Seeing Stars: The Movie Studios


In April of 2016, DreamWorks Animation was purchased by Universal Studios for $3.8 billion, effectively ending DreamWorks' run as an independent studio.

Universal, which already produces animated films such as Despicable Me and Minions, and which runs the Universal Studios theme parks, sees this as an opportunity to strengthen their position against Disney, their chief competitor in both animated films and theme parks.

I will leave this page up, for those interested in reading about the early days of DreamWorks, but bear in mind that it was written before the sale of the studio to Universal.

The most exciting new studio in Hollywood doesn't yet have a studio lot to call its own.

DreamWorks SKG was born in October of 1994, the brainchild of a creative trio of industry giants: director Steven Spielberg, former Disney wunderkind Jeffrey Katzenberg, and record industry wiz David Geffen.

  • Spielberg, of course, is the most successful director in history, responsible for such blockbusters as "E.T.," "Jurassic Park," and "Schindler's List."

  • As Disney film chief, Katzenberg greenlighted many of the studio's biggest animated hits, including "The Lion King," "The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin," and "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?."

  • Geffen Records is one of the nation's largest recording labels.

The team started the new venture with over $2 billion in capital.

The first movie issued by the young studio, "The Peacemaker" (with George Clooney & Nicole Kidman) was not a big hit. But they quickly followed up with "Mouse Hunt" (with Nathan Lane), "Amistad" (with Morgan Freeman & Anthony Hopkins), "Small Soldiers" (with the voice of Tommy  Lee Jones), "Paulie" (with Gena Rowlands, Cheech Marin, and Buddy Hackett), and "Deep Impact" (with Robert Duvall and Morgan Freeman).

But they didn't have their first blockbuster hit until they released "Saving Private Ryan" (with Tom Hanks) in 1998, critically acclaimed as the most realistic war movie ever made.

Subsequent films have included the Oscar-winning Best Picture of 1999, "American Beauty" (with Kevin Spacey), "Galaxy Quest" (with Tim Allen), "Forces of Nature" with Sandra Bullock & Ben Affleck, " "The Haunting" (with Liam Neeson), "What Lies Beneath" (with Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer), Robert Redford's "The Legend of Bagger Vance," with Matt Damon Will Smith and the blockbuster "Gladiator" (starring Russell Crowe.)

More recent releases have included Speilberg's Oscar-nominated "Munich", the Tom Cruise sci-fi hit "War of the Worlds," "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" (with Jim Carrey), "Meet the Fockers," "Collateral" (with Tom Cruise), "Seabiscuit" (with Tobey Maguire), "The Stepford Wives,""House of Sand & Fog," "Win A Date with Tad Hamilton,"  "The Ring," "Catch Me If You Can" (with Leonardo DiCaprio), "The Time Machine," "Minority Report" (also with Tom Cruise), "Road to Perdition" (with Tom Hanks), "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence," "Cast Away" and "Almost Famous."

Meanwhile, their animation department turned out their first major animated film, "Prince of Egypt," featuring the voices of Val Kilmer, Sandra Bullock, Danny Glover, Steve Martin, Michelle Pfeiffer, Mel Brooks, Patrick Stewart, Ralph Fiennes, Jeff Goldblum, and Martin Short.

Another (computer) animated effort, "Antz," included the voices of Woody Allen, Meryl Streep, Sylvester Stallone, Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman, Dan Aykroyd, Jane Curtin, Jennifer Lopez, John Mahoney and Christopher Walken. And they've since turned out another full-length animated epic: "Road to El Dorado," as well as the claymation hit "Chicken Run" (voiced by Mel Gibson.)

But the animation department really hit it big in 2001, when they released the spectacularly popular "Shrek", followed by its huge sequel "Shrek 2". Since then, they've also given us "Shark Tale" and the popular "Madagascar".

On TV, DreamWorks has turned out such weekly shows as "Spin City" (originally starring Michael J. Fox), "Freaks & Geeks" and the less successful "High Incident" and "Ink." More recent TV series include "Las Vegas" and "Father of the Pride".

The company also runs DreamWorks Records and Dreamworks Games.

Yet they still don't have an actual studio.

DreamWorks was planning to build a state-of-the-art studio in the Playa Vista area on the west side of Los Angeles, on the site of the old Hughes Aircraft factory, near Marina Del Rey. It sounded spectacular on paper. The proposed studio would have resembled a 47-acre college campus built around an 8-acre lake, and featuring at least 8 (and perhaps as many as 18) film & TV sound stages (including some in the very hanger where Hughes built his famous Spruce Goose) One would have been the world's largest sound stage (at 42,500 feet.) All in all, they were talking about they're talking about building 1 1/2 million square feet of studio space, highlighted by cutting-edge technology.

The much larger Playa Vista masterplan (currently referred to as the "Entertainment, Media & Technology campus") called for an entire community to eventually be built at the 1,087-acre site - a "cultural center for the Westside," as Spielberg put it - including residential neighborhoods with 13,000 new homes, parks, retail stores, museums, churches, and schools.

However, progress on the project had been held up for years by environmental protesters who were concerned about preserving the area's wetlands. They finally inked the deal in November of 1998, buying the 47 acres outright for $20 million. Construction was supposed to start in 2000, and at least some of the facilities should have been open by mid-2001.

But on July 1, 1999, DreamWorks announced that they were pulling out of the project, citing financial reasons. Whether they will build their studio somewhere else is yet to be decided.

(The new DreamWorks studio would have been the first new studio built in the Los Angeles area in 70 years - since Warner Bros. built their Burbank studio. But they were beaten to the punch by the new Manhattan Beach Studios, a project which opened in mid-1998 about ten miles to the south of the DreamWorks site.)

In the meanwhile, DreamWorks is working out of offices and soundstages at Universal Studios (where Spielberg's Amblin offices were located), as well as a skyscraper next to Universal.

Oddly enough, DreamWorks already has a working studio of its own for its animation department!  It's a rather spectacular looking building, located right next to Disney's Imagineering headquarters, at 1400 Flower Street, in Glendale.

And in recent years, animation has been Dreamworks' primary success, with animated franchises such as Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, Madagascar, and How to Train Your Dragon.


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