Book Review: The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks
Reading Nicole LaPorte’s The Men Who Would Be King, was almost like going back for a high school reunion, and remembering the old days. As I made my way through the pages, visions of my entertainment-obsessed teen years quickly came back into view.
It was big news in the fall of 1994 when Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen sat down in front of reporters, and announced they were going to be founding the first new American film studio since Hollywood’s Golden Age. I remember the Time Magazine cover with the three partners, articles about their grand plans for a 21st century studio in Playa Vista, CA, and of course, the company’s quest to break out of a monotonous studio system, and make a utopia where artists were free to express themselves based on ideas, and not marketability. Quality would be the mantra for the studios’ film, television, music, and digital media divisions. However, the dream never quite solidified, and the studio found itself struggling, before soon throwing up its hands and creating less-than-stellar product just to try and stay afloat (remember the 2003 sports drama Biker Boyz? Anyone?).
When compiling the information for her book on the rise and fall of Dreamworks SKG, LaPorte (a former editor for Variety) first attempted to get the story straight from the founders themselves. As one can expect, they didn’t give in to her requests. Of those who were willing to talk, some are mentioned by name, and many are simply titled ‘source.’ Those listed as a ‘source,’ were often very cautious about talking about the company. One meeting that LaPorte had with a ‘source,’ sounded similar to the scene in JFK where Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) met an informant named “X” (Donald Sutherland).
LaPorte quickly starts building up character archetypes with the three moguls. Spielberg is portrayed almost like a genius-level child, whose ideas and creativity are nurtured to the point where his sensitivity to bad news and negativity is shielded by everyone around him. Katzenberg is the guy who is seen as very quick and always in motion, but cross him, and he isn’t so forgiving. Geffen had always been the enigma whenever I heard the ‘SKG’ moniker. Of the three, LaPorte paints him in a more serious, business-like light. Geffen quickly becomes the person doing most of the heavy-lifting behind the scenes, and is pretty quick with the expletives.
In the first 15 pages, I started having uncertain flashbacks to Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires (the unauthorized biography on the founding of Facebook).As the journey into her book began, LaPorte would try to intricately paint scenes with words. However, her work in crafting entertainment-related articles for Variety seems to have helped her writing this book, as I soon got over my fears, and eagerly settled in to reading her story. Unlike Mezrich, LaPorte has plenty of articles and sources regarding her subject, to make the text ‘flow.’
Even so, one thing that may bog down some readers, are the endless amount of names that have played a part in the story of Dreamworks. Many of them that were showbiz names (like Cameron Crowe, Sam Mendes, & Robert Zemeckis) I already had knowledge of. But when it came to some like Paramount Pictures CEO Brad Grey, I had a little trouble comprehending. Then again, maybe it was my inner fanboy reacting negatively as LaPorte pegged Grey as one of the men who seemed disrespectful of Dreamworks.
Dreamworks SKG, as a start-up studio, found itself in a world much different than the early 20th century studios that Spielberg and his cohorts attempted to emulate. In a world where merchandising and home video catalogue titles can help fatten the bottom line of a studio, the start-up had none of these things. However, the ‘K’ and ‘G’ of the studio would often play up their wild card: The Big ‘S.’ Katzenberg and Geffen would often have Spielberg as their poster-boy, and Katzenberg could often sway people into joining the new company by giving them a few moments to chat with Steven. This led to investors showing interest in the company, and even helped Katzenberg lure away some artists from Disney, as he began to start into Dreamworks‘ animation division.
Many people were expecting the studio was going to come charging out of the gate with plenty of product shortly after the big announcement. As it stood, it would take almost 3 years before anything with the Dreamworks logo hit theaters, with only a select few being truly made by Dreamworks. Many of the films released were co-production deals with other studios, leaving much of the profits (if any) split in a way that did not leave the company with much to show for its efforts. In fact, it’d be almost 7 years before the studio would have a hit film’s grosses all to itself, in the form of 2001’s Shrek.
As the productions from the company start to enter into the book’s chapters, LaPorte picks and chooses among many of the studio’s live-action films. Naturally, she goes whole hog on some of the films being directed by Spielberg (focusing on his more dramatic directorial films like Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, & Munich). Some films are chosen for their complex productions (and cast and crew), such as The Peacemaker, Gladiator, and Dreamgirls, which in itself becomes a chapter that really envelopes David Geffen, who had wanted to make the musical into a film if it could be done right. Small shout outs are given to plenty of other film titles, usually the ones that barely made a blip on the box-office radar (such as Paulie, and Small Soldiers).
Animation fans (like myself) will most likely be drawn into the chapters and stories about Dreamworks Animation. Sources chronicle everything from Jeffrey Katzenberg’s hands-on approach during the production of Prince of Egypt, as well as some instances where when an animated film tanked (like 2000’s Road to El Dorado), Jeffrey seemed quick to blame everyone but himself for the film’s failure (on El Dorado, word was he even blamed the film’s songwriter, Elton John).
A couple chapters are also devoted to the now-defunct Dreamworks Interactive, and Dreamworks Records labels. Both of them are intriguing in how Spielberg attempted to bring his creativity to the Interactive unit, and how singer Nelly Furtado’s career was nurtured through the Records label, in the face of the changing music/radio landscape of the early 2000’s.
Reference is even made to Dreamworks Television, which found itself with one major hit on its hands, the Michael J Fox-starring Spin City. LaPorte also chronicles the rise and fall of the studio-produced Freaks and Geeks, which has since earned a cult-following on DVD.
We even learn of the studio’s struggles to go for the gold (aka The Academy Awards). In the wake of the eye-opening Oscar Race ending for 1998 (in which Dreamworks took home Best Director for Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, but Best Picture ended up going to Miramax’s film Shakespeare in Love), LaPorte structures what can best be described as a true campaign war, led by Dreamworks marketing executive Terry Press. Not wanting to be shown up by Miramax again, Press steps up her game, and ended up securing Dreamwork’s Best Picture wins at the Academy Awards for 2000-2002.
LaPorte’s experience writing for entertainment publications definitely helps move the story along, but she has a couple little quirks here and there. One of them is the occasional flinging around of Yiddish words when talk turns to Spielberg. As well, some of her facts aren’t completely infallible. At one point in discussing a spat between Dreamworks and Mike Myers, the book mistakenly says that it was Myers who starred in the 2000 film, The Grinch, not Jim Carrey.
In the end, LaPorte chronicles a start-up that with its big-name star power at the helm, could almost be considered like our current banking system: Too big to fail, or in the case of its 3 namesakes, too famous to fail. The hype was ratcheted so high, that you were either rooting for the underdog, or hoping for them to fall flat on their faces. In the end, numerous influences chipped away at the new studio. From outside influences like business models and the economy, to inner turmoil among producers, studio heads, and much more. Noone said running a studio would be easy, and LaPorte’s book never tires of leading its readers on a wild rollercoaster ride.