Think of Hollywood as high school. Imagine Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen as the class valedictorians who have aced almost every test they’ve taken. Consider The Peacemaker as a no-brainer pop quiz they’ve barely managed to pass. Now imagine what might be written on the first report card of DreamWorks SKG, the movie, TV, and music empire founded by these three titans: It would read, Do better.
Perhaps nothing short of a new Gone With the Wind could have avoided the fate of the George Clooney-Nicole Kidman movie. ”We knew whatever we did would be looked upon with a magnifying glass,” says Walter Parkes, DreamWorks’ movie-division head. The Hubble telescope is more like it. As the long-awaited first feature film from DreamWorks, The Peacemaker was unfavorably compared by critics with the trio’s greatest hits — including Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, Katzenberg’s The Lion King, and Geffen’s Interview With the Vampire (not to mention Geffen’s musical discoveries, including the Eagles). Despite its reviews, the movie managed to open at No. 1, but with a $25 million take after two weeks, it’ll be lucky to tap out at $50 million. ”Given who they are, there was a level of expectation far greater than anyone could have achieved,” says Arnold Rifkin, president of the William Morris Agency. ”But they are capable of achieving that.”
Though maybe not in the immediate future. A look at DreamWorks’ non-Spielberg-directed slate — the Nathan Lane comedy Mouse Hunt; Paulie, starring Gena Rowlands; and Deep Impact, another actioner from Peacemaker director Mimi Leder — doesn’t inspire gobs of excitement. ”Based on a billion dollars and those three minds, what a completely unimpressive start,” laments one Hollywood agent who has projects in development at DreamWorks. ”This studio was supposed to be talent driven,” adds a veteran producer. ”This looks like a very suit-driven [place] so far.” In fact, considering the generic stuff coming out of all of DreamWorks, some in Hollywood are wondering if the Dream is working.
Are such judgments premature? Well, yeah. ”To do what they’ve done in three years is remarkable,” says Harold Vogel, an entertainment analyst at Cowen and Co. Former CAA agent Jack Rapke, who’s formed a production company at DreamWorks with Forrest Gump director Robert Zemeckis, says, ”To look at the initial [output] and draw a conclusion about what this company will really become is a silly exercise.”
But not an uninstructive one. Looking at DreamWorks’ efforts so far — not just in its movie division but in television and music as well — you can see a company scrambling for a foothold, paying the price for combining high ambition with a lack of solid preparation. No longer the high school valedictorians, Spielberg, Katzenberg, and Geffen are now like college freshmen, and they’ve had to learn a few lessons during orientation.
LESSON NO. 1: Curtail Spielberg & Company’s extracurricular activities. At moneyman Herbert Allen’s annual power retreat in Aspen last July, one of the gag gifts given to such high-powered participants as Fox’s Rupert Murdoch and Geffen himself was a DreamWorks doll: Wind it up and nothing happens. But the dig at the snail’s pace of DreamWorks Pictures was off base. The joke should have been, Wind up the doll and watch it work for somebody else.