David Geffen

Principal, DreamWorks SKG

Nationality: American.

Born: February 21, 1943, in New York City, New York.

Education: Attended University of Texas, Austin, and Brooklyn College, City University of New York.

Family: Son of Abraham Geffen and Batya Volovskaya.

Career: CBS Studios, 1961, usher; William Morris Agency, 1964–1966, mailroom employee; 1966–1969, agent; Tuna Fish Records, 1969–1970, CEO; Asylum Records, 1970, principal; Geffen Records, 1980–1994, chairman and CEO; DreamWorks SKG, 1994–, principal.

Address: DreamWorks SKG, 1000 Flower Street, Glendale, California 91201; http://www.dreamworks.com.

■ A seminal figure in the entertainment industry, David Geffen was a billionaire who never graduated from college. Having worked primarily as a talent agent and music producer, Geffen had a precise eye for spotting talent and helped develop such stars as the Eagles, Guns N' Roses, and Nirvana. Joni Mitchell based her song "Free Man in Paris" on Geffen. It is almost impossible to overstate Geffen's contribution to popular music. Not one to rest on his laurels, along with his powerful peers Stephen Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, Geffen also launched the most ambitious challenge to the Hollywood studio system in some time. His life epitomized the classic ragsto-riches story. He used his brilliant drive to rise from humble beginnings, vowing to make it at all costs. A complex and often contradictory character, he was openly gay, open about his battles with depression, and seemed to use philanthropy to offset a predatory business nature.


Geffen's mother fled Russia around 1917 after the Russian Revolution and never again saw her family except for a sister who, years later, told her that most of their family had perished.

David Geffen. © Mitchell Gerber/Corbis.
David Geffen. ©
Mitchell Gerber/Corbis

The news gave her a nervous breakdown and the Ukrainian immigrant was institutionalized for about six months. Geffen told Playboy magazine: "I was six, and the whole episode was confusing and terrifying for me. My mom went from having her own business to being in a hospital. It was embarrassing because all my friends thought she was crazy" (September 1994).

The Geffen family suffered financially, and although it had enough money for the essentials, Geffen recalls wearing illfitting clothes. His father, an eccentric career dilettante who could not keep a job, contributed almost nothing and his mother picked up the slack, fearing that her family would have to live on welfare. Throughout his childhood, Geffen worked with his mother in the family's corset-and-brassiere business in Brooklyn. Geffen credited his mother for forging his work ethic: "My mother taught me to love my work. I learned everything about business from her. I watched her work. She enabled me to work" ( Playboy , September 1994). While his father, who died when Geffen was 18, did little to help the family financially, he clearly inspired his son to seek a life beyond mere survival: "Dad was an intellectual…. [Mom] made the money and he read a lot. He wasn't successful or ambitious. He spoke lots of languages" ( New York Times , May 2, 1993).


Geffen barely passed high school and dropped out of college, yearning for a job in the entertainment business. At 18 he worked as an usher at CBS Studios. He next landed a job in the mailroom at the William Morris Agency by falsely claiming that he had graduated from UCLA, because a college degree was required for the job. Leaving nothing to chance, he stole a letter from UCLA that arrived in the mailroom one morning, steamed it open, and forged a note on the university stationery to create the appearance that he graduated.

While Geffen's starting salary was $55 a week working in the mailroom, within five years he had become an agent and made $2 million in 1969. With initial clients such as the Association and Joni Mitchell, he went on to represent many of the stars that would define a generation of music, including Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young; Janis Joplin; James Taylor; and Bob Dylan. But Geffen did not just manage existing music acts, he helped to create new ones. And in the process he amassed a personal fortune. At age 26 he sold his first music label, Tuna Fish Records, to CBS for $4.5 million. In 1970 he formed Asylum Records, which quickly became one of the most successful record labels in the industry, featuring artists such as Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, J. D. Souther, and the Eagles (the top-selling band for several years). Geffen sold Asylum to Warner Communications in 1972 for $7 million.

In 1973 he opened the famous Roxy nightclub on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. In 1974 he scored a coup by luring Bob Dylan away from Columbia Records, giving Dylan his first number one album ( Planet Waves ) and masterminding his first concert tour since 1965. Geffen quit the entertainment business in 1975 upon learning that he had cancer. Shockingly, in 1980 he learned that the cancer diagnosis had been wrong—a turn of events that set him back on the path to making music. When Geffen Records was founded in 1980, Warner Bros. Records provided 100 percent of the funding for the label's operations, while Geffen retained 50 percent of the profits. Geffen Records, which produced artists such as Guns N' Roses, Nirvana, Don Henley, Peter Gabriel, and Aerosmith, quickly earned a reputation as one of the most successful independent labels in the United States. Geffen sold the label in 1990 to MCA—a deal that ultimately earned him an estimated $1 billion in cash and stock and an employment contract that ran until 1995.


