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Charles Sykes, Associated Press
Steven Spielberg, left, and Tom Hiddleston attend the world premiere of "War Horse", in New York, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2011.

Everyone knows what makes a Spielberg film a Spielberg film — they may not agree, but they know.

For most movie fans a Spielberg film is technically flawless, with a great deal of heart thrown in for good measure. Too much heart, some would say, because they think Spielberg's movies occasionally slip from moving to schlocky, with the director going so far overboard to make his work resonate with family friendly messages that he dilutes the material. Others think he is a master at providing audiences with unforgettable images and stories, combining the two in stirring fashion.

Steven Spielberg, 65, is the most financially successful director of all time, the genius behind such classics as "Jaws," "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial," "Schindler's List," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and more.

Whether it's aliens attacking earth (or befriending its small citizens), a boy chasing a horse through the trenches of World War I or a gung-ho archaeology professor romping around the world to make sure the Nazis don't get sacred artifacts, almost anyone who loves movies has strong ideas about what makes a movie "a Spielberg film."

Everyone but Spielberg, who says he doesn't give a lot of thought to such things.

"I would say it's a great deal of emphasis on a story, over everything else. Everything else is in support of that story or a way of characterizing that story. But it's the story first.

"I'm going to give you a quote, but make sure you hear this with my tongue in my cheek, and that is, there should be a sign over my desk that simply says, 'It's the story, stupid.' If there's nothing to tell I don't want to go near it. But if it's worth telling, it's worth a lot of effort and pulling a lot of people into your confidence to produce it."

It's been three years since the release of the disappointing "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," but "The Adventures of Tintin" and "War Horse" were both out just before Christmas, and he is currently shooting "Lincoln," scheduled for release in 2012.

Spielberg doesn't want to dwell on the past because he's so wrapped up in the present. But when you've been fiddling around with a camera for more than 50 years, won three Oscars and made so many movies that have become part of the cultural fabric, to say nothing of grossing more than a combined $3.7 billion, the release of a new film almost always occasions a career assessment. The verdict? Not bad. Not bad at all.

"For 40 years, he's been the pre-eminent Hollywood storyteller to the masses, regardless of genre or seriousness of topic," says Sean Phillips, the executive producer for Yahoo! Movies. "His films have made money, and in most cases, they've been critically praised. And for a filmmaker who prefers to keep the magic of his storytelling fairly sacred, that's a magical combination to both studio execs and audiences."

As Phillips suggests, there is no debate that Spielberg is a popular filmmaker — just count up the ticket receipts. It'll take a while.

But he has also shaped not only the way films are made, but how they are released and distributed. "Jaws," a summer movie about a shark terrorizing a beach, was the first film to have what is known as "wide" distribution — that is, it opened all over the country on the same day, as opposed to rolling out from city to city over time. And its stunning success turned summer from a movie wasteland to prime time for blockbusters. For this he receives both credit and a surprising amount of blame.