Just a few weeks ago, Chinese financial investors appeared ready to help take Jeffrey Katzenberg’s DreamWorks Animation private. The potential partners planned to leave the DreamWorks founder in place, creating his beloved animated films and expanding a growing television empire, according to insiders.
But Katzenberg’s reinvention became decidedly more dramatic last week when Comcast upped the ante with a $3.8 billion offer — making DreamWorks’ one-and-only leader expendable as CEO, flush with more than $400 million in cash from the deal, and restless for new horizons.
The sale gives control of the studio that made “Shrek” and “Kung Fu Panda” to Comcast, presumably to be overseen by Chris Meledandri, the Illumination Entertainment whiz behind hits like the “Despicable Me” films.
Katzenberg will take the title of chairman of DreamWorks New Media, giving him oversight of the company’s digital network Awesomeness TV and fledgling software maker Nova. But those who know him best say he likely has bigger plans.
“He’ll run these two digital assets, and they’re both very entrepreneurial companies, so he’ll have that to start out,” says one associate, who asked not to be named. “But do I think he’ll come up with other things and build something bigger? Yes. It’s in his DNA.”
Katzenberg has been mum on his plans, and confidantes say he will likely stay that way for some time, for two reasons. First, the DreamWorks founder wants the public, his employees and his new Comcast partners to focus on the benefits of the sale – including the 51% premium paid for DreamWorks shares and the fresh bounty that awaits Comcast as DreamWorks’ pandas, dragons and ogres deploy to Universal theme parks. Second, the emergence of a deal that would move him out of the executive suite came on so suddenly that Katzenberg, 65, has not had time to solidify his plans.
“This happened so quickly, it’s hard to know what’s in his head,” says another confidante. “The digital thing is exciting to him, and he has the cash and connections to build something there.”
Analysts have speculated that Comcast might sell off Awesomeness and Nova, a move that would give Katzenberg the sort of autonomy he has enjoyed since being passed over for the presidency at Disney in 1994 and setting off with David Geffen and Steven Spielberg to launch DreamWorks SKG. (The Animation unit spun off from the main studio in 2004.)
Observers speculate on myriad other possibilities for Katzenberg. Might the man who began his working life as an aide to New York Mayor John Lindsay, and went on to become one of the biggest fundraisers in the Democratic Party, devote even more of his time to politics? He would be a viable candidate for chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee. His support of Hillary Clinton could position him for an ambassadorship, should she win the presidency.
More than one person has suggested that Katzenberg might even return to Disney. His ouster by Michael Eisner created a furor, but there’s a potential opportunity at the top of the world’s most prominent entertainment company, since Robert Iger’s apparent successor, Tom Staggs, was recently told he will not get the top job.
Friends say Katzenberg has laughed off the suggestion, noting that he has arrived at standard retirement age. Regarding a run at Disney, he has said, “That ain’t happening.”
Regardless, the DreamWorks addition will allow Comcast to finally mount a serious challenge to Disney. “That’s the thing he’s most proud of,” says a Katzenberg friend. “He feels this is a real competitive advance, one that can begin to level the playing field.”