In honor of the release of The BFG over July 4th weekend in 2016, we celebrate by Deconstructing Spielberg, exploring five decades of his influence in the world of entertainment.
In 1975, a movie named Jaws hit theaters and changed the way we thought about sharks and what lurks beneath the surface of every wave forever. In 1981, a movie named Raiders of the Lost Ark was released and changed the way we thought about action-adventure franchises. The following year, a movie named E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial debuted and redefined the way we thought about children’s movies. And in the next decade, a movie by name of Jurassic Park arrived in theaters and introduced us to the concept of the modern summer blockbuster, completely redefining what was possible in filmmaking.
Putting it simply, if there had been no Steven Spielberg, the movie industry that we’ve known for the last three and a half decades – my entire life – would never have existed. His films were the archetype, the standard, and the revelation.
But while no one is unaware of or can deny what the legendary director has accomplished just behind the camera, not enough truly appreciate what he has accomplished when he’s stepped away from the camera completely. Not many know, for example, that his net worth estimated $3.6 billion dollars – not exactly the kind of money one makes on a director’s salary, no matter how visionary.
Spielberg’s prodigious success so early in his career allowed him to build an empire in later years. The lucrative box office haul of Jaws allowed him the critical and financial freedom to pursue his next projects with almost full autonomy, and the result was that it set him up to be Hollywood’s most major player in a number of ways.
In the early ’90s, Spielberg teamed up with business partners Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen to form their DreamWorks Studios. At the time, a new studio hadn’t been founded in Hollywood in decades. Too risky, too expensive, too much of a sure loss, it just wasn’t done. But from the start, the three of them decided to build the studio they wanted, with three conditions: 1.) They would make less than nine movies a year, to enable them to have the time and freedom to do projects right. 2.) They would be able to work with other studios, should a project appear that intrigued them. And 3.) They would not be the sort of overworked studio executives that never saw their families and would be home for dinner every night. It was unprecedented – and it worked.
The studio’s first major hit was the Tom Hanks led Saving Private Ryan, which redefined the modern war movie genre and put DreamWorks on the map as a legitimate contender in the industry. DreamWorks also found great success in the animation genre, with DreamWorks Animation separating itself as an independent branch in 2004. Through the animation arm of the studio, some of the most successful animated movies of all time were produced, including the massively beloved Shrek series. While Katzenberg later admitted that the studio had come close to bankruptcy a few times, it was successful enough for Paramount Pictures to purchase the live action arm of the studio in 2005 to the tune of $1.5 billion.
Spielberg wasn’t just savvy when it came to movies. He also had an eye on the blossoming video game industry, and most don’t realize what success he’s had there, as well. An avid gamer himself, his greatest achievement in that industry was his partnership with well-known studio Electronic Arts on a three project deal that spanned multiple platforms. First mobile, with the Boom Blox series that won several awards. Then came his involvement with creating the story behind The Dig. But his most notable work in the video game industry was as the creator of the best-selling Medal of Honor series, which has spawned over a dozen sequels since the original game was launched and has gone on to become one of the most lucrative and well-received video game franchises of all time.
Yet, his real power and influence lie in his role as a producer. To date, he has 158 producer credits on his IMDb page — a hundred and fifty-eight! — and while the vast majority of his credits fall under the category of film, Spielberg has also been highly influential in television. His success in that medium can be attributed to the fact that he knows what works for him, and he’s stuck within those genres, constantly refining and redefining them: Animation, war dramas, and sci-fi.
Consider the impressive resume he’s built as a producer in animated television series: Tiny Toon Adventures, Pinky and the Brain, and Animaniacs, among others. All critical and cultural hits. Any person born in a certain span of years has said, not a few times, when asked what their plans were for the evening, “The same thing I do every night, Pinky – try to take over the world.” Throw in his executive producer credits for The Land Before Time and Who Framed Roger Rabbit on the movie end of things and it almost makes your head spin to think of how Spielberg’s savvy business acumen gave him an eye for what would be successful.
The same goes for his war miniseries. HBO’s critically-acclaimed Band of Brothers was groundbreaking. BBC paid $10 million to be a co-producer on the project, at the time the most it had ever paid for an original production. The miniseries went on to become the standard by which all other WWII miniseries are compared, and the success allowed Spielberg to continue with other war dramas including The Pacific.
And in recent years, Spielberg has taken advantage of the explosion of genre series and dove into the sci-fi genre, returning to his roots. Within the last few years, he’s been the executive producer behind Terra Nova, The Whispers, Falling Skies, Extant, and Steven King adaptation Under the Dome. While Falling Skies lasted the longest at four seasons, Spielberg’s prodigious success in the sci-fi genre has spilled over into others, and continues to to this day.
It is absolutely impossible to overestimate the impact that Spielberg has had in the entertainment industry, not as a director, but as a sharp and successful businessman. Like all great entrepreneurs, Spielberg has taken risks that haven’t always panned out. But like all great businessmen, his instincts for what’s a good investment and what’s not have been correct more often than not. In a career that has spanned three and a half decades in a constantly-changing industry, it’s almost shockingly impressive how flexible and savvy Spielberg has been when it come to the business side of things. Quite frankly, we will probably never see Spielberg’s like again: A man who has been so successful, so influential, throughout his life that he will be remembered for generations to come, not just as a director, but as a mogul.