Steven Spielberg: Tackling TV on His Own Terms
Steven Spielberg has a bustling TV company led by trusted lieutenants and an insatiable appetite for producing smallscreen fare even as he stays busy as ever in film. But the DreamWorks mogul wants to work on his own terms, so he’s decided to write the checks himself.
Spielberg got his start in TV in a Navajo serape. He vividly remembers the looks he got from the seasoned Universal crew members, old-school down to their porkpie hats and vests, when he showed up sporting long hair and hippie garb for his first professional directing assignment. It was 1969, and he had just been given his big chance to impress the brass by helming a segment of the pilot for Rod Serling’s “Night Gallery” starring Joan Crawford.
Crawford was perfectly respectful to Universal’s boy wonder during the day’s work, but afterward she called the head of the studio to get him fired. Lew Wasserman told her she could go back to New York if she didn’t like the choice of director.
From that humble “Night Gallery” shoot, of course, an amazing career was launched. Yet for the heights Spielberg has reached in the film business — B.O. records, enduring franchises, Oscars — he’s never stayed away from television for too long. He loves the medium too much, as an artist and as a voracious viewer of everything from “Modern Family” to “Breaking Bad.”
Over the past few years, in fact, his commitment to television has run deeper than most people realize. Since the fall of 2008, when DreamWorks pacted with Indian conglom Reliance to finance its movies, Spielberg has funded the overhead and expenses of his busy TV company out of his own pocket.
The company, which changed its moniker from DreamWorks TV to Amblin TV about a year ago, is technically a separate entity, outside of DreamWorks Studios, which he runs with Stacey Snider. Both companies remain housed together in the Amblin complex, Spielberg’s adobe oasis on the Universal lot.
Spielberg and his longtime TV chiefs, Justin Falvey and Darryl Frank, could walk into any studio chief ’s office tomorrow and command a generous TV housekeeping deal with plenty of perks. But Spielberg has made a conscious choice not to tap the ATM of OPM — despite many invitations to access other people’s money — in order to maintain as much control over his television destiny as possible. Independence, in Spielberg’s view, breeds innovation.
“We all feel that if we have a crazy idea that might get laughed at, there’s nothing wrong with seeing if there’s a crazy writer out there who agrees with us and can take it to a crazy network and somehow bring something that’s a little bit daft and edgy to life,” Spielberg says.
Spielberg loves to work — to a degree that astounds his collaborators (“It’s Hogwarts over there,” writer-producer Michael Green says of the atmosphere at Amblin. “They spend all day making magic.”) — but on his own terms.
“That’s what’s fun about this. There’s no pressure,” Spielberg says. “We’re not a corporation. We’re not part of the larger DreamWorks brand. We’re a privately held company that I have made a personal investment in. We’re much more able to play the field as opposed to going steady with a studio or a big network where everything has to go to them first, and then we have to negotiate how to get things out if they don’t want to do them. By being fiercely independent, we can do a lot more and we can move a lot quicker than we can if we were tied to a big label.”