Record company executive
Recording executive David Geffen is a phenomenon even by Hollywood’s inflated standards. The wealthiest man in the entertainment industry, Geffen has displayed an uncanny assessment of musical talent and sharp business maneuvers. Though his list of money-making projects includes comedy films and real estate, Geffen remains best known for his work in the music industry. He has proven pivotal in the careers of a diverse group of artists, from folk artists to album-oriented rock acts to modern metal groups.
Geffen became a precocious Wunderkind in the late 1960s, when he earned his first million dollars at the age of 25. He became successful because he could identify, advise, and guide potential superstar musicians. In later years he has retained his hold on an industry that caters to young people by delegating the responsibility for signing new talent to a small group of younger subordinates. Vanity Fair contributor Annie Leibovitz suggested that the difference between Geffen and traditional recording industry executives is that Geffen understands the artistic as well as the financial aspects of the business. “He really is friends with the talent that made him his fortune,” Leibovitz wrote. “He can talk music and movies and theater with creative artists, and he understands their process.”
Just a Poor Brooklyn Boy
Geffen has fondly called himself “just a boy from Brooklyn who wishes he were six feet tall, with blond hair and blue eyes,” as quoted in Vanity Fair. Fantasizing was certainly important to the son of Russian immigrants who grew up in a three-room apartment. Geffen was born on February 21, 1943, in Brooklyn, New York. His father, a pattern maker, was often unemployed; his mother, Batya, supported the family by making corsets and brassieres and selling them from her home. Batya was so successful that she was eventually able to buy a building big enough for her store and several other tenants as well. “My mother in her own tiny, little way was entrepreneurial,” Geffen stated in the New York Times Magazine. “Everything that I’ve ever applied in my life I learned hanging around her store. … I grew up learning my mother’s ideas about integrity and business and negotiating. It never occurred to me I’d be anything but a businessman.”
Another world lured Geffen, however. He haunted the Brooklyn movie theaters, drawing inspiration from the lavish lifestyles of the stars, especially studio bosses like Louis B. Mayer and Jack Warner. In a Forbes profile, Geffen said: “I looked at these moguls and the world they created and figured it would be a fun way to make a living.”
For the Record…
Born February 21, 1943, in Brooklyn, NY; son of Abraham (a pattern maker) and Batya (a corset manufacturer; maiden name, Volovskaya) Geffen. Education: Attended University of Texas at Austin and Brooklyn College of the City University of New York.
Record company executive and film and theater producer. Mailroom worker and talent agent with William Morris Agency, New York City, 1964-68; talent agent, Ashley Famous Agency, 1968; executive vice-president and talent agent, Creative Management Associates, 1969. Founder, with Laura Nyro, and president of the music publishing company Tuna Fish; president of Asylum Records and Geffen-Roberts, Inc., 1970-71; sold company to Warner Communications, 1971, but retained position; merged Asylum with Elektra label, 1973; vice-president of Warner Brothers Pictures (film subsidiary), 1975; founded Geffen Records, 1980; sold company to MCA, 1990, but retained position. Producer of films, including Risky Business, 1983, and plays, including Cats, 1982—.
Awards: Produced more than 50 gold albums and 31 certified platinum albums, beginning in 1970.
Addresses: Office— Geffen Records, 9130 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90069.
His ambitions notwithstanding, Geffen was an indifferent student who graduated from Brooklyn’s New Utrecht High School in 1960 in the bottom ten percent of his class. The same day he earned his diploma, Geffen ventured west where he hoped to enter the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He was denied admission on the basis of poor grades, but was able to enroll at the University of Texas at Austin; he lasted only a semester before flunking out. He returned home to New York for an equally short stint at Brooklyn College.
Early jobs as an usher at the CBS television studios and as a receptionist for a television production company also ended disastrously—Geffen was fired both times. In 1964 he landed a job in the mail room at the William Morris Agency. In order to be considered for the position he had to lie about his college background. He told personnel at William Morris that he had graduated from UCLA. When he discovered that the agency planned to contact UCLA to corroborate his story, the resourceful Geffen kept watch in the mailroom for four months, until he was able to retrieve the college’s reply. He steamed the letter open, took it to a printer, had the letterhead forged, and created his own academic credentials. Geffen told a New York Times reporter: “It was either give William Morris what they wanted or give up my dreams. … I just don’t believe in taking no for an answer.”
Taking advice from the head of the William Morris music office, Geffen began scouting talent among his own age group—especially musicians. He proved to have a good ear, and the agency promoted him to junior agent after 18 months. In 1968 Geffen moved to the less staid Ashley Famous Agency, where he worked with such powerhouse groups as the Doors and Peter, Paul, and Mary. Leibovitz noted that Geffen quickly became a “Talent Scout Extraordinaire” with “the best instincts about people.”