Geffen acknowledged that he had a torrid romance with Cher, which began while she was still involved with Sonny Bono and working on The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour , and he later dated the actress Marlo Thomas. By 1980, however, he had come to terms with his homosexuality, and in the early 1990s he publicly announced that he was gay at an AIDS benefit. Said one of Geffen's closest friends, designer Calvin Klein: "He just seems so relieved. He felt he could be a role model. Gay men are not necessarily thought of as the shrewdest businessmen in the world. He felt he should do this publicly as well as for himself and he's really much happier" ( Guardian , June 5, 1993).

David Geffen ultimately became one of the most important forces in the gay rights movement, accepting numerous accolades and honorariums and becoming a loud voice in the fight against AIDS. When President Clinton was forming a policy regarding gays in the military, Geffen advocated against a ban. He lobbied Washington and took out full-page ads in newspapers.


A billionaire many times over, Geffen acknowledged that his two biggest personal expenses were his $26 million Gulfstream jet, custom stocked with potato knishes, and a $47.5 million estate in Beverly Hills that once was the residence of the Hollywood mogul Jack Warner. Ironically, Jack Warner's Warner Communications had enriched Geffen earlier in his career by buying his Asylum Records. Geffen was long fascinated by the house, and when he spotted the gates to the estate open one day, he drove in just to catch a glimpse. Years later Jack Warner's widow died, and a developer tried to subdivide the property, but Geffen reacted immediately. "All of a sudden I got protective about it. So I bought it, with everything in it, instantly. I just bought it with all the furniture, all the scripts, all the Oscars, everything. I mean, this is the home of one of the men who created the town and the industry…. I was to tally enthralled by the world that this guy had created ( Guardian , June 5, 1993).


Throughout his career Geffen stayed focused on music while consistently demonstrating a willingness to venture into other artistic enterprises. His track record of movie and theater hits is formidable. As a movie producer Geffen financed such films as Risky Business, Beetlejuice, The Last Boy Scout, Defending Your Life, After Hours, Lost in America, Little Shop of Horrors , and Personal Best . The plays he helped produce included Cats, Dreamgirls, Miss Saigon , and M. Butterfly , which was also made into a Geffen film.


David Geffen demonstrated that he could place his personal values above turning a profit, and he did not hesitate to end business relationships that he deemed inappropriate. During a controversy over the violence that rap music seemed to condone, if not endorse, Geffen stopped distributing Def American Records. He said: "It was consistently putting out records I found offensive. I'm not interested in making records about violence against women, and some horrible other images. It was a choice I had to make" ( Playboy , September 1994).


In 1994 Geffen and partners Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg created what they envisioned as a multimedia force for the new millennium. They called themselves the "Dream Team" and their company DreamWorks SKG. Each of the partners, whose last names provided the company name, invested $33 million. Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen provided $500 million in seed money, and Microsoft also invested around $30 million to develop video games. Geffen would lead the music division, Spielberg would oversee the movie sector, and Katzenberg would run the animation division. DreamWorks arranged a $100 million programming deal with ABC, a 10-year HBO licensing agreement worth an estimated $1 billion, and cofounded a $50 million animation studio with Silicon Graphics. DreamWorks announced plans in 1995 to build the first new film studio since the 1930s, just outside Los Angeles in Playa Vista.


Geffen reentered the music industry in 1996 and resumed his relationship with Geffen Records when SKG and its two new imprints—DreamWorks Records and SKG—formed a joint venture with the record label Geffen founded 15 years earlier. Under terms of his 1995 partnership with MCA, Geffen Records and parent company MCA would share the profits and cachet that came with being associated with David Geffen and the venerable SKG team, and SKG's new imprints would gain distribution. MCA saw Geffen as a magnet for top artists and music-industry executives. Said a top music business lawyer: "I'm sure managers of superstar acts with expiring recording pacts have already called David. And any label executive in town would kill to have a job there" ( Daily Variety , June 14, 1995).


Early on, DreamWorks produced a string of TV, musical, and film flops and ultimately canceled its film-studio plans. In 1996 the company announced its partnership with SEGA and MCA (now Universal Studios) to develop SEGA GameWorks (video-arcade supercenters featuring SEGA titles and games designed by Spielberg). But while Dreamworks initially fell short of expectations, momentum began to change in 1998. That year the company released the disaster film Deep Impact , Spielberg's Oscar-winning Saving Private Ryan , and its first two animated films, Antz and The Prince of Egypt , both of which were successful. DreamWorks finished 1998 with the highest average gross per film of all the major studios. Later hits included American Beauty , which won an Oscar for best picture of 1999; Gladiator , which won an Oscar for best picture in 2000 and grossed $187 million; Shrek , which grossed more than $265 million at the box office in 2001; and A Beautiful Mind , a coproduction with Universal Pictures that won Dreamworks its third consecutive Oscar for best picture and grossed more than $140 million.

