At the start of a movie, you might glimpse a few seconds of a child’s silhouette fishing for stars in the night sky or riding a flying bicycle. These iconic moments are a signature of Amblin Partners, the production company born from legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg.
Encompassing the DreamWorks Pictures and Amblin Entertainment brands, Amblin has enchanted audiences with movies like “Jurassic Park,” “Minority Report” and “Lincoln.” At the helm of this cultural powerhouse is CEO Jeff Small ’95. Graduating from Stanford with a degree in public policy, he eventually became a film executive and rose through the ranks at Disney, Universal and now Amblin.
Small joined Amblin in 2006 and assumed the position of CEO in 2015. Working closely with Amblin chairman Steven Spielberg, Small determines the corporate strategy and creative direction of the company. He has steered the development of hits such as “The Fabelmans,” “1917” and “Green Book.”
Small spoke with The Stanford Daily about his path to becoming the CEO of Amblin Partners, his responsibilities and collaboration with Spielberg. The interview was conducted during the SAG-AFTRA strikes last November.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): What do you do as CEO of Amblin Partners?
Jeff Small (JS): In the simplest form, I run the company for Steven Spielberg. He relies on me to make sure that the studio is getting the most out of all of the creative ideas that we have. I set the strategy for the company. It’s a unique business in that it is both a business and a creative studio. I think one of the biggest things that I do is to make sure that there’s the right balance between those two things.
TSD: Can you walk us through a day in your life? What did you do yesterday?
JS: First, I drove my daughters to school. Then my day was a lot of different things: We had some conversations about corporate issues that we were dealing with and projects we’re starting. The SAG strike is still going on, so we can’t really announce any movies at the moment, but we are at least starting to prepare for the next round of movies that we want to make when the strike ends. There’s always going to be something on the corporate side, something financial, or something human resources related. Part of what I really like about the job is I get to touch all of these very different parts of the business.
TSD: How do you collaborate with Steven Spielberg?
JS: He’s very involved in the business. Everything that we made, he has touched creatively. For our day-to-day business, I make sure that the trains run smoothly and on time. I’ve been with Amblin Partners for almost 17 years, and we have a pretty good shorthand on what he needs from me and what I need from him, and I love it that way.
TSD: Reflecting on your time at Stanford, what experiences or classes were most impactful for you?
JS: When I got to Stanford, I did not feel prepared at all. My first year, if not two years, was pretty rough academically. Students there were just better prepared than I was. My high school offered three AP classes, and I took all three of them. You couldn’t take Calculus BC or things that so many of the rest of Stanford students did. I had a great time and I enjoyed myself socially, but academically, I was just trying to hold on. That said, I learned a ton, and my overall experience at Stanford absolutely changed my life.
TSD: What were your aspirations after graduating?
JS: Growing up, I loved movies and TV, sports and pop culture, so I hoped that I would go into some career that was adjacent to that. Stanford didn’t really have a film major. There wasn’t an obvious way to go into that business. I just started sending out a bunch of letters to studios to see if I could get a job. One of them was actually Amblin. I framed my 1995 rejection letter from Amblin in my office because I think it’s really funny.
Most of my peers were interviewing for banking or consulting jobs, but I didn’t really want to do that. Back then Disney recruited on Stanford campus. I interviewed and somehow got a job in finance there. I moved down to LA not knowing many people, and that’s how my career started. There’s a lot of luck behind it, and I don’t take any of that for granted.
TSD: How did you become the CEO of Amblin Partners?
JS: I spent a couple years at Disney doing finance and then a friend was hiring for mergers and acquisitions (M&A) at Universal Studios. At Disney, the job was very micro in that we were doing financials at a studio. M&A was very macro; it was looking at the entirety of the corporation from the top. I really loved that job. I stayed there until 2000, and then some guys I had worked for at Disney started their own production company called Revolution Studios, and they asked me to join them. I worked my way up at the company to be CFO, then COO.
In 2006, Revolution was starting to wind down. I got a call that DreamWorks needed a COO, and I got the job. Seventeen years ago, when I started, it was DreamWorks Studios, and now it’s Amblin Partners. I kind of made my way up at this company, and it’s been a great ride.
TSD: What advice do you have for young professionals looking to advance as a film executive?
JS: Meet as many people as you can. Make as many connections as you can. You can learn from all of the people that you meet in this town and hear what the opportunities are. The second thing is, all of those jobs that I’ve had were very different, but they all were in the entertainment business. That grew my knowledge base and made me ready for certain opportunities.
TSD: Can you share any moments in your career where you thought, “Wow, I can’t believe I got to do that”?
JS: I mean, a thousand of them. On some level, I think that about my entire career. I know that there are so many people in the world who do unbelievable things for society. We do something very different — we tell stories. We make people feel things. We make people aware of other people’s stories. That does have a really important role in society. But I have incredible respect and awe for the people who do so much good in the world in other careers that are so incredibly important.