DreamWorks SKG. That's what Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg andDavid Geffen decided to call their instant movie studio. They just got together in the kitchen one day, popped the idea into the microwave, and now moneybags the world over are throwing billions at them.
I can understand that. It makes some sense that investors would look at SKG's financial track records and decide, "That's for me." What I can't understand is the egregious sucking up that is being done all over American journalism, as if DreamWorks were sure to be Hollywood's divine deliverance. It's on magazine covers (last week's Time), in columns and articles, all over the map. And every mention has a quality of breathless obeisance and anticipation, as if this sudden troika of Hollywood's biggest guns is going to mean great things.
Uh-uh. Maybe it will. But it's much more likely that it won't.
DreamWorks could just as easily have been called Dumbdown Inc. As the ancient pols used to say, let's look at the record:
David Geffen -- There's nothing wrong with his record company. Quite the contrary, in fact. Any pop record company that discovered and bred Nirvana and allows Pat Metheny to release records like "Zero Tolerance for Silence" and "Song X" with Ornette Coleman is doing its bit for the world's ears. It's his movies that are so undistinguished. His last two were "Interview With the Vampire" and "M. Butterfly," botches both no matter what "Vampire's" grosses were. Geffen is the great deal-closer, they say, the guy who could get Socrates' ghost to sign on the dotted line. It's a useful talent in a major studio as long as it never becomes more than that.
Jeffrey Katzenberg -- Yes, it's true that as the major-domo of Disney, Katzenberg was the boss on those wonderful animated features for which everyone was paid beans ("Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin" and "The Lion King"), but he's also the man responsible for Disney's churning out vast quantities of the most relentlessly mediocre moviemaking of the past decade. What this has meant in practice for a city like Buffalo is a kind of corporate audience abuse.
Disney was gutsy enough to make movies like Peter Bogdanovich's "Noises Off" and Taylor Hackford's "Bound by Honor" but refused to open them nationally. Instead, Buffalo was a test market for "Holy Matrimony," one of the most disgustingly stupid things I have ever seen in a movie theater. It played here for two weeks while "Bad Company" -- an adult thriller with Laurence Fishburne and Ellen Barkin -- has yet to open and "Funny Bones," the new film by the wonderful Peter Chelsom ("Hear My Song"), is not yet dated for a Buffalo theater.
The point isn't that "Noises Off" or "Bound by Honor" or "Bad Company" are good movies (though the latter two may be better than their reputations), it's that it costs money to open movies around the country and, while Katzenberg was around (and still), Disney preferred to invest in crud like "Holy Matrimony" rather than something intended for an intelligent, grown-up audience. Katzenberg's rep is for nickel-and-diming talent and for clogging the exhibition pipes with sludge, some successful, much of it not, but most of it negligible.
The early reports are that he'll oversee animated features and the TV division of DreamWorks, not the live-action moviemaking division. What that means is that he's in an animation talent war with his old boss, Michael Eisner, and may give TV more fare like "The Golden Girls." Big deal? Not to me.
Steven Spielberg -- Spielberg told Time that in full swing DreamWorks will bring out, at most, 10 movies a year -- or only five if that's the sum total of good ones that can be made.
I have always had the utmost respect for Spielberg the artist. It's Spielberg the businessman I loathe. The films by others that he has produced or co-produced include "Continental Divide," "The Goonies," "Young Sherlock Holmes," "The Money Pit," "Batteries Not Included," "Dad" and "The Flintstones."
In fact, there is one hope only for DreamWorks to become anything other than a purveyor of interesting music, decent animated features, ordinary TV, fair video games and deeply disappointing movies -- that the man who made "Schindler's List" and, especially, that movie's final 10 minutes, is a different man from the infantile factory fantasist who godfathered "Batteries Not Included," "The Money Pit" and "The Flintstones."
If Spielberg never directs another film, I could understand it. It would be a grievous loss to movies, but that's what those final 10 minutes of "Schindler's List" are saying about life vs. movies -- that a decent life far outweighs a genius for "presentation."
My guess is that Spielberg, the would-be mogul, hopes he can be a kind of Hollywood Oskar Schindler, saving Hollywood movies from their worst impulses and saving moviemakers from privation. There's a good chance, though, that he could just as easily wind up an unheroic Oskar Schindler -- saving nothing, and profiteering with the cinematic equivalent of cheap crockery and costume jewelry.