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By Danielle Berrin
Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles 

Katzenberg: Mogul on a mission

 

Jeffrey Katzenberg

First of a three-part series.

My big mistake, upon arriving at Jeffrey Katzenberg’s office, is that I didn’t bring my ballet slippers.

But no one really told me about the choreography of a visit here, in which Katzenberg’s vassals at DreamWorks Animation, the company he co-founded and oversees, welcomed me in, warmed me up and made me wait. It’s a very pretty dance, though, past the koi ponds and cobblestone drive, the sports cars and sprawling courtyards, and into the sleek reception area where a polite lady takes my name, suggests a seat and fibs a little, saying, “They’ll be down for you in a moment.”

After I’ve flipped through a trade or two and touched up my lip gloss, the publicity chief arrives to escort me to Katzenberg’s office. “You have one hour,” he reminds me—one short hour—in which to attempt to pin down the prolific executive. Which worries me. Katzenberg has been around too long to make the mistake of telling a reporter anything truly revealing, so the prospect of a probing interview seems both ambitious and unlikely. And yet, surely such a calculated man has his motives for talking to me today. Normally he is so wary of publicity that when the journalist Nicole LaPorte set out to write what would become a 477-page book on the DreamWorks story—“The Men Who Would Be King”—Katzenberg, along with partners Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, repeatedly refused to be interviewed. “Not a chance, not a chance,” LaPorte reported Katzenberg as saying.

One gets the impression that, in Katzenberg’s world, if he can’t be sole author of his story, he has no trouble trying to frustrate its telling. Don’t like it? There’s the door.

When I finally reach the realm of DreamWorks’ high priest (this warm-up has been sort of like the long trek to a Japanese Buddhist temple that prepares one’s soul for the moment of prayer), an assistant spots me coming down the line and jumps up to give Katzenberg the 30-second warning.

But four feet shy of Katzenberg’s door, the publicity chief suddenly balks and we literally pivot—two ungraceful ballerinas—to the side. “Listen,” he cautions, “if Jeffrey gets bored, he’ll probably try to wrap it up at around 45 minutes. So ask your best questions first.”

Was that a warning or a tip? No matter, a little flurry of butterflies begins beating their wings in my abdomen as Katzenberg traipses out of his office.

Dressed in a light-colored cashmere sweater and jeans, he whispers to one of his minions and faces me. Beneath rimless glasses, he has oval-shaped hazel eyes and wears a faint smile, giving him a kind of wistful, bedroom look. He is discernibly fit, the silhouette of muscular arms apparent even beneath his sweater, enhancing the tough-guy guise his diminutive frame otherwise denies him. It occurs to me that anyone who thinks of Katzenberg as small has never stood next to him. He has a colossal presence.

I quickly lay out my one-hour plan: his professional legacy, his family life, his political aims and philanthropic goals, his future dreams, his past regrets, his very (Jewish) soul. He’s cool with all of it. It is his life mantra, he tells me, “to exceed people’s expectations.”

“That goes to my philosophy about every thing,” he says, offering the secret to his success upfront: “I have one philosophy that I live by, which is: Whatever you do, give 110 percent of yourself—in anything you do that’s important to you. I try to do that as a husband and a father, whatever I take on. Anything. Including this interview.”

Katzenberg is sitting upright in his chair, and his gaze is unerringly direct; several times, I have to cajole myself into averting my eyes just so I can reference my notes. He is surprisingly soft-spoken and a little laconic; his cadence can be dry and slow, the calculated speech of someone used to being listened to. And talked about.

“I remember the first time I came to Los Angeles,” Katzenberg recalls. “I was probably 22, 23 years old. And I worked for an amazing man”—the independent producer and former CEO of United Artists, David Picker, who helped launch the James Bond franchise—“and I came out here and stayed at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and this was all like a fantasy come true.” His timing was providential; his visit fell a week before the Academy Awards. “I remember on my way back to the airport, you know, in the taxi, after having been exposed to all sorts of different things [that] week, I remember having this feeling like, ‘OK, so here’s what you gotta do in this town: You gotta win an Academy Award, and you’ve got to own a house on the beach in Malibu.’ ”

He laughs, hearing himself say this. “Those are the two things,” he says. “Those are the two ambitions.”

