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.
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."
Spielberg writes the checks as the sole financier of Amblin TV, including staff salaries and general expenses. Once a project moves into the active development and production phase, Amblin will partner with a studio or network to shoulder the costs of commissioning material and deficit production financing, if warranted. The more shows Amblin has on the air, the more fees that flow in to help offset Spielberg's personal outlay, which has ranged from six to seven figures a year.
He can certainly afford to pay those bills, thanks to the returns from four decades of megahits, starting with a certain shark that still thrills visitors on the Universal Studios tour every day. But Spielberg's willingness to risk his own money, rather than to strike a deal that could line his pockets, still marks a rare example of a Hollywood power player choosing art over commerce.
"Because of how much movies cost, it's dangerous to be experimental on one film after the other," Spielberg says. "But we can experiment with television. We can do things that are fringe and bring ideas to the table that are offbeat and original."
Indeed, Spielberg's affection for TV is notable in light of his headline-making observation this month during a USC event that the studio tentpole business (which he helped invent) is headed for a "big meltdown." No wonder then, that he's so invested in his TV biz.
"Television has a different biorhythm than movies. I love the biorhythm of TV," he says. "It means we get to be more experiential in delivering stories, the way life is experiential."
Amblin/DreamWorks TV's output in the past few years has ranged from pay cable fare (Showtime's "United States of Tara" and "The Borgias") to big-budget network vehicles (NBC's "Smash," Fox's "Terra Nova") to moody sci-fi and fantasy (TNT's "Falling Skies," ABC's "The River"). At present, Amblin TV is home to two of the year's most talked-about new shows: FX's "The Americans" and CBS' big summer bet "Under the Dome," which bows June 24. Also on deck for the fall is the ABC ensembler "Lucky 7," a remake of a British drama.
In the early years of DreamWorks, the company braved the deficit-financing model in fielding series including "Spin City," "Freaks and Geeks," "Undeclared" and "The Job." But as the primetime biz became more challenging with the wave of industry consolidation in the late 1990s, the company's approach inevitably shifted to partnering with nets and studios on a show-by-show basis. They've done so much work all over town that Amblin's unique deal template is well established.