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'Dream Team's' 1st Project: Mastering Spin Control

October 25, 1994|ALAN CITRON and CLAUDIA ELLER

As Jeffrey Katzenberg, Steven Spielberg and David Geffen go about forming the most ambitious Hollywood studio since the days of Charlie Chaplin, they've already accomplished self-promotional feats worthy of another early show business legend: P.T. Barnum.

The media blitz behind the new studio, which is still more concept than reality, has been masterfully handled even by modern-day spin control standards. And the credit clearly belongs to the three entertainment icons themselves--Katzenberg, Spielberg and Geffen--who have wrested control of the flow of information by parceling out details about their evolving plans like political patronage.

Timely and well-targeted disclosures about a possible MCA partnership, a late-night strategic meeting among the three after a White House dinner honoring Russian leader Boris Yeltsin, scouting trips to possible studio locales and a pilgrimage to the home of Hollywood's reigning patriarch, MCA Chairman Lew Wasserman, have all added to the aura surrounding the enterprise.

Katzenberg, Spielberg and Geffen even christened themselves the "Dream Team," apparently figuring it was needlessly risky to allow someone else to apply an appellation. The outcome has been the kind of propaganda campaign more closely associated with Yeltsin's former buddies in the Politburo than modern-day Hollywood. But by virtue of their success, Katzenberg, Spielberg and Geffen have achieved ultimate media manipulation.

Their campaign started with an unexpected call to reporters Oct. 11, with the news that a "very important" news conference was planned for the following morning with Jeffrey Katzenberg. The message was compelling: Be at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills at 10 a.m, and by all means reserve space on Page 1. Something big was about to happen.

That type of tease is like waving a red flag in front of reporters--a challenge to beat the newsmakers to the punch. Within two hours, word began filtering through Hollywood that the announcement probably concerned a new company involving Katzenberg and his two closest friends, Spielberg and Geffen. That perception was fueled by the fact that the three executives, who are normally accessible to the entertainment press, turned away or tried to avoid calls to their offices.

By the morning of the news conference, the secret was out. The Los Angeles Times and the Hollywood trade papers carried front-page stories on the planned studio. The New York Times got something into its late edition, and the Wall Street Journal ran a speculative story. Sources say this infuriated Katzenberg, Spielberg and Geffen, who had hoped to use the glitzy conference--complete with smoked salmon and fresh berries--to trumpet their plans.

But they were soon back in control, staging an event that had more of the flavor of a Hollywood A-list party than a news conference, with top talent agents such as Creative Artists Agency Chairman Michael S. Ovitz, CAA President Ron Meyer, International Creative Management President Jim Wiatt and United Talent Agency partner Jim Berkus milling about with studio executives, Hollywood lawyers and Spielberg's and Katzenberg's wives.


With all of them looking on, events unfolded like a love fest. Katzenberg intoned to the media, "I look at the three of us, and think, 'This has got to be the Dream Team.' " Added Spielberg: "We're interested in creating a company that will outlive us all."

But behind the scenes, the story was already moving past the happy talk and the vague details revealed that morning. The big rumor that began circulating immediately after the news conference was that the Dream Team was actually engaged in a much grander master plan to join in a bid for MCA Inc. with its top executives, Wasserman and Sidney J. Sheinberg.

By the next day, it was still unclear whether the rumor was true or part of a team effort to aid Wasserman and Sheinberg in their negotiations to gain more autonomy from MCA's parent, Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. In any event, the payoff was more front-page coverage.

Soon afterward, the media queued up for the inevitable play-by-play accounts of the deal. But, unlike their colleagues in the past, Katzenberg, Spielberg and Geffen didn't just passively respond to the inevitable flood of questions.

One publication was fed the dramatic-sounding story of how they had agreed to form the studio after attending a White House dinner honoring Yeltsin. Another got the blow-by-blow reconstruction of their movements afterward, including the seminal meeting with MCA's Wasserman. Spielberg even offered up the details of his deliberations with his wife, actress Kate Capshaw, who worried about the demands on his time.

The major news magazines followed with other selected studio details. Hollywood's trade papers, meanwhile, were bursting with coverage of every conceivable angle. Between them, Variety and the Hollywood Reporter ran close to 20 stories in the first 10 days after the announcement.

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