Those instincts blossomed in the early 1970s, when Geffen and partner Elliot Roberts formed a record label, Asylum Records, supported by their own management company. They produced records with such artists as Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, the Eagles, and Linda Ronstadt, all of whom enjoyed great success with the label. In 1971 Geffen sold Asylum to Warner Communications for $7 million but kept his position as director of the company. Two years later, Warner asked him to head the struggling Elektra subsidiary. Geffen dropped two-thirds of Elektra’s artists and signed new talent. Soon both Asylum and Elektra were thriving.
A brief and less-than-successful stint as vice-chair of Warner Brothers Pictures convinced Geffen that he was not suited for the standard bureaucracy of Hollywood filmmaking. His career came to an abrupt halt in 1976 when he was misdiagnosed with bladder cancer. Convinced he was fatally ill, he left the business for the less taxing work of teaching at Yale University and UCLA. Four years passed before doctors in New York City reversed the prognosis on his illness. Relieved, Geffen resumed working in the recording industry.
Geffen subsequently founded Geffen Records, an independent label promoted and distributed by Warner Communications. Artists on the starting roster at the company’s founding in 1980 included Donna Summer, Elton John, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono. An album by the latter couple, Double Fantasy, went triple platinum and won a Grammy Award for album of the year. Geffen was back in the game.
Always keen to good business, Geffen made a decision. “At the age of thirty-three I stopped signing acts,” he disclosed in Vanity Fair. “I don’t hold myself out to be a talent scout any longer. I’m too old.” Despite Geffen’s personal doubts, younger Geffen employees with somewhat radical tastes helped their leader stay at the forefront in pop music, signing acts like Guns N’ Roses, Whitesnake, and Aerosmith. In the meantime, Geffen branched into musical theater, producing some major Broadway hits, including Cats, Little Shop of Horrors, Dreamgirls, and M. Butterfly. Cats, which opened on Broadway in 1982, is still running.
By March of 1990 Geffen was responsible for 50 gold and 31 platinum albums. In a surprise move, he sold his label to MCA, Inc., for 10 million shares of stock. The decision proved momentous. Eight months later, MCA was sold to a Japanese company, Matsushita, for $6.1 billion. Geffen reaped a $170 million profit on the deal.
Vanity Fair’s Leibovitz called David Geffen “the man who can fix things, who can smooth things over. The man who can get people placed and replaced. The man whose phone call has the effect of a corporation.” An equally fitting tribute comes from the lyrics of Joni Mitchell’s hit “A Free Man in Paris,” written about Geffen. According to Mitchell’s song, the tempestuous Geffen spends his days “stoking the starmaker machinery behind the popular song.”
Esquire, February 1975; November 1982.
Forbes, April 14, 1980; December 24, 1990.
GQ, March 1991.
Los Angeles Times, November 15, 1991; March 3, 1992.
Newsweek, November 20, 1972.
New York, May 17, 1982; January 24, 1983.
New York Times, October 3, 1982; October 31, 1982.
New York Times Magazine, July 21, 1985.
Rolling Stone, May 15, 1980; January 22, 1981; March 5, 1981.
Time, February 25, 1974.
Vanity Fair, March 1991.
Washington Post, May 6, 1982.
—Anne Janette Johnson
Geffen, David 1943–
Principal, DreamWorks SKG
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.
AN INHERITED FIGHT FOR SURVIVAL
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).
BEHIND THE MUSIC
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.
A PERSONAL LIFE THAT TRANSFORMS AN IMAGE
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.
PLAYING THE PART OF THE MOGUL
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).
THE GOLDEN TOUCH
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.
PRINCIPLES BEFORE PRINCIPAL
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).
AN ENTERTAINMENT TRIUMVIRATE IS FORMED
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.
PLAYS TO HIS STRENGTHS
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).
THE DREAM TEAM STUMBLES
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.
AN INTIMIDATING MOGUL
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.
A PURPOSE LARGER THAN PROFITS
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).
A FOCUS ON PHILANTHROPY
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.
David Geffen is widely regarded as the wealthiest man in the U.S. film industry. A self-styled "boy from Brooklyn" who became a millionaire by the age of 25, the ambitious, energetic music and movie executive established a vast Hollywood-based empire. With Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, he cofounded Dreamworks, ensuring that he will continue to shape the world entertainment landscape into the next century.
David Geffen was born February 21, 1943 in Brooklyn, New York. His parents were Soviet Jews who had emigrated to Brooklyn's thriving Russian community. Geffen's father, Abraham, was a pattern maker. His mother, Batya, made and sold women's undergarments out of a tiny shop. Geffen claims to have learned the basic principles of entrepreneurial skills at his mother's knee.
