Spielberg, Steven

Steven Spielberg (1946- ) is one of Hollywood's most influential and successful film directors and co-founder of DreamWorks SKG. Among his most popular and critically-acclaimed films are <em>Jaws, E.T., The Color Purple, Raiders of the Lost Ark </em>, and <em> Jurassic Park </em> ( <em>Jaws </em>was the first Hollywood blockbuster movie). After <em>Schindler's List </em> he founded the first organization focused on collecting historical testimonies and writings from Holocaust survivors "“ the Shoah Foundation. He has also used the profits of <em>Schindler's List </em>to grant money to Holocaust memorial efforts through his Righteous Persons Foundation.

Biographical Highlights

Steven Spielberg (1946- ) is one of history's most influential Hollywood film directors, as well as a producer, writer, and movie mogul. Throughout the film industry, Spielberg has earned tremendous success from movies such as Jaws and E.T. In fact, it was Spielberg's movie Jaws that marked the beginning of the Hollywood blockbuster movie genre.

Spielberg began his philanthropic contributions to society after directing the controversial film Schindler's List . After its completion, Spielberg founded the first organization primarily focused on collecting historical testimonies and writings from survivors of the Holocaust - the Shoah Foundation. Besides his involvement in the foundation, he has used the profits of Schindler's List to grant money to Holocaust memorial efforts through his other charitable organization, the Righteous Persons Foundation. Even with the cost of beginning these foundations, Spielberg was able to fulfill an ambitious goal, the founding of a new production studio and music company, DreamWorks SKG, with entertainment industry giants, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen.

Historic Roots

Steven Spielberg was born on 18 December 1946 in Cincinnati, Ohio, to Arnold Spielberg and Leah Adler. Arnold was an electrical engineer who had lost relatives in the Holocaust. Leah was a pianist and restaurateur. Steven is the oldest of four children and his parents' only son. He grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey from 1946-52. After a move to Phoenix, Arizona, in 1952, Spielberg realized the importance of filmmaking and movies in his life.

At the age of eleven, Spielberg directed his first amateur film. In fact, he and his sister charged local neighborhood children to see the first movie he created. The Last Train Wreck lasted only three minutes, but it was the beginning of a tremendous movie career. A year later, he proceeded to make films with growing complexity. He directed The Last Gunfight, A Day in the Life of Thunder, Fighter Squad, Film Noir, and Scary Hollow . These films not only had actors but challenging scripts as well.

It was in 1964, at the age of eighteen, that Spielberg produced Firelight . The movie told a story of mysterious aliens coming to earth to abduct humans for a holding zoo in their strange world (Rubin 2001). The film was made, in typical home movie fashion, with actors consisting of family, friends, and members of the Arcadia High School drama club. Yet, in an effort to fill other adult roles in the film, the ambitious Spielberg recruited students from drama classes at Arizona State University (Ibid.). Firelight was also the movie with which his sister, Anne Spielberg, began her film career. She contributed to the film through scriptwriting and the casting of actors.

After the premiere of Firelight , the Spielberg family moved to California. Spielberg applied to several film schools but was denied entrance due to his poor grades (McBride 1997). So he attended California State Long Beach in the fall of 1965 to study English. One year later, his parents, Arnold and Leah, divorced.

Even with the difficulties of a divorced family, Spielberg continued his devotion to the production of films. In 1968, he directed and produced Amblin , which was only twenty-four minutes long but catapulted him into the film industry. The movie received an award at the Atlanta Film Festival. The film was later seen by one of the Universal Studios executives who signed Spielberg to a seven-year contract in the television division. After signing the contract, Spielberg left college to pursue his interest as a director and producer of television and films.

Throughout the years to follow, Spielberg directed several television shows including portions of Night Gallery , Marcus Welby MD, and Columbo. It was not until the TV movie Duel that he began to be known throughout the film community as a "wonderkid" (Rubin 2001). Duel was so successful on television, that it was later released in theaters throughout Europe and the United States.

Jaws was released two years later in 1975. The film broke box office records and was the beginning of movie blockbusters in the United States (Ibid.). It captured not only the horror of the great white shark, but it fueled fear of the ocean animal in many beach goers' hearts.

