AIB Featured Business Leader – David Geffen

AIB Featured Business Leader – David Geffen


One of the entertainment moguls behind DreamWorks Pictures, David Geffen is worth $US6.7 billion, and is one of the most powerful men in the entertainment industry. These days, however, his focus is on appreciating the arts rather than making it. Born in 1943, his is a career that has gone from strength to strength, paved with business acumen and an eagle eye for a good piece of art – but it started with an untruth.

Geffen didn’t grow up particularly academic, graduating from high school with a 66% average. He went to the University of Texas, then to Brooklyn College and lastly to Santa Monica City College, lasting at each only a semester before dropping out.

Moving to California, Geffen found a job in the mailroom at the famous William Morris Talent Agency, but his real break came when he applied for a position as a talent agent. He had heard the agents on the phone, and realised that he had a talent for fast talk that matched theirs. But there was one problem. In order to qualify for the position, he had to prove that he was a university graduate. He claimed to have graduated from the University of California (UCLA), intercepted the UCA letter that arrived at the agency telling the real story, and modified it to support his claim. He got the job.

After a few years at William Morris, Geffen left to become a personal manager, launching up and coming stars like Crosby, Stills and Nash. Interviewed later, Crosby remembered running with the young Geffen because the band wanted ‘a shark’ and his energy and drive promised just that. Gaffe picked up a number of other stars, including Jackson Browne. But when he was unable to land a record deal for Browne, he launched his own label, and in 1970, Asylum Records was born. Asylum – so called because it was intended to represent a refuge for artists left out in the cold – signed a series of huge names, from the Eagles, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell to Tom Waits and Linda Ronstadt. In 1975, he sold the company and went to work for Warners Bros, leaving a few years later to found Geffen Records. There again, he picked up successful artists and made successes out of new ones. Geffen’s first release was Donna Summer’s The Wanderer, and the label included Cher, Peter Gabriel and Don Henley throughout the eighties.

Geffen sold Geffen Records in 1990 for $550 million in stock, under a deal that saw him continue as the label head through to 1995. In 1991, Geffen signed Nirvana, whose debut album Nevermind launched the grunge era and catapulted the band, and the record label, to new heights.

At the same time, he had established Geffen Films, his own film company which sponsored such hits as Interview with a Vampire and Beetlejuice. In 1995, when Geffen stepped down from Geffen Records for good, he partnered with Hollywood heavyweights Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg to found DreamWorks SKG. The three of them raised a staggering $2 billion in one week in order to start the company, an amount that Geffen says would be “impossible” today.  DreamWorks is well known for its string of hits, including Saving Private Ryan and Antz.

Geffen retired from the entertainment business in 2008 when he left DreamWorks, and has devoted his later years to focusing on other investments. He boasts a museum-quality art collection, with pieces by Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning amongst them, and until this year, lived in a compound known as ‘Billionaire Beach’ – once owned by Doris Day – in Malibu Beach. He has since sold the property, moving back to New York for the first time in forty years.

Geffen came out as gay in the early 1980s, and has made the health and wellbeing of the gay community one of his philanthropic priorities. Amongst his endowments are $2.5 million to Los Angeles’ AIDS Project, as well as another $2.5 million to New York City’s Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and $1.4 million to AIDS Action in Washington, DC.

And although Geffen may not be the university alumnus that he claimed to be in that fateful interview, he has repaid the educational sector nonetheless. In 2002, he announced a $200-million donation to UCLA medical school, the largest single donation to a US medical school in history. The school will be named The David Geffen School of Medicine. The campus already includes The Geffen Playhouse, which was named after him when he donated $6 million to the university. In 2015, he also donated $100M to the iconic Avery Fisher Hall at the Lincoln Center, which has been renamed David Geffen Hall in reciprocation. This is part of a deliberate strategy to leave a legacy behind, Geffen – who is childless – has explained, making it a term of the endowment that his name endures in perpetuity. It’s a legacy that nobody is likely to forget.

This article was written by Tanya Ashworth-Keppel on behalf of the Australian Institute of Business. All opinions are that of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of AIB. The following sources were used to compile this article: Business Insider, New York Times, New York Times, Rock Hall, Biography, Billboard and Forbes.

Image Credit: Hollywood Reporter

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