An avid reader, Geffen was impelled toward an entertainment career by Hollywood Rajah, the life story of movie mogul Louis B. Mayer. "I looked at these moguls and the world they created and figured it would be a fun way to make a living," he told Forbes magazine. Geffen took up music and drama in high school, where he also developed a reputation for his gregarious personality that would benefit him later in life. By 1998, his personal worth was valued at over $1 billion. Geffen, who is single and openly gay, lives a lavish but unpretentious lifestyle out of a New York City apartment and a beach house in Malibu, California. He collects fine art, but his major passion remains his work. He reportedly spends the majority of his day on the telephone, making deals and listening to creative pitches.
Upon graduating from high school in 1960, Geffen headed west, not to California, but to the University of Texas at Austin. He lasted only one semester until he flunked out with poor grades. He worked at a series of odd jobs in New York before landing a position in the mailroom of the William Morris Talent Agency in 1964. There he earned $55 a week sorting letters, but quickly aspired to greater things. "I'm delivering the mail to people's offices," he told The New Yorker "and I hear them on the phone, and I think, I can do that. Talk on the phone. This I can do." Geffen began developing relationships with musical talent. He was made a junior agent a year and a half after joining William Morris Talent Agency and was soon managing the career of the promising singer/songwriter Laura Nyro. That led to contacts with other up-and-coming stars such as Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young, and Janis Joplin. In 1969, Geffen made his first million by selling out the music publishing operation he had started with Nyro.
In 1970, Geffen cofounded Asylum Records with Elliot Roberts, a friend from his days at William Morris. It was at Asylum Records that Geffen cultivated his knack for spotting new talent and trends in the entertainment industry. Often on the basis of a single demo tape, Geffen signed up some of the hottest rock and roll acts of the early 1970s, including Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, and The Eagles. Once he signed them, Geffen nurtured the relationship he had established with these artists by treating them fairly and giving them artistic and career advice. When he sold Asylum Records in 1971 to Warner Communications, it was one of the largest deals in the music industry up to that point.
Geffen stayed on as Asylum Records president through its merger with the Warner label Elektra in 1973. His major coups during this period were in securing the services of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and The Band for the new Elektra/Asylum label, which became one of Warner Communications's most profitable subsidiaries. Geffen had become a major player in the recording industry and was on the lookout for new challenges.
One of those came in 1975, when Warner Communications chief Steve Ross asked Geffen to take on the job of vice chairman of Warner Brothers Pictures. With no experience in the movie business, Geffen leapt at the chance but only had middling success in a year on the job. He felt stifled by the corporate decision-making structure and asked for a less structured portfolio.
After a four-year semi-retirement precipitated by a mistaken diagnosis of terminal cancer, Geffen returned to his first love, the music business, in 1980. He founded Geffen Records with capital assistance from Warner and began gobbling up new and established talent. John Lennon, Elton John, and Donna Summer were among the acts who released records on the Geffen imprint. Two years later, again with help from Warner, the Geffen Film Company was launched. The company's initial release, the 1983 comedy Risky Business was an immense hit with audiences and it helped make a star out of Tom Cruise. During this period, Geffen also expanded his portfolio to include Broadway and off-Broadway theater. He helped bankroll such successful productions as Dreamgirls, Little Shop of Horrors, and the hugely profitable Cats.
Geffen re-upped his record deal with Warner in 1984, commanding a 100 percent equity stake in the company. While he still dealt personally with older acts like Neil Young and Cher, Geffen increasingly began to rely on the evaluations of younger executives more in tune with the musical tastes of the 1980s. The policy paid off in the late 1980s with the signing of Guns N' Roses, a hard rock band from Los Angeles whose first two albums sold more than 14 million copies. In March 1990, at the conclusion of a six-year contract, Geffen sold his recording operation to the Music Corporation of America (MCA) for $6.13 million and $50 million in stock options. Almost immediately, he founded DGC, a new record label he hoped would attract cutting-edge bands. The change in strategy immediately paid dividends as one of DGC's first acts, Nirvana, scored a breakthrough hit with their 1991 album Nevermind.
Powered by the explosion of "grunge rock," DGC continued to be a dominant market force well into the 1990s. Meanwhile, Geffen's other enterprises were doing almost as well. His movie company produced the hits Interview with the Vampire and Beavis and Butthead Do America. The plays Miss Saigon and M. Butterfly benefited from a New York theater boom. Once again, Geffen sensed a change coming on the entertainment horizon. In 1994, together with director Steven Spielberg and former Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, he cofounded DreamWorks, a movie studio and entertainment production company. The studio's first release, the epic film Amistad, directed by Spielberg, was released in 1997 to great critical acclaim. With three of the world's leading lights at the helm, industry analysts were already hailing Dreamworks as a major player in the entertainment industry of the next century.
