The notoriously press shy media mogul made a rare public appearance in connection with an upcoming PBS documentary about his life and career.
Looking relaxed and healthy in a white shirt, grey jeans and tennis shoes, he spoke to press at the Television Critics Association summer press tour in conjunction with “Inventing David Geffen,” an American Masters documentary slated to premiere November 20.
But his answers were terse and his demeanor mostly indifferent. “I don’t think about the past – I don’t like to reflect on my career, or talk about myself. I avoid it as much as possible,” said the co-founder of Dreamworks (he has since left the studio), who was clearly present as a favor to the filmmaker, American Masters exec producer Susan Lacy, who sat beside him. Lacy said Geffen had flown in just for the occasion from Sardinia, where he keeps a yacht.
About the documentary, he said, “I was happy with it. I looked at all that it covered, the things I’d done, and I said, 'wow.' I was impressed. But I had no input, other than answering questions. I didn’t give them a list of who to interview, or try to have any impact.”
In the doc, Tom Hanks describes Geffen as “ruthlessly honest” and Warren Beatty calls him “giftedly undiplomatic.” Geffen demonstrated those traits in his blunt back and forth with the press.
Asked if he had any ideas for curing what ails the music industry, Geffen said “I have no ideas.” Asked if there was a job in showbusiness he’d consider today, the multi-billionaire said, “I’m 69. I don’t want a job.”
Geffen said that he was a big fan of PBS’s American Masters series (“I watched the one on Jerome Robbins ten times”) and that he’d agreed to the film on his life because “I was flattered,” but added, “I didn’t think I fit the category.”
He described his ascension in the music business – he founded Asylum Records and helped to shape the influential California singer-songwriter stable that included Crosby, Stills Nash & Young, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne and the Eagles – as almost accidental. When he started in the mailroom of the William Morris Agency in the mid-1960s, “I wanted to be in the movie business,” he said, but an older agent suggested that he go into music, where his youth (he was 21) would be an asset.
Geffen said he wasn’t always accurate in his assessments of star potential. Dragged along to hear Simon & Garfunkel at a very early appearance at Gerde’s Folk City, he was unimpressed, and advised Garfunkel to “stay in school.”
Asked to assess changes in the movie industry, Geffen cited a decline in the importance of stars to generating bo xoffice. “Movies like 'The Avengers' and 'Avatar' are not star-driven. It’s the story that’s more important now.”
He said the decline in DVD revenues caused by the advent of streaming and subscription models had completely up-ended the business model, and that, while the entertainment industry would continue to be vibrant and “emotionally important,” he predicted that it would be “dramatically less profitable” in the future.