DreamWorks Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg spoke at the Fortune Global Forum in Chengdu, China on Friday. He did not refer to last week’s move by the Chinese authorities to pull The Croods from release ahead of schedule, but he did address the differences between handling “rules, regulations, and traditions” in China versus in Hollywood. Here are his remarks on DreamWorks Animation’s history, and future, in the booming market:
Timing, we all know the importance of this. In fact, when the timing is right, anything and everything is possible. Today in China the timing is right. We’ve arrived at a unique moment in this country, and you might say it’s actually been 5,000 years in the making. For ages, China has been known for its Great Wall. Now it might be better symbolized by a portal of opportunity that has begun to swing open.
But as with everything else here, this portal is distinctly Chinese in its appearance, its intricacy and its functionality. At DreamWorks Animation, we are becoming something of a case study for how things and timing is so important when it comes to China. It all started a few years (ago) when two seemingly completely unrelated events were taking place at opposite ends of the planet.
In Beijing, the country’s leadership was recognizing the importance of soft power. Meanwhile in Hollywood, DreamWorks was given the green light to a movie called Kung Fu Panda. I would love to tell you that we did this as part of a very shrewd strategy to gain entrée into China. It wasn’t. We just liked the idea of a film about a panda who wants to do kung fu.
Our filmmakers were intent on making this film as authentically Chinese as possible, and they really did their homework to be precisely accurate in every facet and detail of the story, the look, and the culture. After four years of production, Kung Fu Panda turned out to be more than we ever imagined or hoped for, and it truly was a love letter to China.
So we were beyond thrilled when the film became beloved by the Chinese people.
Then came Kung Fu Panda 2, which set an all-time record for any film, let alone an animated film, in this country. Beyond Kung Fu Panda movies, the phenomenal growth of China’s film market has been invaluable for the DreamWorks brand. Four of China’s top five animated films are from DreamWorks. And our most recent release, The Croods, is actually now their highest grossing original animated movie of all time.
It’s important to also note that in China of more than a dozen movies that we have brought here, been released here, we’ve actually never been asked to change a single frame of a single film. Clearly there is an underlying compatibility between the stories that we like to tell, the way in which we tell them, and the movie going audience here in China.
Given this success, we were ambitious to see if we could expand beyond producing in the U.S. a Chinese-themed film every three or four years that we could export, and instead become a China-based family brand that regularly created entertainment in China for China, and then for export to the rest of the world.
In order to implement this vision, we needed visionary partners. Fortunately, we found them in Li Ruigang of China Media Capital, and Jiang Mianheng of Shanghai Alliance. Li Ruigang is an entrepreneur’s entrepreneur. As Chairman of Shanghai Media Group, he created a movie enterprise that includes television stations, radios, newspaper, magazines, and an Internet venture. And Dr. Jiang has brought tremendous insight to this project based on his exceptional record of smart investments that have brought important new technologies and companies here to China.
We’re working together to build a company that takes full advantage of the combined strengths of China’s tremendous artistic and technological talent and our experience as storytellers in the film medium.
Oriental DreamWorks is a true partnership in every sense of the word. But I continually remind myself that this is a Chinese company of which we are just one of the partners. And because it is a Chinese company, I’ve actually had to work very hard at modifying some of my American ways of doing business.
Back home, if we run into problems with rules, regulations, and traditions, we put our efforts into trying to change them. Not here. Back home the quickest way between two points is a straight line. Not here. Back home, impatience to get things done is considered a virtue. Not here.
In China, problematic rules are not here to be changed. They’re there to be worked around. In China, you always seem to get to your goal, but usually by not taking a straight or obvious route. In China, patience is not merely a virtue, it’s actually a requirement.
Over the years during all my trips here, there has not been one single day that has gone by without somebody telling me, Jeffrey, that’s not the China way. As you can imagine, at times it has been challenging to adapt my way of doing things. Fortunately along the way, I discovered really a totally unexpected resource that helped me to better understand the China way. Interestingly, it turned out to be a 624-page history book. I’m talking about On China by Henry Kissinger.
This is a book that finds insight in just about every aspect of China’s heritage and its culture. It has been surprisingly valuable and if you can I urge you to read it. But, as much as there are differences in the Chinese and Western ways of doing things, I’m constantly impressed with something that we very much share in common, and that is an entrepreneurial spirit. And today Chinese entrepreneurship is in hyper drive.
During the last 20 years so much has changed so fast that there is an entire generation that really believes anything is possible. This generation is going to maintain China as an incredible center of international commerce for many, many years to come. Let me share with you I think a pretty brilliant proverb that I just love and I think really beautifully summarizes the spirit of this nation. A person who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the man doing it. I suspect that everyone in this room can subscribe to this piece of wisdom. There’s also a familiar Western saying that is very relevant to China today, it dates back to the ancient Greeks, timing is everything.
Our experience here in China I think is really bearing this one out. Ten years ago what we’re doing now would have been unthinkable. On the other hand, if we had chosen not to do business in China until 10 years from now, we would have found the Chinese portal to be wide open with many others, having already passed through before us.
I have one more sage quote for you and this one actually comes from our own Kung Fu Panda. The wisest character in that film is a 500-year old turtle named Oogway. And this is what he has to say. Yesterday is history, tomorrow a mystery, today is a gift, and that is why it is called the present.