Nearly four decades later, Katzenberg has achieved a level of success in Hollywood that makes his early goals seem quaint. He has become a titan of the industry: a revered business leader, a studio founder, a devoted philanthropist, one of the nation’s top political fundraisers and a billionaire to boot. After so many years patiently laboring under the tyranny of other leaders (Barry Diller, Michael Eisner) or greater talents (Steven Spielberg)—“I was a great first lieutenant,” he admits—Katzenberg has finally cemented his role as the godfather of Hollywood. And now that he’s become a kind of industry father figure, his values as an American Jew are on full display: For Katzenberg, true glory is about having a heroic influence, both on the (infamously shallow) industry in which he works, and the world.

But the Malibu beach house had to come first. Sometime in his mid-30s, when the acquisition of Hollywood prestige depended as much on the appearance of success as on actual accomplishment, he purchased a strip of shore on the now-infamous, guarded “Billionaires’ Beach,” an über-exclusive section of Malibu’s Carbon Beach that Katzenberg claims he bought “long before you needed to be a billionaire.” It was just as well, since in order to join DreamWorks in 1994 with his one-third equal partnership, he was forced to mortgage his home, among other assets, to pony up the $33 million Spielberg and Geffen had burning holes in their pockets.

Winning an Oscar proved a greater challenge. Although his work as a film studio executive produced several award-winning movies—“Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King,” for example—he did not personally receive an Oscar until December of last year when he was awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. “In many respects,” he says, “it’s kind of a better one, because it’s for things I did for other people rather than what I did for myself.”

Like many in Hollywood, Katzenberg’s early career schooled him in the art of being the underdog. He was Picker’s assistant at Paramount until then-Chairman Barry Diller took Katzenberg under his wing; within five years, he was promoted to vice president of production. There, however, he found himself a notch below a brash and fiery executive named Michael Eisner, with whom he began a notorious and tumultuous 19-year partnership. In that bond, Eisner was boss. So when Eisner was passed over as Diller’s successor, he left to become CEO at the Walt Disney Co., and Katzenberg, his ever-faithful deputy, followed.

For a while, Disney was good for Katzenberg. Beginning in 1984, he led the feature film department, which back then was last at the box office, behind all the other major studios. Within three years, Katzenberg had helped catapult Disney into the top spot at the box office. With a proven track record, he decided to take a risk the following year, releasing the half-animated, half-live-action movie “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” Billed as a cartoon crime fantasy for grown-ups, it was rife with murder, mayhem, sex and scandal, and became a sensation, marking “the first time beloved animated characters from rival studios — such as Disney’s Mickey Mouse and Warner Bros.’ Bugs Bunny — appeared together,” the L.A. Times reported. “Roger Rabbit” became the second-highest-grossing film of the year, and by Katzenberg’s hand, “the golden age of animation” had begun. Katzenberg had found his niche.

In the wake of “Roger Rabbit” (1988), he revived Disney’s moribund franchise with a string of animated mega-hits: “The Little Mermaid” (1989), “Beauty and the Beast” (1991), “Aladdin” (1992) and the royal of them all, “The Lion King” (1994), which won a Golden Globe for best picture and remains the second-highest-grossing animation film of all time (right behind “Shrek 2,” which Katzenberg would later produce at DreamWorks).

Today, two decades later, Katzenberg’s list of credits remains impressive and evokes nostalgia for the days when Hollywood prized originality over repetition—a subject he knows well. In fact, it was in January 1991 that Katzenberg penned an explosive 28-page memo assailing Hollywood’s “blockbuster mentality” and calling for change. If success in the movie business once depended on “the ability to tell good stories well,” it was relying more and more on “big stars, special effects and name directors,” which he deemed wasteful. Entertainment, Katzenberg wrote, had become a “tidal wave of runaway costs and mindless competition,” producing products with a shelf life “somewhat shorter than a supermarket tomato.” It was time to return to creativity and risk-taking.

