Heritage Florida Jewish News - Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

By Danielle Berrin
Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles 

Katzenberg: Ready to take a gamble


Motion Picture and Television Fund’s Bob Beitcher, George Clooney and Jeffrey Katzenberg at The Polo Lounge at The Beverly Hills Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Second of a three-part series. (The first part can be read in the July 26 issue of Heritage)

Jeffrey Katzenberg grew up in Manhattan, the son of an artist mother and a stockbroker father. By the time he was 14, he was volunteering for John Lindsay’s successful mayoral campaign. Even as a kid, “I was entrepreneurial, always looking to do things, organize things, you know, when there was a snowstorm, we’d go shovel sidewalks for storeowners on Madison Avenue, and we’d have our lemonade stands and all those things that kids do.” Katzenberg says his mother encouraged him to pursue his passions. “I didn’t like boundaries, and she was pretty good about letting me explore the things that excited me.” And his father? “My dad put the gambler in me,” he says: “Sport, competition, gambling was just a part of everyday life. [My father] was a stockbroker, incredible card player, incredible tennis player, great backgammon player. He was always involved in hustle. Hustle and play and gamble. And he was very good at it, and he sort of taught me that.”

Judaism also played a role, albeit a peripheral one. “I wasn’t bar mitzvahed, but on the other hand, faith was in our life. I went to Sunday school; we belonged to Emanu-El,” he says, referring to the historic Reform synagogue on Fifth Avenue and East 65th Street. “I would say it was a part of our culture.”

Given that his Jewish upbringing wasn’t religiously immersive, I ask Katzenberg what his Jewish identity has accorded him in life. He thinks for a minute, then says, “Pride. Conviction. A sense of belonging. The Jewish community of New York is one in which there is a lot of connection. Much more connected [than in Los Angeles]. You’re a part of something there. [In Jewish life] there’s a connection to your roots and to Israel, a sense of belonging and a sense of obligation.”

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, can speak to Katzenberg’s Jewish life, if not religiously, then in terms of his commitment to the community: “If you know Jeffrey, you know that Jeffrey doesn’t like long telephone conversations,” Hier says sardonically. “Sometimes Jeffrey can speak for 30 seconds, but to me, he is the epitome of the talmudic dictum in Pirkei Avot that says, “Emor me’at—say little, v’asey harbeh— but do much. That fits him to the T. You ask him to do something—he says, ‘Yes’; you have about a 30-second conversation, but when you come to the delivery, it’s amazing.”

Over the years, Katzenberg has not only helped fundraise for the Wiesenthal Center, attending its annual banquets and inviting his friends, he has also helped secure celebrity narrators, such as Sandra Bullock to voice Golda Meir, for the center’s award-winning documentaries. Hier also said that it was Katzenberg—along with Universal Studios chief Ron Meyer—who advised him to create an in-house production company, Moriah Films, instead of outsourcing the center’s film work.

Katzenberg clearly takes his role as community leader seriously, most evident in his commitment to philanthropy. His business success has, of course, made him vastly wealthy—“He’s the world’s greatest salesman,” one longtime observer put it. In 2005, Forbes estimated Katzenberg’s fortune at somewhere between $850 million and $1 billion, and when it comes to giving it away, Katzenberg deploys skill and strategy. He and his wife, Marilyn, are committed to a number of causes, most notably the Motion Picture & Television Fund (MPTF); Cedars-Sinai Medical Center; and USC and Boston University, the alma maters of their twin children, David and Laura, now 30.

“We have a very simple philosophy,” Katzenberg says, explaining that they give to institutions and organizations that have most intimately touched their lives—the hospitals where their children were born, the schools where they were educated, and to the social service organization that supports tradesmen in the industry Katzenberg feels he owes so much. “Every dollar I’ve made in my career has been in this industry, and I have a very strong socialist point of view about society”—something he attributes to his parents’ tutelage—“which is, the people who are rich and successful need to take care of the people who are not.”

The Katzenbergs, married for 38 years, created a private family foundation through which they donate around $1 million and sometimes much more each year. Recently, they gave $1.25 million to Boston University; they also made two other major gifts, in amounts they would not disclose, to the Katzenberg Center for Animation at USC and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Additionally, they contribute about $25,000 to each of the many charity dinners they attend each year—including ones for the annual Simon Wiesenthal Center, which Katzenberg frequently chairs, Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation and the Anti-Defamation League.