The Academy of Motion Art failed to recognize Spielberg for the movie Jaws , but the film definitely propelled him into the film industry spotlight. Close Encounters of the Third Kind began Spielberg's long history with the Academy Awards; for the movie, he received his first three Oscar nominations. Spielberg did not win best director, but the movie did gain recognition on sound effects and cinematography. Although upset about not receiving the award, he later commented that "it is not my last goal. Making movies until your teeth fall out" is what I will continue to do (Ibid.).

Throughout the next eight years, Spielberg made several movies that led the blockbuster phenomenon, including Poltergeist and E.T.: the Extra-terrestrial. These movies spurred more Academy Award nominations, and E.T. became the largest domestic moneymaker of all time. Spielberg also teamed up with friend George Lucas on several projects including the Indiana Jones series.

In 1982, Spielberg formed Amblin Entertainment, a production studio that worked with several other major studios in an effort to produce major films (Ibid.). A number of Amblin's projects were incredibly successful, including Back to the Future, The Color Purple, and Gremlins.

Spielberg married Amy Irving in fall 1985, six months after the birth of their son Max (McBride 1997). The marriage lasted four years, until 1989 when they divorced. Though, Spielberg remarried in 1991 to actress Kate Capshaw, who starred in his film Raiders of the Lost Ark . The couple later adopted and conceived seven children.

In 1993, Spielberg released one of the biggest blockbusters of the nineties. Jurassic Park was an incredible depiction of dinosaurs still living on an island. The movie grossed millions of dollars and fully developed the special effects capabilities films can capture.

Even after the tremendous success of Jurassic Park , Spielberg wanted more. In the past, he had created films that represented some aspect of his childhood (Rubin 2001). He turned to this personal inspiration again, addressing an aspect of his life that he wanted to expose. With family relatives affected by the Holocaust, Spielberg felt the desire to direct and produce the novel Schindler's List . The movie brought to Spielberg new emotions. He later remarked that "the movie was for the six million Jews who" could not watch (Ibid.).

In the years to come, Spielberg released films such as Saving Private Ryan , The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Amistad, and others. In 1994, he also launched DreamWorks SKG, named after the founders, Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen. This was the first movie studio to open in the last seventy-five years and a company focused both on producing superior films and becoming a music entertainment powerhouse. The artist-friendly studio "is a leading producer of live-action motion pictures, animated feature films, network and cable television programming, home video, and DVD entertainment and consumer products" (DreamWorks SKG).


Spielberg's contribution to the American film industry is substantial. The concept of the blockbuster movie was begun and fueled by Spielberg's tremendously successful movies that spanned decades. From Jaws to Saving Private Ryan , Spielberg has brought great films to theatres while connecting with the emotions of his viewers and resurfacing historical issues such as racism ( Color Purple and Amistad ) and Nazism ( Schindler's List ).

In particular, the issues that Spielberg addresses throughout his films enable the audience and those affected by such horror, to relive and remember the importance of such historical events. These movies also serve as a learning experience for the audience, from the strife and strong human perseverance that was present during trying times in American and world history.

More integral throughout his career, Spielberg shows he is a dreamer of imagination. By relating to his childhood, he is able to replicate onscreen the magical discoveries and dreams he had growing up as a little boy. He is able to take the audience for a trip into the eyes of the actors as they experience thrills, horrors, and the wonders that all of us have had at one time or another.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Spielberg remarked once that "my name is on a couple of buildings because in a way that's a fundraiser. But eighty percent of what I do is anonymous. I get so much pleasure from that" (McBride 1997). In fact, Spielberg stated once that a rabbi told him if he "puts his name on everything, it will go unrecognized by God" (Friedman 2000). Spielberg claims that a change in his giving and personality from a "miser to a philanthropist" stems from the influence of his friend Steve Ross (Ibid.). Ross was a Time Warner executive who taught Spielberg that he should contribute to causes that affected him; the causes that dealt with the complexities of his upbringing and life (Ibid.).

An early example of Spielberg's contributions to the community dates back to the beginning of his career as a movie director. In 1964, at the age of eighteen, Spielberg made his first film Firelight. Although the movie only profited one dollar, he gave the dollar to the Perry Institute Home for Mentally Handicapped Children (Rubin 2001).

