MEMO TO: Jeffrey Katzenberg
FROM: Peter Bart
It was just five years ago that Variety published your 28-page document, the Katzenberg Manifesto, which marked perhaps the only time that a major executive attempted to write a comprehensive state-of-the-industry analysis.
At the time, many of us admired the pronunciamento as being both insightful and tough-minded. Reading it five years later, however, one overriding conclusion stands out:
While your memo set forth all the right information, it advanced the wrong prognoses.
Now I realize it’s easy to second-guess someone from the perspective of five years. I also accept your protestation that you wrote your manifesto for internal consumption, not for public perusal.
Having said all this, consider the following:
- You wrote that “bloated event films” had left behind a trail of red ink and represented a blueprint for disaster. Wrong. A quick look at this summer’s box office results confirms the fact that “event pictures” have proven to be the salvation of Hollywood. Megapics yield megabucks, Jeffrey.
- You predicted that Disney would succeed with a contrarian strategy of mid-range, “high-concept” pictures that were not star-driven. You even predicted that “The Rocketeer” would prove a prototype of the hits of the future because it had “no giant stars, no big gross participants and we own the rights and control the licensing.” Wrong, Jeffrey. The Disney program of mid-range, live-action pictures ended up losing money (I don’t want to get into an argument as to how much) and “The Rocketeer’s” domestic box office returns dropped dead at $46.7 million.
- You predicted that Disney’s “maniacal, hands-on approach” would yield big returns for the studio, provided “the decision-making pyramid remained short and squat with a minimal distance between the place where the ideas come in and the verdicts get delivered.” With this in mind you built a complex of “squat pyramids” like Hollywood Pictures, Touchstone Pictures, Walt Disney Pictures, etc. Interesting idea, but did it pan out? Why is Joe Roth now at work stomping on your pyramids and transforming the once-sprawling Disney executive corps into a tight hit team making half as many movies as under your regime?
- Your memo even advanced the basic formula for a hit movie: “There should be a sympathetic protagonist who goes through some transforming experience with which the audience can relate.” Arguably this formula did not apply to the two biggest hits of summer 1996 “Independence Day” and “Twister.” These pictures levitated themselves into megapics because they offered theme park rides, not sympathetic protagonists who underwent transforming experiences.
Now having said all this, Jeffrey, I don’t want to suggest that your manifesto was utterly lacking in merit. Quite the contrary. You were very perceptive in your warnings about soaring production costs and superstar salaries. You were right on in cautioning the industry that “like lemmings, we are all racing faster and faster into the sea, each of us trying to outspend the other.”
Similarly, who would not sympathize with your gutsy assessment of “Dick Tracy.” While praising its artistry, you wrote, ” ‘Dick Tracy’ was about successful filmmaking, but it was also about losing control of our own destiny. And that’s too high a price to pay for any movie.”
Where your manifesto ran into trouble was in its unbridled optimism. Having succeeded with early films at Disney, like “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” you seemed to conclude that a studio, if it were tightly managed, could grind out money-making high concept films with great consistency.
In all fairness, Jeffrey, your memo concluded that “filmmaking is not a science.” While setting forth your rules “go for singles and doubles, hold down costs, keep hands on,” you quickly added, “there are always exceptions to the rules.”
Indeed, with this in mind, Jeffrey, I would like to invite you to write a guest column a sort of updated Katzenbergian Manifesto. In it, you could reflect on the Disney experience and the emergence of “effects pictures,” and, more important, set forth some rules that might govern the future of your new company , DreamWorks.
To be sure, you now have a couple of partners named Steven and David. In recent weeks, I’ve had occasion to talk to both of them about the state of the industry. I’ve come away with the feeling that they really don’t believe in rules, but rather in making the best movies possible on a case-by-case basis.
Maybe that would be the most prudent manifesto for the next century, Jeffrey. No rules.
Remember when Hemingway wrote, “There is no one thing that’s true, it is all true.” Now there’s a manifesto for you.