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Jeffrey Katzenberg Reflects on Career, Muses on Future at London Fest Talk

DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg was in a typically ebullient mood as he addressed an industry audience Oct. 14 with his keynote address at the London Film Festival’s Industry Program.

The keynote was timed to mark the 20th anniversary of the creation of DreamWorks SKG. Katzenberg drew the biggest laugh of the day with this description of how the new studio came together. “In 1994 Steven Spielberg had just won the Academy Award for ‘Schindler’s List’ and just released ‘Jurassic Park.’ David Geffen had just sold his record company for the third or fourth time for a couple of billion dollars. I was fired (from Disney), (given) the boot, out-the-door, ugly. The fact I somehow or other was able to convince these two geniuses that one third of me was worth one third of Steven Spielberg and one third of David Geffen is one of the great hustles in humanity.”

Katzenberg admitted he is loath to look back, but said he reflects less on his successes. “I find more valuable my greatest misses, my biggest failures. They’ve informed me and served me better as I’ve gone forward. I have never gone back to watch any movie I’ve been involved with making.”

Part of the focus of the keynote was on developing emerging talent, following on the British Film Institute’s partnership, announced Oct. 3, with Aardman Animation to nurture new voices in the U.K. animation business. “Talent is everything. It’s the beginning, the middle and the end,” said Katzenberg, encouraging diversity. “At DreamWorks Animation we speak 36 languages. … Much of the leadership is women. Three of our next seven to eight projects are directed by women. Almost every movie made at the studio is produced by a woman. They are better leaders.”

Asked what his years as Paramount, Disney and DreamWorks had taught him, he encouraged executives, producers and filmmakers to take risks. “Any creative project requires as an essential ingredient: that you have the right to fail at it, or you can’t succeed. To do anything unique and original equals risk. You have to make it safe for people to fail. For the movie business it’s essential.”

Like all studios and executives he has a firm focus on the fastest-growing international market: China. “Our movies do exceptionally well in China. It’s a unique place not without its challenges. You really have to adjust to a different way of thinking. If you can make that adjustment you can do well,” said Katzenberg. DreamWorks Animation operates a studio in Shanghai with 200 artists currently working on “Kung Fu Panda 2” as well as two projects “based on myths out of China; made in and for China and then export to the rest of the world” that are yet to be announced.

He also weighed in on the issue of exhibition windows suggesting the industry needed to have confidence in the theatrical experience to compete. “Philosophically I think our business must be in the business of giving our audience what they want when they want it. Not giving them what they want when they want it is not a winning strategy.”

After 20 years at DreamWorks he is facing the future with enthusiasm. “I say with confidence, and hopefully no arrogance, I couldn’t be more certain my best years are still ahead of me,” he concluded. “I imagine what DreamWorks could be in 10, 20, 30 years from now. Stay tuned, there’s more to come.”

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