We all know that Steven Spielberg floats at the top of the Hollywood food chain. He’s Hollywood’s most reliable director brand, and can get movies made that would never get a greenlight anywhere else — like Oscar-winning historical drama “Lincoln.” His next move? A high-profile Pentagon Papers film rumored to star Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep that Variety reports will open on December 22, and will inevitably be an Oscar contender.
How does he keep his enviable status, even at age 70?
1. Steven does what Steven wants.
Spielberg is a moving target, even for those at Amblin Entertainment who work closely with him every day. While he’s worth some $3 billion and likes to make money, his directing choices are driven by a complicated set of variables. He seeks to avoid any risk of failure. It all depends on where his confidence — and artistic drive — takes him. Is he ready to direct a commercial sequel (Disney’s “Indiana Jones 5” brings back Harrison Ford for one last bout in the title role for 2019) or a tentpole packed with innovative VFX (Warner Bros.’ videogame sci-fi adventure “Ready Player One” is in a year-long post-production phase for March 2018) or throw his weight into the Oscar race with Watergate-era “The Post,” which for the moment is his next movie?
2. He keeps his options open.
He likes to change his mind. Wondering where Spielberg is going to land is a Hollywood parlor game. He routinely balances producing and directing, television and movies, mass audience consumer and highbrow fare, and often juggles many stages of production at a time. He often decides to withdraw from directing a movie in favor of producing (see “Jurassic Park” sequels). And he’s produced a number of TV series (“The Pacific,” “Extant,” “Falling Skies,” “Under the Dome”) and documentaries (Netflix’s new “Five Came Back”) along with his features.
3. Liberal values are near to his heart.
Zeitgeist politics seem to be weighing heavily on the director, who leans Left. Pushed to the front of his directing queue — and without any complex VFX — is producer Amy Pascal’s “The Post” (Twentieth Century Fox), a resonant story given our current political climate about The Washington Post’s decision in 1971 to publish Nixon administration whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg’s leak of The Pentagon Papers.
Marking his fifth teaming with Spielberg, Tom Hanks will play Post editor Benjamin Bradlee and Meryl Streep his boss, the paper’s publisher Katharine Graham. (Streep also narrates Spielberg’s Netflix documentary production “Five Came Back.”)
Down the pike is producer J.J. Abrams’ Paramount Syrian refugee drama “A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea,” based on Melissa Fleming’s non-fiction book.
4. He loves the drama of World War II.
Since “1941,” one of his few box office bombs, Spielberg has been attracted to the second World War. “Saving Private Ryan,” “Empire of the Sun,” documentary “The Last Days,” HBO’s “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific,” and the three-part Netflix documentary “Five Came Back,” based on Mark Harris’s book about five top Hollywood directors who documented that war, reflect his fascination with that dramatic conflict. He also cares deeply about the Holocaust, as Oscar-winner “Schindler’s List” and his longstanding work with the Shoah Foundation attest.
5. He loves biopics.
Never one to pull the trigger without thinking it through, Spielberg likes to store favorite projects in his trunk. You never know where his enthusiasm is going to land – “Lincoln” took years to come to fruition. He’s been sitting on a number of notable biopics for years. Subjects include Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes, Teddy Roosevelt, George Gershwin, and Charles Lindbergh.
6. Having Spielberg attached to a movie isn’t always a good thing.
While many writers and producers fantasize about getting Spielberg to back their movie, gaining his interest can be risky. Ask the people who were in pre-production on DreamWorks’ sci-fi movie “Robapocalypse,” written by Drew Goddard (“The Martian”) and starring Chris Hemsworth and Anne Hathaway. Only weeks before the start date, Spielberg suddenly decided that the script needed more development. Some wonder if he will ever commit to a long-promised Tintin sequel, or that long-planned adaptation of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.”
“The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara” was supposed to be Spielberg’s next. Adapted by “Lincoln” writer Tony Kushner from the novel by David I. Kertzer, the story of a young Jewish Italian boy forced to be raised as a Catholic is close to Spielberg’s heart and has been on his docket for a while. “Bridge of Spies” and “The BFG” star Mark Rylance is attached to star, but Spielberg recently lost key cast member Oscar Isaac and is still trawling the world for the right kid.
If Spielberg doesn’t get to it, Harvey Weinstein and producer Julia Chasman could complete their rival film version first. That’s what happened with Ava DuVernay’s “Selma,” which beat out Spielberg’s long gestating Martin Luther King bio, landing a Best Picture nomination and Best Song win.
Sign up for Thompson on Hollywood email newsletters here.