On Saturday night, four shiny new Oscars will be handed out at the fourth annual Governors Awards being held at The Ray Dolby Ballroom at Hollywood & Highland. Those receiving Honorary Oscars this year are legendary stuntman-director Hal Needham, documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker, and producer and film champion George Stevens Jr. And receiving the prestigious Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award that has gone in recent years to Jerry Lewis, Sherry Lansing and Oprah Winfrey is DreamWorks Animation head and philanthropist Jeffrey Katzenberg, who tells me he was “almost totally” surprised to be getting the honor.
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“There were two people who shall remain nameless who had said over the summer, ‘Hey you know there’s a little bit of talk that maybe this is the right moment, the right time to acknowledge the work you’ve been doing’, but honest to God it didn’t register,” Katzenberg said. “I tried to be humble and gracious and say I appreciate it but no need. So when (Academy president) Hawk (Koch) called me, I had no idea they were meeting. I was floored. I get this urgent call at 10:30 PM from Hawk and I was genuinely taken by surprise.”
So what does it mean to him?
“I am gonna talk about it on Saturday night because I have had time to think about it like I hadn’t before”, he said. “What I really believe is in a way is this is a reflection back on our own community. The real fact is all I did was ask, and it’s Hollywood that has done the giving. I really feel I am receiving this on behalf of Hollywood and our community and the extraordinary generosity that we have for the real world that we live in. The Oscars are given out for great work in the fantasy world that is moviemaking. And the Hersholt Award is about the great work that is done in the real world that we actually all live in together. I don’t believe there is a more generous community than ours. I don’t really feel like this is my award. I don’t feel this is me. I feel this belongs to all of us together”.
Katzenberg is a big supporter of the idea of having the Governors Awards as a separate non-televised ceremony like it is now. “I am one of those who really wants the TV show (the Oscars) to be an audience show for moviegoers”, he said. “I really think these (honorary) awards are very much within our own community. It allows the Academy to do more of this and to honor more people who have done great things and great accomplishments — that’s what these other Honorary awards are about. I don’t know how much this means to people in Poughkeepsie going to a movie theater, so I want the Academy Award night show itself to be just a great show that celebrates movies and encourages people to go see more of them. That’s ultimately what keeps us strong”.
Katzenberg’s philanthropic activities include serving on the board of numerous organizations including Cedars Sinai Medical Center, AIDS Project Los Angeles, The Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research and many others. But the big reason for this award is his two decades as chairman of the board for the Motion Picture and Television Fund, for which to date he has helped raise more than $200 million, expanded the MPTF campus and started The Night Before, a benefit held the Saturday night before Oscars that raises millions annually — an event now taking place for more than a decade that he sees going on forever. And despite his point that he just “asks” for money, the fact is he puts his own out there as well. Last month, he and DreamWorks founders/partners David Geffen and Steven Spielberg donated $90 million, with each kicking in $30 million toward the current $350 million endowment campaign designed to keep the fund solvent for years to come. Katzenberg estimates they are well on their way to that goal with about a quarter of a billion in pocket so far.
It hasn’t been a smooth ride for the fund in recent years, and Katzenberg is the first to address that. But he gives credit to the board for pulling together in time of crisis when it was announced that due to severe financial problems the MPTF’s adjacent hospital would close. This action was greeted by great protests from, among others, families of the patients. “Once we as a board really understood what our problems were, how deep we were into it, how critical it was that we get out of it, then everybody rolled up their sleeves and went to work. It was nasty, ugly. That classic line that no good deed goes unpunished was never more applicable than in these circumstances”, he said. “For a whole set of different reasons I ended up being the focal point of the criticism. I am not sure how I got that honor, but I can tell you that in the fixing of it it was a team effort. We had a very strong, participating and engaged board. And the most fortuitous thing is we got a great CEO in Bob Beitcher. He really is the guy deserving of the credit in putting us on a path forward”.
Still, it must have been hard walking into those Night Before parties and seeing all those protestors with picket signs upset at what they saw as the fund’s egregious failures. “When 250 people are standing on a street corner with Nazi swastikas with your name on it, and your children see that and it’s in the news, that’s as ugly as it gets and all I ever wanted to was help it and fix it and raise a lot of money for it”, Katzenberg said. “I know these people were feeling abandoned. Their emotions and vulnerabilities were real. It’s not like I didn’t understand it. I was, and even in hindsight empathetic, to their feelings. It seems like it didn’t have to get so extreme because in particular all we wanted to do was make it right. And that’s what kept me and our board going because there’s no moment in time in which people weren’t acting as though the people there at that home were anything other than our own parents. We always thought of it that way. We treated them as though they were our family and always thought of them in that context. Obviously we didn’t do a very good job of communicating any of that. But I know I slept well at night as far as our intentions, whether our perception was bad — obviously it was. But I know there was never a moment in time that somehow these people would be abandoned and put out on the street. It was an absolutely ludicrous notion.” He added that like most good Hollywood movies, the story is on its way to a happy ending despite the drama along the way.
As for DreamWorks Animation, Katzenberg is excited about moving the company’s distribution partner from Paramount to Fox beginning next year. “It’s fantastic. They’ve rolled out the welcome mat and given us a big hug. It’s been nothing but exciting. I am very impressed with the team and their enthusiasm for the work. 2013 is going to be a great year for DreamWorks,” he said. He couldn’t mask disappointment that 2012 is not ending on a high boxoffice-wise for the company, with the less-than-stellar opening weekend gross for their latest animated feature Rise Of The Guardians, which managed only a domestic gross of $32 million over the five-day Thanksgiving holiday — one of the weakest openings ever for a DWA film — causing the company’s stock price to take a significant drop.
Said Katzenberg: “We love the movie, audiences have loved it. You have straight ‘A’ Cinemascores on this. It’s among the best playing DreamWorks Animation movies ever for us, up there with How To Train Your Dragon , Kung Fu Panda as an original movie. Our own exits on the movie are super high. So when it doesn’t get the box office it’s very disappointing. The only saving hope is there is precedent for movies in this very specific release window actually recovering and going on and having some decent success. You’re asking me at the moment in time when we are still running around here lighting candles. We are praying to the movie gods like there is no tomorrow”.
Box office and stock prices aside, Katzenberg is just as focused these days on continuing those good deeds for which the Academy will be handing him an Oscar statuette Saturday. “It’s a very important and rewarding and valuable part of my life and my partnership with my wife, Marilyn”, he said. “You have to make time for your work and your family and your charity. You have to give to others. I just think it is an obligation we all have. We are all part of a larger community”.