David Geffen Biography

(1943–)
David Geffen is an ambitious, energetic music and movie executive who established a vast Hollywood-based empire, featuring Geffen Records and DreamWorks.

Synopsis

Born in New York City on February 21, 1943, David Geffen is a record and film producer who, with Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, started DreamWorks. Geffen has started numerous other companies, such as Geffen Records, DGC and the Geffen Film Company. He also helped bankroll such successful productions as Dreamgirls, Little Shop of Horrors and the hugely profitable Cats.

Early Life

Born on February 21, 1943, in Brooklyn, New York, David Geffen is widely regarded as the wealthiest man in the American 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.

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 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 City before landing a position as an usher at the CBS-TV studio. He loved the job. "I got to watch them rehearse TV shows with people like Judy Garland and Red Skelton," he said in a Forbes article, "and I was thinking, 'Well, I'm not talented, what can I do?'" He worked his way up to a receptionist position on the CBS series The Reporters, but was fired after suggesting some script improvements to a producer. When the show's casting director jokingly remarked that Geffen might make a good agent, Geffen followed up on the idea. Looking through the Yellow Pages, he contacted the William Morris Talent Agency—the one with the biggest ad. He began with a job in the mailroom there in 1964, earning $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."

Music Agent

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 dollars by selling out the music publishing operation that 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 signing Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and The Band for the new Elektra/Asylum label, which became one of Warner Communications 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 during his first year on the job. He felt stifled by the corporate decision-making structure and asked for a less structured portfolio.

Geffen Records

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 then-unknown 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.

Film Projects

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. In 1994, together with director Steven Spielberg and former Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, he cofounded DreamWorks, a movie studio and entertainment production company. 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."

The studio's first release, the epic film Amistad, directed by Spielberg, was released in 1997 to great critical acclaim. Other major projects included Saving Private Ryan, Antz, and the TV sitcom Spin City. Less successful ventures, however, including the film In Dreams and the TV series Ink, may have contributed to Dreamworks' difficulty in obtaining financing for its proposed new Hollywood studio, Playa Vista, which Dreamworks executives had announced in 1995. In 1999, the production company abandoned the proposed new studio, which would have been Hollywood's first in more than 60 years, and announced it would focus on its existing operations.

But this did not mean Dreamworks would ignore innovative projects. On October 26, 1999, the company announced its joint plans with Imagine Entertainment to create Pop.com, an internet entertainment company offering short films, streaming video, live events, games, performance art and continuing series.

Controversy and Causes

As a recording industry and movie executive, Geffen has been influential in shaping popular culture-a position that has also earned him some significant criticism. A series of deadly shootings in American high schools in the late 1990s prompted a public outcry that associated such shocking acts with the increased violence in contemporary movies and entertainment. When President Clinton, in May 1999, urged the entertainment industry to tone down its emphasis on violence, Geffen responded "Why not blame the libraries? They're full of violent books." In a telephone interview with The New York Times, Geffen went on to argue that any action to reduce children's exposure to movie violence should not infringe on artistic freedom. "Before you talk to people in music or entertainment or video games, or even gun control," he said, "you need to talk to psychiatrists."

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 favorite 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. Yet Geffen continues to support Democratic politicians, hosting a 1999 Hollywood bash that raised about $1.5 million for Democratic congressional candidates.

Fact Check

We strive for accuracy and fairness. If you see something that doesn't look right, contact us!