Social and Economic Impact
Geffen's personal worth has been estimated at well over $1 billion. He donates much of his annual salary to the David Geffen Foundation, a charitable organization devoted to his pet causes. These include AIDS research, a crusade he has backed avidly since publicly announcing his homosexuality in the early 1980s. Beyond making financial contributions, Geffen has lobbied Washington tirelessly on behalf of funding AIDS research and gay rights. In 1993, he took out full-page newspaper ads protesting President Clinton's policy on gays in the military.
Chronology: David Geffen
1964: Joined William Morris Agency.
1964: Sold music publishing company for $4.5 million.
1970: Founded Asylum Records.
1971: Sold Asylum Records to Warner Communications.
1980: Founded Geffen Records.
1982: Named Head of Geffen Film Company.
1990: Sold Geffen Records to Music Corporation of America (MCA).
1990: Founded DGC.
1994: Cofounded DreamWorks SKG.
Acquiring a stake in the DreamWorks studio cost Geffen $33.3 million, the same stake put up by his two partners, Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Initially, Geffen was skeptical about getting back into the movie business full-time, but the creative opportunities proved too tempting to resist. "I thought, 'How can I turn this down?'" Geffen told Los Angeles magazine. "I'm 52 years-old, and if I don't do this, I will get tired and lazy and bored. But being with these guys will keep me hanging onto a train that is going 300 miles an hour."
Sources of Information
Contact at: DreamWorks
100 Universal City Plz.
Universal City, Bungalow 477, CA 91608
Business Phone: (818)733-7000
Anson, Robert Sam. "Geffen Ungloved," Los Angeles Magazine, July 1995.
"David Geffen." Current Biography Yearbook. 1992.
Friedman, Alan. "Mogul with the Most." The Financial Times, 22 February 1993.
Seabrook, John. "The Many Lives of David Geffen." The New Yorker, 23 February & 2 March 1998.
Sheff, David. "Playboy Interview: David Geffen." Playboy, September 1994.
Who's Who in America. 1998.
GEFFEN, DAVID (1944– ), U.S. record producer. Born in New York, Geffen began his career in the mailroom of the William Morris Agency, moved up the ladder to a position as agent, and then founded his own agency with Elliot Roberts in 1968. Taking such stars as Joni Mitchell and Neil Young under his managerial wing, Geffen founded the now major recording label Asylum Records (1970). He picked up recording artists such as Jackson Browne and built his company up to the point where it merged with long-established Electra Records, with Geffen installed as president (1973–76). In 1975 he was made vice chairman of Warner Brothers Pictures and in 1977 became executive assistant to the chairman of Warner Communications. In 1980 Geffen founded a new record label under his own name and signed John Lennon and Yoko Ono, as well as Bob Dylan, Elton John, and Donna Summer. The Lennon-Ono Double Fantasy (1980) album was the first released on Geffen Records. Geffen's original signings continued to bring his company success through the 1980s and into the 1990s, when Guns N'Roses proved one of the most successful groups in rock history. His ability to recognize talent was instrumental in helping to launch or develop the careers of such entertainers as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the Eagles, and Tom Cruise.
In 1981 he branched out into producing Broadway musicals and had success with Dreamgirls and Cats, which became the longest-running musical in Broadway history. Geffen's incursions into stage as well as film production (Personal Best; Risky Business; Interview with the Vampire) netted him millions of dollars. By 1996 he was a billionaire. He sold Geffen records to mca, receiving stock valued at $545 million in exchange, and received a further $710 million when the Matsushita Corporation bought mca a few months later. In 1994 he launched the Dream Works film studio project in partnership with Steven *Spielberg and Jeffrey *Katzenberg.
Geffen taught at Yale and ucla. In 2002 he donated $200 million to the ucla medical school, the largest single donation to a U.S. medical school in history. The school is named the David Geffen School of Medicine. The campus already includes the Geffen Playhouse, which was named for him when he donated $5 million. Geffen has also contributed generously to the Democratic National Party; Los Angeles's aids Project; New York's Gay Men's Health Crisis; and aids Action in Washington, d.c.
S. Singular, The Rise and Rise of David Geffen (1997); T. King, The Operator: David Geffen Builds, Buys, and Sells the New Hollywood (2000).
[Jonathan Licht /
Rohan Saxena and
Ruth Beloff (2nd ed.)]