Movie Feature

Man on a mission: Dreamworks' Jeffrey Katzenberg

By Joe UtichiMovies - 18 June 2014 8:00 AM | Updated 3:37 PM

Man on a mission: Dreamworks' Jeffrey Katzenberg

For Jeffrey Katzenberg, there is no better launching pad for the films of DreamWorks Animation than the Cannes Film Festival.

The company has brought its unique brand of family entertainment to the Southern French town many times, organising some of the most memorable stunts of the festival.

Angelina Jolie and Will Smith rode an inflatable shark in support of ‘Shark Tale’ in 2004. 

In 2007, comedian Jerry Seinfeld zip lined from the roof of the storied Carlton Hotel for ‘Bee Movie’.

Po, from ‘Kung Fu Panda’, and Shrek have both made personal appearances.

But while the presence of Toothless - in support of ‘How To Train Your Dragon 2’ - is a continuation of that tradition, this year’s DreamWorks events have been grander than any before.

The film’s star-studded gala premiere took place as part of the festival’s official selection, and DreamWorks marked 20 years since its founding in 1994 with a glittering beach party and art show.

In recognition of his history with the festival, and his contribution to cinema that stretches back more than 40 years, DreamWorks’ chief executive was given a further surprise this year.

Katzenberg was appointed Officier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres, one of France’s highest cultural honours, at a ceremony inside Cannes’ Palais des Festivals.

Shortly after the ceremony, the 63-year-old sat down to discuss his career, his love for the Cannes Film Festival, and the future of DreamWorks Animation.

Katzenberg in Cannes this year. Photo: AFP

Congratulations on your honour. How did the ceremony go?

It was great. I was very charmed by Aurélie Filippetti, the French Minister of Culture and Communication. I really enjoyed her a lot. She’s very bright and enthusiastic. And she’s a real lover of movies.

Your history in Cannes is long. Was this year’s event, with the 20th Anniversary of the company, especially important for you? 

It was certainly bigger and better than ever! I think it was the combination. We have a really amazing movie in ‘How to Train Your Dragon 2’ – a really spectacular film, and one that is so much more than a typical animated cartoon. Thierry Frémaux, the festival’s director, his genius was in picking that movie and scheduling it on the Friday night, and so the reception for the film was really exceptional. I’ve been there for other great screenings over the years, and that one was pretty extraordinary. There was a very, very generous reaction to the movie. And then with the 20th Anniversary being celebrated as part of that really did make it an exceptional night. Again, it was just this incredible embrace from the Cannes Film Festival.

Thierry’s stewardship of the festival has always balanced big Hollywood events with smaller art-house fare. Do you think all movies are equal in the end? 

I think that’s been the conceit of Cannes from the beginning. It does curate film from all over the world. Also, very specifically, the stewardship of Thierry as its artistic director; he has always been very bold and very eclectic in his curation. There’s always doubt along the way from people, but by the time they get to the end of the festival, without fail he’s ten for ten in the years he’s managed to put a tapestry of film together by the time you get to the end of the festival. There really is a bigger concept at play, and I’m certain that will be the case again this year. We’re some little thread of that tapestry, and it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out over the course of the week.

A still from 'How To Train Your Dragon 2'. Photo: 20th Century Fox

Where did your interest in movies begin? 

It began reasonably late. It began as I started my career in it. I liked movies as a kid growing up, but I wasn’t obsessed with them. I didn’t pursue them anything more than as entertainment. I’m not a student of film and I have no formal education in film or film history. I certainly have no inherent artistic skill as an illustrator or a painter, so I basically don’t have any talent. [laughs] But my interest, really, was driven more by opportunity than by passion. I got a job working for a producer in New York when I was in my young twenties – David Picker – who hired me as sort of a gofer. I got to see a lot of different things, and was exposed to different things and different people. It was a bit of a learning opportunity for me.

How did you turn the opportunity into a career? 

I developed for myself a little bit of a philosophy: it didn’t matter what job I was given, I always tried to exceed the expectations of my bosses, and particularly the people that would give us an assignment. If I was meant to go get a cup of coffee, I just did it faster and better than people were expecting. If I was to produce a marching band to go to a premiere, it wasn’t just any marching band; it was the USC marching band. Whatever the assignment, I always tried to surprise people and deliver a little bit more.  It just kept creating more and more opportunity for me, where people became confident that when you asked me to do something I’d get it done, and get it done well. 

