Jeffrey’s Wild Kingdom

[This article originally ran in V Life in June/July 2005.]

During an unusually sunny day in April, Jeffrey Katzenberg welcomes a busload of investors, all interested in seeing their money at work, to the DreamWorks Animation campus in Glendale.

Not only will the investors get to preview “Madagascar” (opening May 27), but teams of animators will present the studio’s next eight projects in their various stages of production — with several still literally on drawing boards.

But Katzenberg returns to his office as if he were Willy Wonka opening his factory to the outside world only to leave before seeing his visitors’ reactions.

“Fill my schedule up,” he tells his assistant. “Just make sure I can’t even think about this.”

As a newly public company that has soared to $4 billion in market capitalization, DreamWorks Animation depends on these moneymen and women, but except for a welcoming handshake for each investor, a once-around at the dinner table and a cheerful farewell, Katzenberg remains out of sight.

Wait a second. Here is Katzenberg, once notorious for arriving to work at 5 a.m. and managing a company down to the last spread sheet, line of dialogue and storyboard, displaying the willpower to sink into the background during such an important event. Isn’t that tough for him?

“Believe me, you have no idea,” the 54-year-old says the following day, chuckling at the irony as he relaxes on a terrace outside his office, his feet propped on a teak coffee table. “Yes, it was very difficult. Like a proud parent, I wanted to be an ear in the back of the room. I wanted to listen through the door.”

But he resisted. In fact, you could say a very new Jeffrey Katzenberg is emerging, banishing the wiry, exceedingly ambitious, controlling and hard-charging persona whose career seemed indelibly linked to those of Barry Diller and Michael Eisner, or to his billionaire partners at DreamWorks, David Geffen and Steven Spielberg.

This Katzenberg is now himself on the Forbes billionaires list and is taking on the Wasserman-esque role of power broker in the industry, raising money for presidential candidates and throwing fund-raisers for the Motion Picture and Television Fund.

Most of all, he is settling into his role as CEO of DreamWorks Animation, the undisputed balance-sheet bright spot of the studio he founded with Geffen and Spielberg a decade ago.

“Katzenberg is very impressive,” says Anthony DiClemente, a financial analyst for Lehman Brothers. “He’s intensely competitive. There is a side of him that takes the company very personally. He will tell you that when you invest in DreamWorks, you invest in him.” But it’s a different him.

Katzenberg has survived the long drawn-out feud with Eisner, his one-time mentor, a battle that ended up in court and was recently chronicled in James Stewart’s bestseller, “DisneyWar.” Just a few years ago, DreamWorks suffered a stinging disappointment when the animated “Sinbad” took in only $26 million at the domestic box office. And by 2003, the studio itself was running out of money: Its own future was at stake.

“A couple of times over the last 10 years we got dangerously close to the edge,” Katzenberg says. “2003 was one of those times.”

Rarely one for public introspection, Katzenberg says little about how the experience changed him. But the very fact that the perpetual cheerleader acknowledges his company’s low point is a significant difference.

His once instantly recognizable oversize glasses have ceded their place to new, smaller frames, giving him a more focused look. Where once he seemed to be in a constant state of motion, he can now sit for a lengthy interview without taking a phone call or jotting down a single note.

Make no mistake: His mind still seems to work faster than he can spit out the words. Often he begins and ends sentences with “by the way.” Just as often, he alludes to something he said 15 minutes earlier. And, by the way, he’s still the ultimate multi-tasker who says things to his assistant like: “No, I don’t want to take time to eat before I leave. I’ll eat on the plane.”

But by several accounts he has turned his back on autocracy and become more inclusive.

On the day of the investors’ tour, he left most of the showcasing to the filmmakers working on the projects themselves. “If you invest in DreamWorks, I accept that it is my responsibility to deliver for you,” he acknowledges. “But this is quite the opposite of a one-man band.”

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