Steven Spielberg has hooked a movie empire

January 26, 1992|By Suzanna Andrews | Suzanna Andrews,New York Times News Service

Much has been made of the fact that Steven Spielberg has finally confronted the grown-up side of himself. In his latest movie, "Hook," he details the life of Peter Banning (formerly Peter Pan), a hard-driving takeover lawyer who struggles with the conflicts between creativity and ambition, between fatherhood and the pursuit of power.

Through Banning, Mr. Spielberg speaks to a side of himself he has long tried to obscure. The man who directed such wondrously childlike films as "E.T." and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" in the late '70s and early '80s has also almost single-handedly built an entertainment empire that many compare to Walt Disney's.

Though Mr. Spielberg is most famous as a director, he has been far more prolific as a producer of other directors' movies and of television shows and animated films. He has made a tidy fortune from merchandising his films and from helping design theme park rides for Universal Studios.

During the last 15 years, Mr. Spielberg's work has generated more than $4 billion in revenues, if all the earnings of his films are added up. Forbes estimates that he made $27 million last year, making him the 10th-best-compensated entertainment figure on its list.

Mr. Spielberg's success, say friends who are top Hollywood executives, has been achieved in large part by workaholism, ambition and pragmatism. "There is no better businessman in Hollywood than Steven Spielberg," says Sidney Sheinberg, the president of MCA.

In "Hook," Peter Banning is deeply uncomfortable about facing the child within him. In a conversation from his vacation home in East Hampton, N.Y., shortly before "Hook" opened, Mr. Spielberg, 44, is uneasy talking about the man within, much less the businessman.

"Talk about the grown-up side of me?" he says, laughing. "Ooooo. That's the 'I don't know if I know the answer' side." His ambivalence is palpable.

"I don't see myself as a businessman," he says, shortly before expertly describing his merchandising strategy. At points, Mr. Spielberg even seems worried about what his achievements might say about him.

"People who don't know me think I'm just motivated by money or success," he says. "But I've never been motivated by that. I've never based a decision on money."

Associates remark on his confusion. "I do believe Steven does not like to make movies that don't make money," says David Brown, the producer. "Whereas some directors don't care, he is very conscious of that." Says another producer: "One part of Steven wants to say, 'Hey, kids, let's put on a show,' and the other part wants to build an empire."

The centerpiece of Mr. Spielberg's empire is his production company, Amblin Entertainment. Formed in 1984, Amblin is staffed by 65 people, including producers, marketing specialists and merchandising experts. It is one of Hollywood's largest independent production companies and considered the most productive by far. Located on the lot of Universal Studios, Amblin is housed in a two-story Santa Fe-style adobe mansion. Inside, there is a game room, a candy counter and a kitchen stocked with popcorn and ice cream.

Though it looks like a child's hideaway, Amblin represents the grown man's huge power. With its 45-seat screening room, Dolby sound system, three cutting rooms and top-of-the-line editing machines, Mr. Spielberg wields almost total control over his movies.

"Steven operates very uniquely in Hollywood, really as a sovereign state," says Jeffrey Katzenberg, the chairman of Walt Disney Studios.

Although Amblin is set up much like a mini-corporation -- divided into divisions and departments and administered by its president, Kathleen Kennedy -- nothing is done without Mr. Spielberg's involvement. Amblin has close to 30 projects in production or under development, and Mr. Spielberg oversees them all. At any point, he is deeply involved in two or three. Current ones include the animated feature "We're Back" and "Noises Off," a Peter Bogdanovich film that Mr. Spielberg is producing for Disney.

Mr. Spielberg describes himself as a restless man -- "always looking for things to do" -- who works to keep busy.

Says David Brown: "Here's a young man who could never spend all the money he's made, yet he works like he's paying the rent. He personifies work." While directing "Hook," Mr. Spielberg read every script of his Emmy Award-winning syndicated television series, "Tiny Toon Adventures," and attended marketing meetings for the show. He also supervised the final work on "American Tail II: Fievel Goes West," an animated film that was released in November to disappointing box-office returns, and on "Cape Fear," the Martin Scorsese thriller, which Amblin produced.

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