Born February 21, 1943, in Brooklyn, NY; son of Abraham (a pattern maker) and Batya (a corset manufacturer; maiden name, Volovskaya) Geffen. Education: Attended University of Texas at Austin and Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. Addresses: Office--Geffen Records, 9130 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90069.
Recording executive David Geffen is a phenomenon even by Hollywood's inflated standards. The wealthiest man in the entertainment industry, Geffen has displayed an uncanny assessment of musical talent and sharp business maneuvers. Though his list of money-making projects includes comedy films and real estate, Geffen remains best known for his work in the music industry. He has proven pivotal in the careers of a diverse group of artists, from folk artists to album-oriented rock acts to modern metal groups.
Geffen became a precocious wunderkind in the late 1960s, when he earned his first million dollars at the age of 25. He became successful because he could identify, advise, and guide potential superstar musicians. In later years he has retained his hold on an industry that caters to young people by delegating the responsibility for signing new talent to a small group of younger subordinates. Vanity Fair contributor Annie Leibovitz suggested that the difference between Geffen and traditional recording industry executives is that Geffen understands the artistic as well as the financial aspects of the business. "He really is friends with the talent that made him his fortune," Leibovitz wrote. "He can talk music and movies and theater with creative artists, and he understands their process."
Geffen has fondly called himself "just a boy from Brooklyn who wishes he were six feet tall, with blond hair and blue eyes," as quoted in Vanity Fair. Fantasizing was certainly important to the son of Russian immigrants who grew up in a three-room apartment. Geffen was born on February 21, 1943, in Brooklyn, New York. His father, a pattern maker, was often unemployed; his mother, Batya, supported the family by making corsets and brassieres and selling them from her home. Batya was so successful that she was eventually able to buy a building big enough for her store and several other tenants as well. "My mother in her own tiny, little way was entrepreneurial," Geffen stated in the New York Times Magazine. "Everything that I've ever applied in my life I learned hanging around her store.... I grew up learning my mother's ideas about integrity and business and negotiating. It never occurred to me I'd be anything but a businessman."
Another world lured Geffen, however. He haunted the Brooklyn movie theaters, drawing inspiration from the lavish lifestyles of the stars, especially studio bosses like Louis B. Mayer and Jack Warner. In a Forbes profile, Geffen said, "I looked at these moguls and the world they created and figured it would be a fun way to make a living."
His ambitions notwithstanding, Geffen was an indifferent student who graduated from Brooklyn's New Utrecht High School in 1960 in the bottom ten percent of his class. The same day he earned his diploma, Geffen ventured west where he hoped to enter the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He was denied admission on the basis of poor grades, but was able to enroll at the University of Texas at Austin; he lasted only a semester before flunking out. He returned home to New York for an equally short stint at Brooklyn College.
Early jobs as an usher at the CBS television studios and as a receptionist for a television production company also ended disastrously--Geffen was fired both times. In 1964 he landed a job in the mail room at the William Morris Agency. In order to be considered for the position he had to lie about his college background. He told personnel at William Morris that he had graduated from UCLA. When he discovered that the agency planned to contact UCLA to corroborate his story, the resourceful Geffen kept watch in the mailroom for four months, until he was able to retrieve the college's reply. He steamed the letter open, took it to a printer, had the letterhead forged, and created his own academic credentials. Geffen told a New York Times reporter that, "It was either give William Morris what they wanted or give up my dreams.... I just don't believe in taking no for an answer."
Taking advice from the head of the William Morris music office, Geffen began scouting talent among his own age group--especially musicians. He proved to have a good ear, and the agency promoted him to junior agent after 18 months. In 1968 Geffen moved to the less staid Ashley Famous Agency, where he worked with such powerhouse groups as the Doors and Peter, Paul, and Mary. Leibovitz noted that Geffen quickly became a "Talent Scout Extraordinaire" with "the best instincts about people."
Those instincts blossomed in the early 1970s, when Geffen and partner Elliot Roberts formed a record label, Asylum Records, supported by their own management company. They produced records with such artists as Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, the Eagles, and Linda Ronstadt, all of whom enjoyed great success with the label. In 1971 Geffen sold Asylum to Warner Communications for $7 million but kept his position as director of the company. Two years later, Warner asked him to head the struggling Elektra subsidiary. Geffen dropped two-thirds of Elektra's artists and signed new talent. Soon both Asylum and Elektra were thriving.
