Monday 20 January 2020

Review: The Men Who Would be King by Nicole Laporte

(Houghton Mifflin, £18.99)

In 1994, the first new major Hollywood studio in six decades opened its doors, with high ideals and a clear agenda. DreamWorks would not be like other studios -- it would produce films aimed at intelligent filmgoers rather than banal comedies or summer action movies. It also planned to become a major player in animation, music, television and video games.

With hindsight's wisdom, how quaintly naive that manifesto sounds today. Yet at the time, DreamWorks, now split up and diminished, seemed a credible venture. It was launched with $2.7bn in capital, including money from Microsoft's co-founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen, the costliest start-up in entertainment history.

What attracted such money? Mainly its three principals, all Hollywood legends. There was Steven Spielberg, music and film mogul David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg, who as Disney's studio chairman had reinvigorated the animation division, supervising such hits as The Lion King. With such talent at the helm, what could possibly go wrong?

In her Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies and a Company Called DreamWorks (the 500-page book's subtitle), Nicole Laporte, formerly a Variety staffer, clinically unpicks the failed promise of DreamWorks. None of the three men would be interviewed for the book; she pieced together the narrative from well-placed sources, many of them unnamed.

Laporte proves that DreamWorks was always less than the sum of its parts. Spielberg, Geffen and Katzenberg were like rock stars who decided to form a supergroup while having no idea what music they would play.

As a result, DreamWorks made a hesitant start on all fronts. It would be three years before its first film was released -- and then it was The Peacemaker, a humdrum thriller starring Nicole Kidman and George Clooney. Unhelpfully, Spielberg had become obsessed with developing video games.

Geffen's initial foray was no better; his first signing to DreamWorks Records was George Michael, whose last hit album was Faith, released eight years before.

As for the workaholic Katzenberg, his idea for establishing DreamWorks Animation was to hire swathes of Disney's animators on lucrative contracts -- partly to wreak revenge on the studio that had denied him its top job. The Prince of Egypt, which was finally released in 1998, did not meet his high expectations.

The most intriguing figure here is Spielberg, well characterised by Laporte as "a complicated man wrapped in a patina of extreme likeability". She shows him preferring to remain the artiste, letting agents and lawyers do his dirty work, and putting his own interests above all others.

The DreamWorks troika offers examples of unbridled egotism, vengefulness and bad behaviour. And most of us know that in Hollywood there's a wide gap between inflated proclamations and cold reality.

Buy 'The Men Who Would be King' from Eason

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