Making DreamWorks come true 'Saving Private Ryan' is helping to save studio

August 09, 1998

Cinema-goers in America frequently make noisy attempts to explain the plot to each other. It is a measure of Steven Spielberg's mastery of his art that his latest film, "Saving Private Ryan," has reduced even the most talkative of audiences to silence.

The three-hour epic, released on July 24, has swept to the top of the box office, taking in $30 million in its opening weekend.

Critics have hailed the film as easily Spielberg's best. It is also a milestone for DreamWorks SKG, the studio that Spielberg founded four years ago with Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen.

The first new studio to be founded in 65 years, DreamWorks rapidly raised $2.7 billion and promised to rewrite the rules of Hollywood.

Amid much excited talk about "synergy," the founders promised to produce computer games, records and television programs as well as films.

It confirmed a growing belief that the talent could now boss the suits that run the big entertainment firms, relegating them to being mere distributors.

Yet that did not happen. Instead, the studios poured money into special-effects films, and Wall Street began to believe the entertainment conglomerates when they claimed that content was a mere ingredient; the real value lay in distributing it. And to top it all, DreamWorks ran into difficulties.

One was that its grandiose plans to set up a new studio on an expanse of marshland north of Los Angeles International Airport got into trouble, leaving DreamWorks embroiled in nasty rows with both environmentalists and developers, and with its premises inefficiently scattered around the city.

But a more serious problem was the studio's output. Its first film, "The Peacemaker," a workmanlike thriller, barely broke even. An early TV series, "Ink," starring Ted Danson, failed miserably. The studio's first record release, George Michael's "Older," did little better. By the time "Amistad," Spielberg's first film for his studio, opened to a lukewarm reception (and a lawsuit about intellectual-property rights) late last year, DreamWorks was said to have spent nearly $1 billion of its capital.

Hollywood began to compare the new studio to United Artists, a company founded in 1919 by another dream team - Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith - which ended in tears and a takeover.

"Saving Private Ryan," coming as soon as it does after the DreamWorks team's success with "Deep Impact," an asteroid movie that has pulled in $138 million, has all but silenced such talk.

DreamWorks will release two animated films this year, "Antz" and "The Prince of Egypt."

It seems safe to say that Spielberg and his colleagues have proved that you can establish a studio - albeit one that lacks a permanent home - with little more than your reputations and your artistic skills.

For the moment, then, the suits seem to be in retreat. The success of "Titanic," the ultimate "anti-suit" film (because it went so far over budget), has given every director the feeling that he ought to be making three-hour epics costing $200 million.

More generally, the growing fashion for contracting out production to small independent companies has further slimmed the studios: Almost 100,000 of the people employed in the business are free-lance workers.

Far from controlling the industry, the huge entertainment firms look ever more like mere publishers, providing the talent with the necessary money, advertising and distribution. And now Spielberg seems to have shown them that he can do all this, too.

Two things particularly frighten the suits. The immediate one is that costs might again get out of control.

When Charlie Chaplin and his colleagues founded United Artists, a contemporary jibed that the lunatics had taken over the asylum. There are some signs of this happening again. Spielberg and Tom Hanks, the star of "Saving Private Ryan," will each receive 17 cents of every dollar earned on the film.

The second fear is longer term - that technology, and particularly the Internet, is taking the skill out of distribution, making it easier for the talent to control things.

Yet "Saving Private Ryan" also shows that the suits still have some lines of defense. To begin with, the film is a co-production with Paramount, which has the rights to release the film abroad.

And DreamWorks' distribution system remains less competent than its filmmaking: A glitch left many cinemas without copies of the film on the morning of its opening.

But the best argument for the suits continuing to sleep soundly is, ironically, Spielberg himself. Of the 16 movies he directed before "Saving Private Ryan," 13 turned a profit. Usually, only a third do.

Even more unusual for a talent, Spielberg seems to have a suitish eye for the bottom line. "Saving Private Ryan" cost only $65 million to make, a remarkably small amount for such a grandiose film.

During the making of the movie, a construction crew mistakenly built a set so that it was facing straight into the sun. Most directors would have knocked it down and started again; Spielberg relied on clever camera angles to work around the mistake. Sometimes putting the lunatics in charge of the asylum is the best way to get them to behave themselves.

This article first appeared in the Economist and was distributed by New York Times special features.

Pub Date: 8/09/98

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