But Dreamworks continued to have troubles. A Web venture failed, and although the company routinely produced network pilots, as of 2004 the only TV hit to have emerged from DreamWorks was ABC's Spin City . In music, the industry where Geffen usually worked magic, hits were few and far between. In 2000 DreamWorks had only one album, Papa Roche's Infest , among Soundscan's top 50.


In 2000 a biography that Geffen authorized, The Operator , was published. Geffen handpicked his biographer, Tom King, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal , but midway through the writing process Geffen stopped cooperating, although he did allow the book to be published. The book tends to portray Geffen as a bully who was willing to sacrifice friends to achieve his enormous wealth.

According to the biography, Geffen's feuds with other entertainment executives, including former Disney executive Michael Ovitz, were legendary. Said Howard Rosenman, a movie producer and friend: "David will do anything for you if you're his friend. But if you're his enemy, well, you might as well kill yourself" ( Guardian , June 5, 1993). Some of Geffen's lore is likely the result of the petty jealousies that arise with such a dominant executive. Known to be immensely intelligent, despite never having graduated from college, Geffen was a multi-millionaire in the music business at age 25. He had a sharp memory and seldom took notes during business meetings.


Geffen and DreamWorks continued betting its future on animation. The studio began issuing collectible fish figurines representing characters in the 2004 film Shark Tale played by Robert DeNiro, Will Smith, Renee Zellweger, Angelina Jolie, and others. Additionally, DeNiro agreed to screen excerpts from Shark Tale at his burgeoning Tribeca Film Festival. DreamWorks also started a Web site, dwkids.com, that featured games, free tickets, newsletters, and information about upcoming films, such as Shrek 2 . Geffen claimed that the goal of DreamWork's animation efforts was not to make money, but rather to build a substantial library of popular culture. Said Geffen: "Steven Spielberg and I have tremendous amounts of money. You can't spend or even use most of it; it's just on some financial statement, and other people are playing with it. So I'm not in this because I need or want to make another billion; that would have no value. It's all in the doing, all in the journey" ( Time , March 27, 1995).


Geffen was well known for his philanthropy. He was particularly passionate about gay rights and fighting AIDS, which he said must be everyone's fight: "HIV infection and AIDS is growing—but so too is public apathy. We have already lost too many friends and colleagues. I hope my gifts will encourage more people to come forward and give generously. In the face of so much death, we must do all we can to support life ( Daily Variety , August 10, 1995).

Before he helped create DreamWorks, Geffen gave all of his profit from movies and Broadway shows to charities. He also gave two $5 million donations to the arts. He was notably proud that his foundation gave sizable gifts annually to many worthy causes that touched him personally, including AIDS and assistance to Ethiopian and Soviet Jews settling in Israel. Geffen was known to personally answer letters from men with AIDS or families of AIDS patients, some of them even including $10,000 checks. In 2002 he donated $200 million to UCLA's medical school, the largest single gift ever to a U.S. medical school or to the University of California. Geffen gave the university complete freedom in deciding how to spend the money. In a press release he said: "I have great respect and affection for UCLA, and my hope is that with this gift, UCLA's doctors and researchers will be better equipped to unravel medicine's mysteries—and deliver the cures for tomorrow" ( Los Angeles Times , May 7, 2002).

See also entry on DreamWorks SKG in International Directory of Company Histories .

sources for further information

Corliss, Richard, "Hey, Let's Put on a Show! Start Our Own Multimedia Company! Get Investors to Give Us $2 Billion! Prove the Naysayers Wrong! An Inside Look at the Dreamworks Saga—Act 1," Time , March 27, 1995, p. 54.

Ornstein, Charles, and Stuart Silverstein, "Record Donation to UCLA," Los Angeles Times , May 7, 2002.

Sandler, Adam, "Gotham AIDS Orgs Get $4 Mil from David Geffen," Daily Variety , August 10, 1995.

——, "MCA's Dream Comes True; Geffen Reunited with Labels," Daily Variety , June 14, 1995.

Sheff, David, "Interview: David Geffen," Playboy September 1994, p. 51.

Weinraub, Bernard, "David Geffen, Still Hungry," New York Times , May 2, 1993.

——, "Portrait: The Geffen Game," Guardian (London), June 5, 1993.

—Timothy Halpern

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