That just kept opening door after door in the movie industry. David Picker introduced me to Barry Diller, who was the chairman of Paramount Pictures, and he hired me as an assistant. I ended up being with him for eleven years, and he very much became a mentor for me. It’s been a great journey.

Read also: 'How To Train Your Dragon 2' movie review

Producer Bonnie Arnold, America Ferrera, Cate Blanchett, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Djimon Hounsou, Jay Baruchel and Dean Deblois at the screening of the animated film 'How to train your Dragon 2' in Cannes. Photo: AFP

You wrote a very famous 28-page memo in 1991 in which the final line was, “Let’s go back to the drawing board and get back to basics. And, as we do, let’s not be afraid to admit to others and to ourselves, up front and with passion… that we love what we do.” By that point you’d discovered the passion.

Well, that memo came when I was 41 years old, so I was way past my formative years at that point. I had a few miles on the odometer. I’d seen a lot, done a lot, and was just trying to be reflective of where I felt the business was for Disney at that time. 

It seems it could apply today as much as it did in 1991. You made some comments recently about how you felt the movie-going experience would change. Do you think Hollywood is playing catch up with new technology?

I think it’s an opportunity. I love the movie theatre experience. I don’t think there’s any substitute for it. In fact, I think it will become more and more unique and therefore have a very loyal audience around the world, because particularly as technology allows us to get our needs satisfied without ever leaving our nest, more and more we will go outside to get our wants. Or at least one aspect of our wants, which is social. There’s nothing that is as great of a price value opportunity as social built around the movies. That’s teenagers going to hang out with one another, young adults dating, couples, and families… Going to the movies is just blockbuster value when you think about the cost of a ticket for a couple of hours to see a film shared with a couple of hundred other people. That sharing enhances it. As exhibitors continue to invest in the theatres themselves, making screens bigger and seats better, all of those things are improving the whole enterprise of movie theatres, and I think that’s a great thing.

Content remains king, of course, and animation has felt like a more fertile breeding ground for great storytelling than live-action. Why do you think that is? 

I think it comes down to the process being so very different. These animated movies take four or five years to make, and we spend a lot of time in the development of those stories. There are some awfully great live-action movies, but the consistency in animation has probably been stronger, and I think it’s because that story process is so generous in terms of the amount of time we have to give our films. We really iterate and they’re more analogous to mounting a theatre production, in which you have read-throughs and run-throughs and dress rehearsals and out of town try-outs, all before you get to Broadway. Usually by the time you get to Broadway you have a good sense of what you have and don’t.

Apollo – the tool you developed for this film – seems to streamline the animation process. Will that buy even more time in the story process?

It makes the animation process better, but it’s less about streamlining and more about giving animators the ability to iterate a particular moment or scene until they feel they’ve captured it perfectly.  That’s invaluable when it comes to achieving the vision of a film and it’s something we’ve had to compromise on in the past.  With ‘Dragons’, the filmmakers we able to do things we never would have been able to do when we made the first film, which was released just four years ago. 

Cate Blanchett poses for a picture with Toothless, a character from 'How To Train Your Dragon 2'. Photo: AFP

You’ve said in Cannes you felt DreamWorks was only at the end of its first act. Is the move into streaming content part of the start of act two?

I think the company has matured. It’s built a valuable brand, and with that comes the next chapter, which is the opportunity to diversify into television, consumer products and location-based entertainment. These are the small ways to expand and grow the company. Movies are still very much at the core of our business, and the creation of great characters and great stories are essential. The ability to expand the scale and the diversity of the place frankly ensures that the company will continue to thrive. They serve one another really well. 

If it’s not too broad a question, what do you think the future holds for DreamWorks?

Well, I’ll give you a broad answer. [laughs] I think the future of DreamWorks is very optimistic. I think our best years lie ahead of us, and we have almost unlimited opportunities right now. I’ve never been more excited or more optimistic. 

‘How To Train Your Dragon 2’ is now showing in cinemas

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How To Train Your Dragon 2
  • How To Train Your Dragon 2

  • Rated
    PG /
    Action, Adventure, Animation
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