Michael Wright vividly remembers his first meeting with Steven Spielberg. It was 2003, and Wright recently had started at TNT as head of TV movies and miniseries. He went to meet the filmmaker in his DreamWorks office to pitch him a sprawling miniseries about the American expansion that would become Into The West. What was supposed a 15-minute meeting went on for an hour and kicked off the duo’s creative relationship.
Since then, Spielberg’s Amblin TV, run by Justin Falvey and Darryl Frank, has emerged as a major series supplier to TNT with two dramas on the air: hit Falling Skies and the upcoming Public Morals, and pending pilot Lumen. So when Wright approached his Turner bosses after the Fourth of July holiday to withdraw his name from consideration for Steve Koonin’s job and ask for permission to explore other employment opportunities, he called Spielberg — not to ask for a job but to let him know he would be leaving out of courtesy to the volume of their business together. “I did not even assume that coming to work for him was a possibility,” he said. “He has two of my best friends in the business and life, Justin and Darryl, running his TV company, so I wouldn’t have pursued that job.”
Then, about a month ago, as Wright’s tenure at Turner was winding down (he had offered to stay on until the end of the summer), Spielberg mentioned the idea of him running his feature company. Spielberg had been looking to replace Stacey Snider, who had been eyeing a job at 20th Century Fox. The two began discussing the future of DreamWorks, which has gone through a rough patch with several underperforming movies. The two realized “how much of shared point of view on storytelling and the business” they had, Wright said, leading to this hire.
What is the future of Reliance-backed DreamWorks, which has pared down the number of movies it puts out with no big commercial hits since The Help and Lincoln? “It’s about going back to the company’s roots in Steven Spielberg’s brand and his vision as one of the most trusted and beloved storytellers in the world,” Wright said. Spielberg is behind some of the biggest blockbusters: Jaws, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, the Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park franchises. Amblin TV’s successful sci-fi series Falling Skies kicked off TNT’s action-adventure Sunday night, which just welcomed another breakout, The Last Ship. This is a type of fare Wright is attached to. “I have, and very proudly so, commercial instincts,” he said. “I love to sit in a theater and root for a hero, be taken on a great ride and be entertained, and I think you can expect us to bring that energy to the studio.”
Wright doesn’t like the “popcorn” moniker associated with some of Spielberg’s movies as well as TNT series he’d commissioned. He borrowed a quote used by Spielberg in reference to his film Minority Report, that “it is popcorn but it’s gourmet popcorn.” “You can expect us to take that approach,” Wright said. “We live in scary, troubled times, and I think films should be there to entertain, uplift and transport people.” At the same time, “that doesn’t mean we won’t take on tough subject matter or do something surprising and darker when its appropriate. But are we going to embrace that enthusiasm for great stories that entertain people and take audiences on a thrilling ride — you bet, absolutely.”
Wright wouldn’t discuss the volume plans at DreamWorks, which had been releasing two movies a year for the past couple of years, including Need For Speed and The Hundred-Foot Journey this year. But he welcomes a slower pace than TV with far fewer projects after spending the past half-decade managing hundreds of hours of programming a year, a task he called “exciting but also mind-numbing at times.” He has some cushion as the studio has its next two movies — Spielberg’s Cold War spy thriller and The Light Between Oceans –– well in the pipeline.
Wright’s duties are strictly on the film side, with Amblin TV operating independently. But Wright expects to continue to talk to Frank and Falvey and look for ways to help each one another. Amblin TV is shopping a major series project based on the DreamWorks feature property Minority Report.
Wright is looking forward to going on vacation after not taking more than two weeks off during the past 25 years. But before starting at DreamWorks on January 3, he will spend most of the next four months learning about the film business and his new company. “I’m planning to read every single bit of paper, every script and every deal I can get my hands on that has to do with DreamWorks,” he said. “My first job walking through the door is to listen and get to know people, what they are excited about.”
At the top of the list of people Wright wants to talk to in preparing for the job is outgoing CEO Snider, who he said had been “incredibly encouraging and supportive” of him.
Would he reach out to any of the scores of TV executives who tried the transition to features before him and didn’t succeed? Making it in films has proven a daunting task even for the most successful TV executives, going back to Brandon Tartikoff. Wright is very aware of that. “I’m coming to this job with equal parts confidence and humility,” he said. His confidence comes from his lengthy experience telling stories and working with talent, skills that he believes transfer between platforms. But he knows he has a big learning curve ahead of him. “So I come to this with a fair amount of humility and a pretty great sense of humor about it,” he said.