THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Saga of DreamWorks with no help from leading men

By Ethan Gilsdorf
May 2, 2010

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DreamWorks was monstrous, misfit, and idealistic. The upstart studio was the progeny of three industry giants: director Steven Spielberg; record company mogul and billionaire David Geffen; and Disney animation head Jeffrey Katzenberg, the driving force behind the idea to make a new studio from scratch.

DreamWorks began building on a lofty foundation. At the Oct. 12, 1994, press conference announcing the partnership, Spielberg said, “Together with Jeffrey and David, I want to create a place driven by ideas and the people who have them.’’ The studio was to champion works based on merit, not commercialism. Like the founding of United Artists in 1919 by Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and D.W. Griffith, it was to be an artistic haven amid Tinseltown’s money-grubbing rabble. It was to be different.

That the countless claims and promises didn’t always jibe with reality was to be expected. Of course, DreamWorks did its best to deflect attention from its bad moves. “But what about a story without the DreamWorks’ spin?’’ Nicole LaPorte asks early on in her book “The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale Of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks.’’ A film industry reporter for Variety, LaPorte set out to tell the behind-closed-doors machinations of DreamWorks, the most hyped and ambitious entertainment venture of the past half century.

The central problem she faced was this: no participation from S, K, or G. None of the three would speak to her. Katzenberg even made calls warning sources not to talk to LaPorte.

So how do you tell the story of an empire when the emperors won’t sit for their close-ups? You interview lots of insiders, more than 200 of them, and hope their blow-by-blow accounts fill the hollow core. Compounding this, many of the secondary sources, understandably afraid to reveal anything too incriminating, insisted on anonymity. To make up the shortfall, LaPort bookends gossip with attributions like “according to sources familiar with Katzenberg’s thinking at the time.’’ Not that the author had a choice in the matter, but the omission of the founding fathers amid a cloak-and-dagger tone hurts the book.

On the plus side, we’re still privy to some serious dirt. We see Katzenberg’s attempts to bring down arch-nemesis Michael Eisner (his old boss at Disney) and best Pixar (the folks behind “Toy Story’’) at its own game. We witness muckraking Oscar campaigns between DreamWorks and Miramax.

We watch the studio’s inroads into video games and music hit dead ends and wince as the money pit of building a physical studio — what was to be a “giant dose of Ritalin’’ to focus a distracted Spielberg — gets deeper. More than $1 billion in investor capital evaporates.

LaPorte has clearly done her homework, and if nothing else, the sheer scope and depth of “The Men Who Would Be King’’ impresses. No hissy fit escapes her gaze.

Every time Geffen has a meltdown or A-list stars like Russell Crowe throw tantrums, LaPorte is there to capture it. More juicy nuggets: Hollywood women are “alternately tough and nurturing’’; men are “hard-charging bullies with paper-thin skin.’’ On the set of “ER,’’ Spielberg tells George Clooney he’ll be a movie star if he can learn to keep his head still.

LaPorte also relishes in the Oscar night triumphs of “Saving Private Ryan,’’ “Gladiator,’’ and “American Beauty’’ (though perhaps she expends too many pages detailing box office numbers and Academy politics).

But as the anecdotes, facts, and dates accumulate, LaPorte’s other Achilles heel is revealed: She’s a better journalist than a storyteller. Her style follows that terse, industry insider-speak of Variety. She paints her version of Hollywood using epic brushstrokes, piling on superlatives. But many an article-length chapter ends with clumsy cliffhangers such as: “at least for now’’ and “What could possibly go wrong?’’

Where LaPorte falters most is in juggling all the crisscrossing plots. Single chapters touch on multiple characters: We move from a visit with a micromanaging Katzenberg to a marketing department freakout to the ouster of a studio head. LaPorte should linger in her scenes longer and organize more chapters not chronologically but, rather, by topic, following one thread — say, the fascinatingly inept project called Pop.com — from beginning to end. Like an anxious film director, she cuts too often from one brief scene to the next. We often don’t get the payoff until chapters later, the effect diluted by the interval of space and time.

Nonetheless, this rise and fall and clash of the titans account can be a thrilling ride. When the story ultimately kicks in, the flaws fade to the background. The bumbling and infighting are just too good, and sad, to resist. In the end, the studio sheds its money losers, shape-shifts from artsy-fartsy to cash cow, gets bought by a studio, and starts making schlock. The initial reverie — “to become that buzz’’ as one DreamWorks executive wanted — takes a back seat to reality.

Still, we root for DreamWorks. We love our dreamers and hate to see hubris bring them down. Movies were always a metaphor for ambition. Or escape. As LaPorte sees it, “Hollywood fame may be the best way to avoid growing up.’’

Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms.’’ Contact him at ethan@ethangilsdorf.com.

THE MEN WHO WOULD BE KING: An Almost Epic Tale Of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks By Nicole LaPorte

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,

491 pp., $28