It sounds a lot like the “Jerry Maguire” story, I suggest.

“It was ‘Jerry Maguire,’ ” he says in a burst of excitement. “Cameron Crowe will tell you that,” he says, referring to the writer/director who conceived “Maguire” after reading the memo. “That is art imitating life.”

Exactly two decades later, Los Angeles Times columnist Patrick Goldstein pointed to the memo as a turning point in the career of its author: “It’s clearly one of Katzenberg’s first efforts to transform himself from a dogged production executive best known for a punishing work ethic into an industry strategist and spokesman.”

Looking back, Katzenberg says Disney did him good, and he did good by Disney: “I could not have had a better run,” he says, “using whatever measure you want to use—talk about either great movies, great box office, great television shows, financial results. …”

Katzenberg also helped facilitate Disney’s purchase of Harvey and Bob Weinstein’s Miramax Films in 1993, adding to his resume. According to Katzenberg, when he took over as chairman in 1984, Disney was losing $200 million a year and running an additional $2 million deficit in operating costs. “When I left, 10 years later, we were doing $10 billion in revenue and $850 million in operating profit.” Considering what happened in between, the feathers in his cap were a lifeline, because had Katzenberg’s record been any less distinguished, his feud with Eisner might have finished him for good.

But nobody gets as high up in Hollywood as Katzenberg without a little lurid lore rivering through his legacy. When Disney President Frank G. Wells, whom Katzenberg is fond of describing as his and Eisner’s “marriage counselor,” died suddenly in a 1994 helicopter crash, the brilliant, bold, melodramatic Eisner and his stubborn, dedicated deputy clashed hard. “The marriage just blew up,” Katzenberg said.

It was a dirty divorce. There were brawls and broken promises and distastefully low blows. Katzenberg was unceremoniously fired. During the lawsuit that followed—in which Katzenberg sought restitution to the tune of $250 million—it famously came out that Eisner had reportedly called him a “little midget,” an insult now too renowned to deep-six. New York Magazine’s Michael Wolff famously described their breakup as “so weird, so extreme, so on-the-sleeve, so futile and unnecessary and just not done.” The nebulous monolith that is Hollywood mostly sided with Katzenberg, aided and abetted by encouraging ads in Variety, the support and friendship of men named Spielberg and Geffen, and, Wolff noted, a timely “human relations” award from the American Jewish Committee that helped refocus Katzenberg’s image.

Given the marriage analogy, I ask Katzenberg if he still feels pain or loss. “Painful now?” he asks. “No.” And, at the time? “Not really,” he says dispassionately. Not even after 19 years of partnership? “I was just practical about it,” he explains, likening his experience to that of a jilted lover: “It was, you know, not what he wanted. He was done.

“And, you know,” Katzenberg continues, “it actually just freed me to get on with another chapter. It was painful leaving a place I had spent 10 years building, and a team of people I had worked hard to put together, who were kind of my extended family. So, yeah, that was hard. That was the emotional in it. But, you know, it pushed me out of the nest. In retrospect, it was a great thing.”

About six months after Wells died, Katzenberg left Disney. And not six months after that, DreamWorks was born. For someone who has dealt “in fables and allegories and metaphors” for a living, it was about as happy an ending as he could have hoped for, but, perhaps more importantly for Katzenberg, it was an ending.

“I thought I would be at Disney for the rest of my life,” he says. “And that I’d be with Michael. I always said, the day I left Disney I took the rearview mirror out of my car. And I never look back. And I didn’t, and I haven’t, and I’m not sure I ever will. It was a great time, and lots of wonderful things were accomplished. But I’m living in today, and for tomorrow.”

For a moment, he is silent.

“I’m not someone who … it’s just always hard for me to …” he says, stumbling through his thought. And as he speaks, it looks as if Katzenberg might finally let his guard down.

But in less than a minute, he recovers himself and re-armors: “The past just doesn’t interest me that much, to be honest with you.”

Danielle Berrin is a staff writer for the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.

 

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