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“The Men Who Would Be King” recalls the bad old days when Disney, DreamWorks & Pixar used to brawl

“The Men Who Would Be King” recalls the bad old days when Disney, DreamWorks & Pixar used to brawl

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Given that we now live in the age of DreamWorks 3.0, with Walt Disney Studios distributing the films that Steven Spielberg and Stacey Snider will soon be producing, it’s kind of hard to remember the bad old days. When Jeffery Katzenberg was …

… out to deplete Disney’s talent pool. He flattered Disney animators shamelessly and offered money – mid-six figure salaries, in line with what only Disney’s top animators received. Bonuses, in some cases, neared the million-dollar mark. DreamWorks dangled long-term contracts – as opposed to the usual per-picture contracts – and promises of profit sharing.

But Nicole LaPorte’s “The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 2010) brings that whole amazing era roaring back to life. Which isn't all that surprising. Given that she wrote for both Variety and the Los Angeles Times during the 1990s, LaPorte had a front row seat for that period when Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Katzenberg tried to transform the movie business by creating this multi-media megalopolis.

The Men Who Would Be King by Nicole Laporte book cover
Copyright 2010 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All Rights Reserved

But their plans to build a “studio of the twenty-first century” in Playa Vista got tripped up by environmentalists. And Katzenberg’s plans to turn DreamWorks Animation into this Saturday morning titan fell apart when The Walt Disney Company bought Capital Cities / ABC in August of 1996. As Nicole recounts in almost excruciating detail, Steven, David & Jeffery’s plans to change the industry were thwarted at almost every turn.

“But why should a Disneyana fan want to pick up a book about DreamWorks?,” you ask. Well, where else are you going to get a definitive accounting of which came first: the story idea for “Antz” or the story idea for “A Bug's Life”?

As LaPorte tells this story, Jeffery & John Lasseter were initially very close. In fact ...

Buzz  Lightyear and Woody from Disney's Toy Story series of feature films
Copyright 1995 Disney / Pixar. All Rights Reserved

… When (Katzenberg) was at Disney, he’d negotiated the distribution deal between Disney and Pixar, and he was the only one at Disney who believed (Toy Story ) wasn’t a lost cause when other executives were arguing that it be scrapped. After one early viewing, when the film was universally declared a “mess” by both Disney and Pixar executives, Katzenberg lobbied on behalf of the film, suggesting that one way to salvage it would be to rework the relationship between the film’s two main characters, the cowboy Woody and the space-toy Buzz Lightyear, so that they were buddies. Katzenberg had urged Pixar creative head and his team to watch some of the most iconic buddy movies of all time: 48 Hours with Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy, and The Defiant Ones, the 1958 classic starring Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier.

When Katzenberg segued to DreamWorks, he kept in touch with the Pixar gang, keeping them separate from Disney – at least at first. When Lasseter and Andrew Stanton, an artist and screenwriter on Toy Story, traveled from Pixar’s base in Emeryville, California, to L.A. to do postproduction work on Toy Story, they stopped by Katzenberg’s new office at Amblin. The meeting was friendly, and Katzenberg chatted about what DreamWorks was up, asking in turn what Pixar had in the hopper. Lasseter and Stanton told him about a bug movie – a humorous, reverse twist on the Aesop fable about ants and grasshoppers, in which, rather that the lazy grasshoppers learning from the industrious ants, the ants were the victims, forced to liberate themselves from the tyrant grasshoppers who steal their food every year. When Katzenberg asked when the film would be released, Lasseter said Thanksgiving of 1998. Katzenberg noted that that was when Prince of Egypt was scheduled for release.

Two ants from Dreamworks feature film "Antz"
Copyright 1998 DreamWorks Animation. All Rights Reserved

During one expedition to PDI, Katzenberg announced DreamWorks-PDI’s debut production. The project had been pitched by Nina Jacobson, a live-action executive at DreamWorks, who sold Katzenberg on the idea of making an ant movie, specifically: “a noncomformist in a world of conformists – and the lead would be Woody Allen.” After Katzenberg described the project, there was a confused silence. Everyone in the room was well aware that Pixar was at work on A Bug’s Life. Finally, one PDI employee raised his hand and addressed the elephant in the room.

“Um,” he began. “Does it bother you that Pixar’s also doing a movie about ants?” he asked.

Katzenberg didn’t skip a beat. “No!” he said with a mixture of diplomacy and force. “In fact, I think it’s great, because ours is gonna be better!”

When the news got back to Pixar, Lasseter was shocked. Feeling completely betrayed, he picked up the phone ...

John  Lasseter, Chief Creative Officer at Disney Pixar,  sits amongst his favorite toys
Copyright 1998 Disney / Pixar. All Rights Reserved

What happened after John picked up that phone? To find out the rest of that story – or, for that matter, why Walt Disney Studios wound up releasing DreamWorks’ live-action films – you’re going to have to pick up a copy of Nicole LaPorte’s eminently readable “The Men Who Would Be King.”

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