A Closer Look at Steven Spielberg: The Producer

     March 28, 2018

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Steven Spielberg is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. With prodigious talent, the director has arguably brought to the screen more iconic films than any other filmmaker, vacillating between genres to great success. But Spielberg’s talent behind the camera isn’t limited to just one job. He wrote the screenplays for his films Close Encounters of the Third Kind and A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, but there’s an aspect to Spielberg’s career that goes somewhat underrated: his producing efforts.

Indeed, while Spielberg has been directing movies since 1964, once his career really took off with the one-two punch of The Sugarland Express and Jaws in the mid-70s, he didn’t wait long before using his name as leverage to get other projects made by other filmmakers. If you combine projects that Spielberg directed with those he produced, one could make the argument that he’s one of (if not the) most influential people in cinematic history, shaping the landscape, carving the path for future filmmakers, and creating lasting memories for moviegoers the world over.

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Photo by
Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros.

One of Spielberg’s first executive producer credits came in 1980 with Used Cars. The film was directed by Robert Zemeckis, who co-wrote the script with Bob Gale, but the idea for the story actually originated with producer John Milius. He and Spielberg had always wanted to make a movie about a used car salesman outside Las Vegas, so when Zemeckis and Gale were writing the script for 1941 for Spielberg, Milius pitched the idea for Used Cars.

Zemeckis was already on Spielberg’s radar, as the Jaws filmmaker sparked to a student film Zemeckis made called A Field of Honor while at USC. Spielberg subsequently became his mentor, executive producing Zemeckis’ debut I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Used Cars while also enlisting Zemeckis and Gale to write 1941. This mentorship role is something Spielberg would revisit time and again throughout his career as a producer, and while 1941’s reception tanked Zemeckis and Gale’s chances of getting Back to the Future off the ground for the time-being, once Zemeckis had a hit with Romancing the Stone the idea was revisited and Spielberg executive produced.

Back to the Future was, of course, a massive hit, and as Spielberg’s production company Amblin Entertainment ramped up, so too did his career as a producer. He would reteam with Zemeckis on 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, for which Spielberg wielded his influence to convince various rival studios to license their characters.

But Zemeckis was far from the last filmmaker Spielberg would mentor as a producer. One of Amblin Entertainment’s first films was 1984’s Gremlins, which came about when Chris Columbus’ script came across Spielberg’s desk. Now a bona fide hit-maker with films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. under his belt, Spielberg had a greater amount of influence. He hand-selected Joe Dante to direct Gremlins, based on the strength of The Howling and with whom Spielberg had already worked on Twilight Zone: The Movie, which Spielberg produced unconnected to Amblin. Spielberg would go on to produce Dante’s 1987 film Innerspace as well as 1990’s Gremlins 2: The New Batch.

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Image via MGM/UA Entertainment Co.

Also unconnected to Amblin was 1982’s Poltergeist, which is perhaps one of the most notable films Spielberg ever produced. The film was released mere weeks away from Spielberg’s own E.T., and due to a stipulation in his Universal contract, Spielberg was prevented from directing any other film while preparing E.T.. Thus while he has a “story by” credit and produced, Texas Chain Saw Massacre director Tobe Hooper was selected to direct. Spielberg had a strong hand on set and multiple members of the film’s cast and crew have said over the years that Spielberg essentially directed the movie, so while this is a “Produced by” film in Spielberg’s career, it’s also not-so-secretly one of his films as a director.

But juggling the producer and director jobs at the same time soon became the norm, as Spielberg made his producing debut on one of his own films with E.T., which he produced through Amblin. He began producing many of his own movies, from Always to Schindler’s List to Saving Private Ryan, and by the mid 2000s it became more rare for Spielberg to not produce his directorial efforts than the other way around. This was a mix of a few factors. Not only had Spielberg co-created his own movie studio in DreamWorks, but he was developing a number of projects at the same time, and in order to develop projects he would first need to buy them. Thus, as an owner of the project, he would serve as producer. Rarely was Spielberg enlisted as a “director for hire,” and even then he’d make a producer credit part of his deal to retain complete creative control.

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Image via HBO

While Spielberg kept busy on the feature side, he’s also been firmly entrenched in television for decades. It’s where he got his start, but in the mid-1980s he launched a TV series of his own called Amazing Stories. This was an NBC anthology series in the vein of The Twilight Zone, and while it won five Emmys and was a critical hit, it struggled in the ratings. This would become a hallmark of Spielberg’s TV projects, which also included 1993’s SeaQuest 2032, the 2002 sci-fi event Taken, and short-lived shows like Terra Nova, The River, and Under the Dome. Spielberg’s biggest TV success has been with HBO, teaming with Tom Hanks to produce the World War II miniseries Band of Brothers and The Pacific. But beyond that, while Spielberg continues to executive produce a litany of TV series (mostly sci-fi), a fair share of them either don’t last long or fail to grow beyond a cult audience.

And then there’s Spielberg’s animation credits. In the mid-80s, as the filmmaker’s star was rising to massive heights, Spielberg turned his attention to making cartoons. His studio Amblin Entertainment teamed up with Warner Bros. Animation to create animated TV series that would go down in history as iconic: Animaniacs, Tiny Toon Adventures, Pinky and the Brain, Freakazoid!, and Toonsylvania. These scratched an itch for Spielberg, and while he wouldn’t direct a fully animated film until 2011’s The Adventures of Tintin, he did produce Don Bluth’s animated features An American Tale and The Land Before Time in a bid to rival Disney’s output in the mid to late 80s—and it worked! Disney hit a fallow period while An American Tale and The Land Before Time were huge successes. Of course Disney would answer with their own renaissance that began with The Little Mermaid, but it was a nice moment for Bluth and Spielberg.

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Image via Paramount Pictures

The mentorship relationship continued in the 2000s, from serving as an executive producer on filmmaker D.J. Caruso’s Disturbia and Eagle Eye to teaming up with J.J. Abrams on Super 8, Spielberg brought his knowledge and influence to help develop the careers of those he saw as promising. But he also teamed up with established filmmakers, producing Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers after initially considering directing the WWII drama himself, and also serving as an executive producer on Transformers where he hand selected Michael Bay to direct.

Spielberg’s influence on the first Transformers is pretty significant, including the casting of Shia LaBeouf—a young actor Spielberg sought to mentor through films like Disturbia, Transformers, and famously Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. You can feel Spielberg’s hand pretty heavily in the first Transformers movie, and far less so in the incoherent sequels—which Spielberg also executive produced.

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