It’s appropriate that Jeffrey Katzenberg is now celebrating his Imprint Ceremony at the Chinese Theatre. After all, his fingerprints are all over Hollywood.
Over the years Katzenberg has discovered, mentored and nurtured talent, and his long-standing relationships with such actors as Julia Roberts, Eddie Murphy, Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Mike Myers, Richard Gere, Angelina Jolie, and Justin Timberlake have been a key their success as well as his own.
Katzenberg personally casts all his movies. He put Murphy in the “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Shrek” franchises and helped glamorous stars such as Jolie and Cameron Diaz broaden their fanbase by moving into animated films, “Kung Fu Panda” and “Shrek,” respectively.
He raised the trajectories of such comedians as Myers (“Shrek”) Jack Black (“Kung Fu Panda”), and Ben Stiller (“Madagascar”). He helped pair Roberts and Gere in “Pretty Woman,” guided Cruise through such hits as “Color of Money” and “Minority Report,” Bette Midler through “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and “Ruthless People,” put a young Travolta in “Grease,” and a young Kevin Bacon in “Footloose.”
He cast America Ferrera in “How to Train Your Dragon,” Tim Allen in “Home Improvement,” and helped Timberlake graduate from “The All New Mickey Mouse Club” to “Shrek the Third” and “Trolls.”
“Jeffrey really pioneered getting big names to do animated films,” says Diaz, “and when he asked me, even though it was my first time, it was an easy decision. It was a great story, he laid it all out for me — and also pointed out there’d be no hair and makeup or wardrobe. I said, ‘Can I come in my PJs?’ and he said, ‘Absolutely.’ That sold me.
“The wonderful thing about him is that the movies he makes embody his spirit,” adds the star. “He’s playful and so much fun, even if people don’t perceive him that way. That’s why he makes movies like ‘Shrek’ and not big, violent, blow-up action films. He makes films that both kids and parents can enjoy, that make you think. They’re not just entertainment.”
Myers worked on five “Shrek” movies with Katzenberg, and the comedian recalls how it all started. “I was at the ‘Saving Private Ryan’ premiere, which greatly affected me as both my parents had fought in the war. And I was in the lobby afterwards when Jeffrey came over and said, ‘Some movie, huh? Would you ever do an animated film?’ I was a bit surprised, and asked him what it was called, and when he told me the title, I said, ‘Dude, that’s the worst name ever! You’ve got to change that.’ But that didn’t stop him bringing me on board and doing this huge project, and he was involved with every single aspect of the franchise. In fact, I call him an ‘artist-industrialist,’ because he’s very hands-on with a full vision of the project.”
Myers reports that Katzenberg would even attend most of the recording sessions. “I don’t think he missed more than four or five over the whole franchise, which shows just how attentive and involved he was, and we still have a close relationship and get together for lunch four or five times a year.”
Lunch — and the mogul’s single-minded tenacity — features heavily in another telling anecdote from Myers. “When I was writing ‘Austin Powers 3’ I had this crazy deadline, and the whole machine was waiting for the next draft, and I literally didn’t have a spare minute, and Jeffrey asked me if I’d record a line as Shrek for one of the corporate sponsors,” he recalls. “And I’d do anything for Jeffrey, but I told him I’d be dead if I didn’t finish the draft by the next day. But he wouldn’t take no for an answer, and said, ‘Look, just have lunch with me — 30 minutes. You’ve got to eat lunch, right?’”
Myers finally caved and met Katzenberg at Nobu. “And he started talking about hockey, which made no sense, and then he insisted on driving me home,” he continues. “I got in his car, he put on headphones, he had a DAT machine and a mic — and this one line on a cue card. And that’s how he got me to do it. And that’s what makes him so special. You want that guy on your team in this business.”
Ferrera reports that Katzenberg cast her in “Dragon” “very early on, even before the director was hired. But Jeffrey had done his homework with my character, so I signed up even though I had little to go on, but I was such a huge fan of his and all the DreamWorks movies, I knew it’d be really cool to do.”
She was surprised at just how specific he was and how he was involved in every frame. “Then he called me up when it came out to let me know how it was doing. That was the first time a studio head had done that for me. And then he called me again the next weekend with an update.”
Ferrera is about to start work on the third film in the franchise, and notes that “after nearly a decade of doing it, Jeffrey’s just as engaged and enthusiastic as he was when he first told me about it.”
Katzenberg has also played a key role in the careers of several directors, including that of Roger Allers, who worked on seven projects at Disney with Katzenberg, including “The Lion King.”
“Our first one was ‘Oliver & Company’ back in ’86, and Disney was a sleepy, quiet, slow-moving machine when he arrived, and he immediately kicked it into gear,” Allers says.
Unfamiliar with animation back then, Katzenberg faced a steep learning curve, “but he studied hard, talked to all the old original Walt Disney animators at length, and brought this enormous enthusiasm to every film. He always challenged you to do better.”
Allers cites a scene in “The Lion King,” “which he made us redo half-a-dozen times, and it wound up far better. He just had this relentless drive and push to improve everything.”