney, but you're never going to attract people who will HATE your company and everything it makes simply because it has the audacity to be someone other than Disney making animated films. What I can't fathom - as someone who loved PRINCE OF EGYPT and what it represented - is why they chose to follow it up with a buddy comedy with music by Tim Rice and Elton John.

    I held out high hopes for Dreamworks after PRINCE because it was, for intents and purposes, North American animation's coming of age. The sensibility infusing the production was very Japanese, whether intentional or otherwise. It was animation as a true medium rather than animation as a Disney/Pixar genre. But then they followed it up with a Disney-genre film, by a Disney-genre team, in ROAD TO EL DORADO... Gross! We got enough of that from Disney. At least EL DORADO wasn't any worse than a LION KING or ALADDIN.

    SPIRIT and SINBAD weren't too bad either, but traditional animation was dead by that point anyways. Hell, so was Dreamworks' CGI, since the only thing they could make money with was SHREK. If only they had tried to follow the course they charted with PRINCE OF EGYPT, perhaps something better could have come of it. Imagine WAR OF THE WORLDS as an astonishing animated film rather than some Tom Cruise load of hooey.

  • That would have been nice Cory, however they chose their own path. The had no board of directors or shareholders to appease.After Prince of Egypt (which I enjoyed, BTW,despite the ugly character designs)they could have taken this great American art form into bold new frontiers,but instead Katzenberg chose to make dirivitive films cobbled together from old Disney story meetings.

    By trying to outdo his old studio,Katzenberg (like Bluth before him)just made imitation Disney movies that ultimately bored the public and helped kill off hand drawn animation.

  • I've been looking for something to read something in the same vein as DisneyWar and Gabler's Walt bio. I might just pick this up.

    Thanks for the recommendation, Jim!

  • I have been wanting to buy this book for a while since I had finished Disney Wars, but as of lately I've had no time to read.

    As soon as my schedule clears up I'll probably head down to ye ol` Barnes & Noble and pick up a copy.

  • I'm totally going to buy this book. Unlike many other people I'm neither a fan or hater of Katzenberg, because I acknowledge the fact that he may felt harmed by Disney and wanted "revenge" (it's human, so). And even though DreamWorks may not put out some of the most sophisticated animated movies ever (I hate the vulgair style in which the "Shrek" saga tries to be populair), he has made it a serious competitor of Disney, Pixar and Blue Sky, so he at least deserves some respect in that.

  • Katzenberg is unquestionable the most interesting of the 3 to read about.  His antics made an enjoyable read in "Disney War" so I am looking forward to Kimmel's book.  Your recommendations haven't missed yet.  Thanks again, Jim.

  • Prince of Egypt is better than anything Disney has ever made? And The road to el dorado was no worse than Lion King or Aladdin? I don't know what your smoking but I'd love to try some.

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