Prizes for Spielberg's early films yielded him not only new film equipment, but also books and other gadgets for aspiring movie makers. Although humble in his winnings, Spielberg donated some of these prizes to local high schools in an effort to spark movie making and film interest in other students. This belief in passing on the passion was fueled after the Universal Pictures executive Sidney J. Sheinberg signed Spielberg to a contract with the production company. Sheinberg remarked to Spielberg that "he wanted him to help, in any way he can, young people like himself" (Ibid.). After success from his early blockbusters, Spielberg began to contribute immensely to the Los Angeles community. He gave a significant contribution to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in West Hollywood for pediatric medicine (McBride 1997). The grant was so significant that the hospital named a wing of the building after him. At the University of Southern California, Spielberg gave money to create a scoring stage to be used for first time producers, writers, and directors interested in furthering their understanding of film (Ibid.). Spielberg and his wife also bought eight acres of land in Brentwood, California, in an effort to save it from commercialized development. The land was given to the Sullivan Canyon Preservation Association so that horses can be exercised and free to roam (Schwinn 2003).

Spielberg's interest in themes and topics found throughout his movies also led to philanthropic contributions to organizations throughout the country. After the movie E.T. , Spielberg was fascinated with the topic of other life forms and their existence in the universe. He remarked that the movie was "going to be popular not because people were afraid of the phenomena, but because UFOs are a seductive alternative for a lot of people who no longer have faith in anything else" (McBride 1997). It was because of this faith in the possibility of extraterrestrial life that he donated $100,000 to The Planetary Society in 1985. The money was directed to the META (Mega-channel Extraterrestrial Assay) system that was used by a Harvard telescope to detect radio signals from distant civilizations (Ibid.).

It was his work on Schindler's List that sparked his greatest philanthropic contributions to date. After the film, Spielberg started several foundations to support the Jewish community and survivors of the Holocaust. The Righteous Persons Foundation was created from the profits of Schindler's List . It was reported that Spielberg began the foundation by donating $53 million ("Town and Country"). The foundation donates money to Jewish organizations and other historical projects that relate to the Holocaust (McBride 1997). He remarked once that he "could not keep the money profited from the movie [ Schindler's List ] because it was blood money" (Ibid.). The foundation has dispensed over $37 million to organizations including Spielberg's other major philanthropic venture, the Shoah Foundation (Dubner 1999).

The Shoah Foundation (Shoah means Holocaust in Hebrew) was begun in 1994 by Spielberg in an effort to document the historical context of Holocaust survivors. He stated that the purpose of the organization was to "capture the real stories from not only the individuals who lived it (mainly the Jewish population), but also those who experienced it first hand such as gypsies, homosexuals and other minorities that were affected by the Nazi regime" (Rubin 2001). Since 1994, the organization has captured over 50,000 testimonials and produced several CD-ROMs and movie documentaries to educate school children about the tragic event (Dubner 1999). Recently, the foundation stopped taking testimonials and began to focus on its new mission of overcoming prejudice, intolerance, and bigotry ("Shoah Foundation"). With this focus, more educational resources have been developed from the foundation's archives. Yearly, the foundation makes an award to an individual who exhibits the mission of the organization. In 2001, Spielberg commented that "the need for tolerance becomes increasingly urgent, thus the value of the Foundation's educational products and programs are clear" (Ibid.).

Yet, the organization is not fully funded by Spielberg; it seeks donations and grants from diverse funding sources. Spielberg commented that "he could write a check to fund the project" (Dubner 1999); however, he does not do so. Because the foundation relates to social studies programming in the U.S., he hopes broader interest and support for the organization's mission will help people gain knowledge from the accounts of people who lived through such times of grief. Spielberg feels these accounts also teach the strength, leadership, resilience, and devotion to one's culture and heritage that not only Jewish descendants can take from the testimonies. Some philanthropic scholars have viewed Spielberg's giving efforts as a "Revolution in Jewish Philanthropy" (Blum 1988).