But far and away, Katzenberg’s foremost philanthropic passion is serving as chairman of the board for the MPTF, which he has done for nearly two decades. MPTF manages the Wasserman Campus in Woodland Hills, best known as the Motion Picture home, a sprawling retirement facility for industry veterans, along with six outpatient health care centers that together service an estimated 60,000 patients. In January 2012, Katzenberg and George Clooney announced a $350 million capital campaign to support the future of the fund, to which Katzenberg, Spielberg and Geffen each made gifts of $30 million, helping Katzenberg bring the fundraising total, thus far, to $250 million. “The movie and television business have given me extraordinary wealth,” Katzenberg says, “so in the very industry which has given so much to us, it is, to me, the first and most important place to give back.”

In 2010, however, Katzenberg found himself in the hot seat when MPTF was facing a budget shortfall of nearly $10 million per year. The financial reality that threatened to bankrupt the fund prompted a controversial decision to shutter its long-term care facility and hospital, which served the home’s most infirm residents. Adding insult to injury, mismanagement of the crisis led to a nasty public imbroglio (the subject of a 2010 Jewish Journal cover story) that pitted some of the vulnerable residents against wealthy Hollywood donors in a prolonged battle that has only recently been resolved. When I bring up that whole mess, Katzenberg becomes heated—and for the only time during our interview, he goes off the record. When his diatribe finally reaches its denouement, he says, “Anybody else would have walked away from this.”

So why didn’t he?

“Because I don’t give up. Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser. I was never going to give up. I wasn’t going to give up on the people. You know, Lew Wasserman put this in my hands on a very personal level. He said, ‘This is your responsibility now.’ ”

Wasserman, the legendary studio executive and talent agent who, for a time, was considered the most powerful man in Hollywood, is clearly a role model for Katzenberg. Known by insiders as “The Last Mogul,” as a biography of the former chair and chief executive of the Music Corp. of America is titled, Wasserman famously cultivated relationships with rising politicians (he was an early supporter of then-Gov. Bill Clinton), unabashedly demanded support for Israel and united the entertainment community in support of causes he believed in.

No Hollywood titan since has been able to fill the vacuum Wasserman left behind when he died in 2002—until, some say, Jeffrey Katzenberg.

According to a recent article by Andy Kroll in Mother Jones, Katzenberg is currently the nation’s most powerful and effective Democratic fundraiser. Since 1999, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the Katzenbergs have donated an estimated $4.8 million to Democratic causes, topping every other star political donor in the United States—including George Soros and the right-leaning Koch brothers—except for Sheldon Adelson ($94.2 million).

Kroll portrayed Katzenberg—who did not consent to be interviewed—as a “deep pocketed kingmaker” much cherished by the Obama administration for his fundraising efficiency and low-maintenance personality. When he and George Clooney hosted a final-stretch campaign fundraiser for the president last spring, it became the highest-grossing campaign dinner in history, raising $15 million in one night. Katzenberg’s strategy for getting wealthy democrats to pony up their pocketbooks was simple: Show them a good time. He reportedly “fussed” over details like seating arrangements—leaving an extra seat at each table so Obama could “mingle” (something the president is oft criticized for doing poorly)—which prompted Kroll’s winning description of the dinner as “a night of political speed dating.”

Another of Katzenberg’s tricks is his old-fashioned etiquette. In the age of mass emails and Facebook posts, Katzenberg is old school, plying his friends with “personal calls and handwritten thank-you notes.” Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager, described him to Kroll as “one of the best, if not the best, fundraisers out there,” and, according to the same piece, he doesn’t ask for much in return: “No ambassadorship to Switzerland, no regulatory tweak, no nights in the Lincoln Bedroom,” Kroll wrote. Although, he added, there are some perks: “Obama takes Katzenberg’s calls, and he and his political adviser, Andy Spahn, visited the White House almost 50 times between them during Obama’s first term.” Not to mention, “It has also left [Katzenberg] well positioned to advocate for his industry’s and his company’s interests in China’s booming film market.”

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


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