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Oddly enough, after leaving Disney over Eisner’s refusal to name him CEO-designate, he preferred not to take on the role of CEO at DreamWorks Animation. Once the decision was made to go public, Katzenberg flew to Dallas to ask former Pepsico chairman and CEO Roger Enrico to take the job, but Enrico declined. He did accept the title of non-executive chairman.

“He has come into this role without a hitch,” Enrico says. “One reason is he doesn’t make the assumption that he knows how to do everything. He’s a very good listener. He is as good a student as he is a leader.”

When DreamWorks was founded with great fanfare in 1994, it appeared that the sky was the limit for the first new studio created since the 1920s. But over the next decade, DreamWorks looked like a deal in search of a story.

Though the movie division delivered a higher-than-average percentage of hits and a few standouts, such as “Saving Private Ryan” and the Oscar-winning best pictures “American Beauty” and “Gladiator,” many of the company’s original dreams were scaled back by the harsh realities of not having a multibillion-dollar conglomerate behind them. The TV division fizzled. A high-tech unit cratered. And the music company, with a logo designed by Roy Lichtenstein, floundered before it was auctioned off. The attempt to build a modern-day backlot near a wetlands in Playa Vista imploded as environmentalists battered the company with lawsuits and the developer of the property struggled financially. At least that turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

“Actually, there’s no disguise about it; that was just a flat-out blessing,” Katzenberg says. “It would have bankrupted us. It would have been Mr. Blandings’ dream house. The cost and the time and everything about it would have killed us.”

Not only did DreamWorks struggle with a string of box-office disappointments, but its principals faced the task of paying back its chief investor, Paul Allen.

With the smash success of “Shrek” in 2001, animation became its glimmer of hope.

Last summer, with “Shrek 2” on its way to an even-more-impressive $900 million in worldwide box office, Geffen devised the scheme of taking the animation division public. The move would solve several problems: raising money to fund further productions, reducing DreamWorks’ overall debt and repaying Microsoft co-founder Allen before a mechanism was triggered that allowed him to begin taking money out of the company after its 10th anniversary.

The decision to go public was made “first and foremost to pay back Paul Allen,” says Katzenberg. “As an investor, Paul Allen, in probably the greatest act of faith in history, put up almost $700 million in DreamWorks and has been invested in it for 10 years.

“He never asked or put the pressure upon us to do it — it’s something that we felt a real sense of obligation to do.”

Aside from the “Shrek” franchise, the company’s track record was bumpy, so on the road show to investors what Katzenberg had to sell was his experience and vision. The DreamWorks Animation team hit 17 cities in 12 days and gave 87 presentations. By the end, its offering was 15 times oversubscribed.

Enrico recalls the final day, when everyone was exhausted. “We’re done, there is nobody else to see, and Jeffrey’s saying, ‘There’s got to be somebody else to see.’ He just loved it. We said, ‘Jeffrey, you’re done.’ ”

The work paid off. DreamWorks Animation went public on Oct. 28, closing at $28 per share. In the meantime, the success of “Shark Tale,” its first non-“Shrek” animated hit (released in November) and the anticipation of its next release, “Madagascar,” have helped push the stock to as high as $42 per share. Two weeks after the IPO, Allen cashed out, netting $137 million when he sold 4.9 million shares, and he recently filed notice that he plans to sell more shares in an upcoming secondary offering.

As a result of going public, the three founders’ roles have become more clearly defined, which could help solve a lingering aggravation among producers who have griped that they’ve been left mystified by the company’s decision-making process.

Geffen now oversees the live-action division, Spielberg spends time making movies, and Katzenberg spends virtually all of his time on the animation division (although he still reads scripts and reviews budgets for live-action movies).

Asked if he feels more assured in his role as CEO, Katzenberg says, “No more, no less.”

He also downplays the impact the changes have had on his partnership. “Steven Spielberg and David Geffen are still my partners. I still happily feel a sense of deference to both of them. I have worked with them with that feeling for 10 years. Nothing’s changed in that regard.”

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