Jeffrey Katzenberg celebrated Dreamworks Animation’s 20th anniversary, replete with a cake and an audience rendition of Happy Birthday, at the BFI London Film Festival as he gave this year’s annual industry keynote. An emotional and characteristically passionate Katzenberg recalled his rise from “a gofer for Barry Diller” at Paramount at the age of 23, to joining Steven Spielberg and David Geffen for the launch of Dreamworks SKG in 1994.
“The fact I was somehow able to convince these two geniuses that one third of me was worth as much as one third of Steven Spielberg and one third of David Geffen is one of the great hustles in humanity,” quipped Katzenberg. “It was only eight days after I’d been fired (from Disney). I was too happy and too stupid to know how hard it was going to be.”
With Dreamworks Animation also marking its tenth year as a publically listed company, Katzenberg was bullish about the company’s finances, despite recent reports that Japan’s Softbank had purportedly kicked the company’s tires only to back out of doing a deal. Dreamworks Animation has also had to contend with grumblings from some shareholders – and the market- over recent box office misfires
“We had 17 hits out of 17 films over half a dozen years. It was unprecedented,” said Katzenberg. “Two out of the last four films have lost money but they didn’t put the company at risk. The company is strong and profitable. It will be around for a long time.”
Despite his own reluctance to look back – he admitted that Prince Of Egypt is the only film he has worked on that he has ever gone back to watch after release- Katzenberg’s engaging address touched on his own adventures in the film business. From arranging his first ever preview for Robert Altman’s Nashville in the 1970’s with a marching band to his first day at Disney in 1984, the Dreamworks Animation CEO gave an anecdote-filled speech at the BFI Southbank.
“That’s your problem,” Katzenberg recalled Eisner telling him after being shown the animation building on the Disney lot. “That was my introduction to animation, other than having seen Pinocchio as a kid.”
It was to the future that Katzenberg looked on with most excitement. China would prove crucial to the company’s fortunes moving forward. Drawing a comparison with how Walt Disney was able to embed the Disney brand in Europe through his liberal use of European fairy tales, Katzenberg described how he hopes to do something similar following the launch of the Oriental Dreamworks animation studio in Shanghai.
In addition to Kung Fu Panda 3 currently in production at the studio, Katzenberg is also developing two further features inspired by Chinese folklore. “Our plans are as big as the country is,” said Katzenberg. “We have 200 animators working in Shanghai now. The two original films being developed now will be made in China for the Chinese and also for foreign export.”
Noting how China’s box office revenues are set to top $5 billion this year, and surpass the U.S. within five years as the world’s largest market, the country was simply impossible to ignore.
“They’ve treated us very well. Seven out of the top ten grossing animated films of all time are Dreamworks films….You do have to make adjustments to do well and if you don’t, you can run into roadblocks but they have never asked us to change a single frame of a single film.”
While he decried the lack of ambition and innovation amongst some Hollywood execs that has seen 3-D take a big hit from audiences, he remained confident that the technology would still prove profitable for the right film, citing James Cameron’s forthcoming Avatar sequel.
He also repeated once again the singularity of the theater-going experience, even while the debate rages about windows in the wake of Netflix’s entry into financing features, even if he had a word of warning for those unwilling to adapt to new technologies.
“Philosophically, denying giving customers what they want, when they want it is not a winning strategy,” mused Katzenberg.
As for his own philosophy for maintaining a winning strategy, the answer was simple.
“Always try to exceed expectations.”