“Are you interested in buying our paper,” the TV critic from the Minneapolis Star Tribune asked billionaire David Geffen at Summer TV Press Tour 2012.
Geffen was there to answer critics’ questions about PBS’s upcoming “American Masters” broadcast, “Inventing David Geffen.” Geffen, for the uninitiated, is a former William Morris agent, Asylum-founding recording industry mogul turned DreamWorks-co-founding movie mogul – who, incidentally, flirted with buying the New York Times, and was said to have been kicking the tires on the Los Angeles Times as well.
“I know that you’d like to own a newspaper and –“ the critic continued.
“I tried to buy one and failed,” Geffen corrected brusquely.
Asked if he was still looking at buying the Los Angeles Times, Geffen again corrected: “I tried to buy the New York Times. I actually didn’t try to buy the L.A. Times — I tried to look at the books of the L.A. Times.”
“Do you have any interest in owning a newspaper now,” the hopeful newspaper journalists persevered.
“No.” Geffen said, casting a pall over the Beverly Hilton ballroon in Beverly Hills, CA, where Summer TV Press Tour 2012 is happening now.
“I guess he’s not going to buy your newspaper,” “American Masters” exec producer Susan Lacy said, trying hard to steer the subject back to her show.
It wasn’t easy; Geffen wasn’t much help.
When someone from the Jewish Journal asked him about his “Jewish background” and how it influenced his “commitment to philanthropy,” Geffen said his parents were “socialists” so he was bar mitzvahed but “didn’t have much of a religious life at all,” and they were poor, so they weren’t philanthropists.
“Does that not answer your question?” he said, like he meant it to sting.
Lacy, hoping to salvage the session, jumped in with “one of the stories I wasn’t able to tell in the film, because there is a [time] limit…”
“Let’s not go there,” Geffen shot at her.
“Never mind,” Lacy said.
“She wanted me to talk about how my mother’s family was killed. Let’s not,” Geffen explained to the TV critics, shaking his head disgustedly.
“By the Nazis,” Lacy added, apologetically.
And so, the long day wore on.
“Why were you driven?” asked one critic.
“Meet my mother,” said Geffen.
“Of all the artists you have helped — Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Joni Mitchell, …who was your favorite?
“I don’t have a favorite,” said Geffen.
“Is there one that you have a special story about, or a special memory?”
“I have special memories about all of them,” said Geffen.
“You’re no longer so involved in the day to day activities of DreamWorks—“ one critic started.
“I’m not involved in DreamWorks at all,” Geffen shot back.
Lacy volunteered that Geffen was able to put together $2 billion in just a week in order to launch DreamWorks, and asked Geffen “would you be able to put that together now?
“Impossible,” he said, then clarified, “It’s not possible.”
That held them for a while, though, at some point, some reckless critic tried to have another whack at the DreamWorks question, asking “You said you’re absolutely not involved in DreamWorks. Does that mean you have not seen ‘Lincoln’?”
“I have not seen ‘Lincoln,’ Geffen confirmed, adding, “I hear it’s wonderful” -- though that may be because, he said in passing a few minutes later, “I still own, I think, four or five million shares of DreamWorks Animation – actually I don’t own them myself. They’re owned by my foundation.”
One critic wondered about the famous people/former clients like Tom Hanks and Warren Beatty, seen in a clip from the show, who noted Geffen is famously brusque, blunt, and “non-diplomatic” – and whether he was “fearless” when he heard these comments.
“I had nothing to do with that. I have no impact on this film whatsoever,” he said.
“Did you find that you learned anything about yourself during this process making the film?” someone asked.
“You watch yourself get old and bald. That’s a sobering experience,” he responded.
Critics did learn that Geffen originally wanted to break into the movie business but, while working in the mailroom at William Morris, he mentioned it to the agent in charge of the “rock and roll department” who said, “Really? You think Norman Jewison is going to sign with you? If I were you, I would go in the music business. Mick Jagger is 21.”
So he did.
Later, critics tried to wind Geffen’s way back to the notion of buying a newspaper. One wondered “How you see the newspaper industry now.”
“I was not looking to be a newspaper owner as an investment. I was going to buy the New York Times out of my foundation and make it a nonprofit because I think the New York Times is essential,” he said.
“The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal are national newspapers… Friends of mine who work for the New York Times are constantly telling me how much they are cutting budgets and everything, and I thought I could do something that would be worthwhile, and keep the New York Times as strong as possible. I think the New York Times is a very important newspaper.”
One critic suggested he had started a “trend” of billionaires buying newspapers, and wondered what he had to say abouat that.
“I hope they make a lot of money. What can I tell you? I have no feeling about what other people do.”
Another critic tried to get Geffen to comment on the cacophony of TV shows that purport to be looking for new recording stars, asking if he had “any other ideas for doing something new in the music industry?”
“I have no ideas, none whatsoever,” he said, ending that talk.
Another stepped into the whole “Joni Mitchell wrote ‘You’re So Vain’About Which Guy” question.
“A few years ago, Carly Simon outed you as the person –“
“That’s simply not true,” Geffen interrupted. “Not to say I’m not vain. But I not her vain.”
“What did you think when you heard the story, that you were the subject of the [song]?”
“I thought the same thing about it as when I heard the story that I married Keanu Reeves, who I had never met. You’re a journalist – you know about this.”
How about when Joni Mitchell said he was the subject of her “Free Man in Paris,” someone in the room asked.
“She did write that about me. One out of three — yeah,” Geffen snarked.
“That’s good journalism,” the critic said, but not with any conviction.