A brief and less-than-successful stint as vice-chair of Warner Brothers Pictures convinced Geffen that he was not suited for the standard bureaucracy of Hollywood filmmaking. His career came to an abrupt halt in 1976 when he was misdiagnosed with bladder cancer. Convinced he was fatally ill, he left the business for the less taxing work of teaching at Yale University and UCLA. Four years passed before doctors in New York City reversed the prognosis on his illness. Relieved, Geffen resumed working in the recording industry.
Geffen subsequently founded Geffen Records, an independent label promoted and distributed by Warner Communications. Artists on the starting roster at the company's founding in 1980 included Donna Summer, Elton John, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono. An album by the latter couple, Double Fantasy, went triple platinum and won a Grammy Award for album of the year. Geffen was back in the game.
Always keen to good business, Geffen made a decision. "At the age of thirty-three I stopped signing acts," he disclosed in Vanity Fair. "I don't hold myself out to be a talent scout any longer. I'm too old." Despite Geffen's personal doubts, younger Geffen employees with somewhat radical tastes helped their leader stay at the forefront in pop music, signing acts like Guns N' Roses, Whitesnake, and Aerosmith. In the meantime, Geffen branched into musical theater, producing some major Broadway hits, including Cats, Little Shop of Horrors, Dreamgirls, and M. Butterfly.
By March of 1990 Geffen was responsible for 50 gold and 31 platinum albums. In a surprise move, he sold his label to MCA, Inc., for 10 million shares of stock. The decision proved momentous. Eight months later, MCA was sold to a Japanese company, Matsushita, for $6.1 billion. Geffen reaped a $170 million profit on the deal.
Vanity Fair's Leibovitz referred to David Geffen as, "The man who can fix things, who can smooth things over. The man who can get people placed and replaced. The man whose phone call has the effect of a corporation." An equally fitting tribute comes from the lyrics of Joni Mitchell's hit "A Free Man in Paris," written about Geffen. According to Mitchell's song, the tempestuous Geffen spends his days "stoking the starmaker machinery behind the popular song."
Turning his Midas touch toward the movie industry in 1994, Geffen along with Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg founded a new motion picture studio, called DreamWorks. By January 1995 the studio had sealed a $100 million deal with the American Broadcasting Company, and that year Microsoft executive Paul Allen purchased an 18.5 percent stake in the studio. Also in 1995, an animation studio was launched as a joint venture with Silicon Graphics.
DreamWorks by 1998 had released Saving Private Ryan, the first in what would become a progression of high grossing films. The animation studio released Antz and The Prince of Egypt. The studio merged with PDI computer animation in 2000, forming PDI/DreamWorks and producing Shrek, which in 2001 became the first film to win an Oscar for best animated feature. DreamWorks Animation SKG launched a $650 million public stock offering in 2004. Geffen, with a net worth estimated at $4.4 billion, was listed on Forbes's list of the wealthiest Americans in 2004 and ranked as the wealthiest person in the entertainment industry.
by Anne Janette Johnson
David Geffen's Career
Record company executive and film and theater producer. Mailroom worker and talent agent with William Morris Agency, New York City, 1964-68; talent agent, Ashley Famous Agency, 1968; executive vice-president and talent agent, Creative Management Associates, 1969. Founder, with Laura Nyro, and president of the music publishing company Tuna Fish; president of Asylum Records and Geffen-Roberts, Inc., 1970-71; sold company to Warner Communications, 1971, but retained position; merged Asylum with Elektra label, 1973; vice-president of Warner Brothers Pictures (film subsidiary), 1975; founded Geffen Records, 1980; sold company to MCA, 1990, but retained position. Producer of films, including Risky Business, 1983, and plays, including Cats, 1982--; cofounded DreamWorks Studio, 1994-- created spin-off company, DreamWorks Animation SKG, 2004--.
David Geffen's Awards
Produced more than 50 gold albums and 31 certified platinum albums, beginning in 1970; produced Oscar-winning films (live action and animated), including American Beauty, 1999; Gladiator, 2000; and Shrek, and A Beautiful Mind, 2001.
- Esquire, February 1975; November 1982.
- Forbes, April 14, 1980; December 24, 1990.
- GQ, March 1991.
- Los Angeles Times, November 15, 1991; March 3, 1992.
- Newsweek, November 20, 1972.
- New York, May 17, 1982; January 24, 1983.
- New York Times, October 3, 1982; October 31, 1982.
- New York Times Magazine, July 21, 1985.
- Rolling Stone, May 15, 1980; January 22, 1981; March 5, 1981.
- Time, February 25, 1974.
- Vanity Fair, March 1991.
- Variety, November 15, 2004, p. A2.
- Washington Post, May 6, 1982.