The Jewish community is not the only interest that is close to Spielberg. He is the Chairman Emeritus for the STARBRIGHT Foundation which is dedicated to the development of projects that empower seriously ill children to combat the medical and emotional challenges they face (STARBRIGHT Foundation). The foundation supports these children by providing them with computer links to other hospitalized children (Carr 1998). These links include interactive entertainment programs and activities. Spielberg has enlisted several other major public figures to be involved in the organization including Norman Schwarzkopf and Troy Aikman. Spielberg commented that "we can give children a place where their imaginations can run free.it's not just about entertainment; it's unleashing the power of entertainment and emerging technologies to develop new tools to help these kids heal" (STARBRIGHT Foundation).

Key Related Ideas

  • Cinematography : T he art or science of motion picture photography.
  • Documentary : A factual film depicting actual events with real people and places.
  • Filmography : A detailed listing of films directed, produced, or written by a particular person.
  • The Holocaust
  • Movie blockbuster
  • Shoah : Holocaust, in Hebrew.

Important People Related to the Topic

  • Michael Berenbaum : Current president of the Shoah Foundation.
  • George Lucas : Famous American director, producer, and writer. Lucas is a long time Spielberg friend and was a collaborator on the Raiders of the Lost Ark series.
  • Oskar Schindler : An industrialist and member of the Czech Nazi Party during World War II. Schindler, the main focus in Spielberg's movie Schindler's List , saved thousands of Jews during the Holocaust from the concentration camp at Auschwitz.
  • Norman Schwarzkopf : Former General of the American Armed Forces. Schwarzkopf is the current Chairman for the STARBRIGHT Foundation capital campaign.
  • Sidney Sheinberg : Former president of Universal TV. Sheinberg signed Spielberg to his first contract in the entertainment industry. Sheinberg also inspired Spielberg to contribute to children and youth who want to excel in the film industry.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

Righteous Persons Foundation : Started from the profits of Schindler's List by Spielberg shortly after the film debuted. The foundation's focus is to fund Jewish community projects (Dubner 1999).

Shoah Foundation : The Shoah Foundation is a 501(c)(3) that was started by Spielberg in 1994 and has collected over 50,000 taped testimonies of survivors and other individuals involved in the Holocaust. The mission of the foundation is to overcome prejudice, intolerance, bigotry, and the suffering they cause through the educational use of the foundation's visual history testimonies ("Shoah Foundation").

STARBRIGHT Foundation : Chaired by Spielberg, the organization is devoted to the development of projects that empower seriously ill children to combat the medical and emotional challenges they face (STARBRIGHT Foundation).

Related Web Sites

The DreamWorks SKG Web site , at http://www.dreamworks.com , is a site that contains information about the production company's movies, music, and animation projects.

The STARBRIGHT Foundation Web site , at http://www.starbright.org , includes information about its goals, research, current projects, and news relative to the organization.

The Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation Web site , at http://www.vhf.org , contains information about the organization, its archives, current projects, and more.

Bibliography and Internet Sources

n.a. "Shoah Foundation Embarks on New Mission," Past Forward (Winter 2001): 2.

n.a. "'Town & Country': Hollywood Philanthropy," Chronicle of Philanthropy 13 (2001): 10, 69.

Blum, Debra E. and Steven G. Greene. "'Moment': A Revolution in Jewish Philanthropy," Chronicle of Philanthropy 11 (1988): 5, 39.

Carr, Jay. "Steven Spielberg's Extended Family," The Boston Globe, 19 July 1998.

Dubner, Steven J. "Inside the Dream Factory," Guardian Unlimited Film http://film.guardian.co.uk/The _Oscars_1999/Story/0,4135,36555,00.html . (accessed 10 October 2003; page on site now discontinued).

Friedman, Lester D. and Brent Notbohm. Steven Spielberg Interviews . Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 2000. ISBN: 1578061121.

McBride, Joseph. Steven Spielberg: A Biography . New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997. ISBN: 0684811677.

Rubin, Susan Goldman. Steven Spielberg . New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001. ISBN: 0810944928.

Schwinn, Elizabeth and Ziya Serdar Tumgoren. "The Megagift Plunge," Chronicle of Philanthropy 15 (2003): 9, 6.

STARBRIGHT Foundation. "All About Us." STARBRIGHT Foundation. http://www.starbright.org/about/index.html .

Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. "About the Organization." Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. http://www.vhf.org/vhfmain-2.htm .

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.