Jeffrey Katzenberg Extended His Creative and Business Talent to Television

TV classics served as fertile ground for the exec's showbiz instincts

Jeffrey Katzenberg Guillarmo Del Toro
REUTERS/Danny Moloshok/Newscom

Celebrated for ushering in the renaissance of animated films, Jeffrey Katzenberg has also worked his magic on TV, earning him shelves of Emmys.

Without Katzenberg,Tim Allen’s “Home Improvement” might never have gone beyond shtick. Trying to lure Allen to do “Dead Poets Society,” Katzenberg jumped on a table and acted out the parts, Allen recalls. The comedian found it “derivative” and passed, as he did with “Turner & Hooch.”

“He called me back and was just incredulous,” Allen says. Allen, however, seized the opportunity to pitch Katzenberg “Home Improvement.” That Katzenberg magic? “I am not even sure how they got [producers] Matt Williams off of ‘Roseanne’ and Carmen Finestra off of ‘Cosby.’

“He’s a real stand-up guy,” Allen says. “When he says something he means it. He wears his professionalism on his sleeves so you know what you are getting — honorable, fun, intelligent and big-hearted.”

Katzenberg’s instincts also led him to “The Golden Girls,” “Empty Nest,” and “Ellen,” among live-action shows. And “Monsters vs. Aliens,” “Veggie Tales,” and the anticipated “Trollhunters,” among animated series.

Director Guillermo del Toro’s book “Trollhunters,” initially slated as a feature became a series “because the mythology was so deep,” del Toro says. He considers the chairman of DreamWorks New Media a fellow storyteller.

They bonded over their love of comic art and del Toro, who needs a house just for his collection, is impressed by Katzenberg’s animation cels. He’s also impressed by dealing with the boss, avoiding channels.

“The contact with him is completely direct,” del Toro says. “With Jeffrey, it is just him, his Diet Coke and some ice — that is all.”

Colleagues mention Katzenberg’s work ethic and affinity for conducting business over meals.

“He is sort of a machine,” says Awesomeness TV’s Brian Robbins. “If he could have five breakfasts and eight lunches and six dinners a day he would. He loves to brag that he doesn’t need sleep.”

Katzenberg does require content, though. And he retains its integrity, regardless of the screen.

“He was very knowledgeable about the digital space and what was going on in the entire digital ecosystem,” Robbins recalls. “I was kind of surprised by how much he knew, considering he has a traditional background. He knew what was going on in Silicon Valley. He knew what was going on in our platform. Jeffrey was a rocket ship for the business we were already doing really well.”

The same could be said about Netflix.

Ted Sarandos, the streaming giant’s chief content officer, credits Katzenberg’s sense of humor that works for all ages. Parents suffering through condescending, humorless kids’ shows know 22 minutes can feel like an eternity.

“Jeffrey had the insight to realize what distinguished the brand was humor,” Sarandos says. “Being able to pivot from the early models to today was a brilliant play. The humor has to be there. The animation quality has to be there. The heart has to be there. This is way beyond selling cereal.”

That pivot makes for great TV as showrunner Marc Guggenheim, who’s worked on “Trollhunters” since May 2013, knows.

“When he is looking at ‘Trollhunters’ I never get the sense that he is going, ‘Oh this is a television show,’” Guggenheim says. “His approach has been very much, ‘This is just a feature film told in 25-minute episodes.’ It’s a wonderful way of exploring it.”

Katzenberg’s more subtle effect on TV is his influence on others. He’s Mark Burnett’s mentor and Burnett cites his most cherished Katzenberg lesson: “Decide upon a project and go for it full speed. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. Don’t look backwards.”

Burnett waxes nostalgic about their initial project, “The Contender,” a reality boxing show starring Sylvester Stallone and Sugar Ray Leonard. “I totally loved the idea, and the way he does things is to secure big talent,” he says.

What defines Katzenberg, Burnett says, is what we don’t see. When his and Roma Downey’s son was ill two years ago, Katzenberg and his wife, Marilyn, visited the hospital daily.

“I would love to work with him again,” Burnett observes. “Nothing would make me happier than the phone to ring and Jeffrey to say, ‘Hey buddy I’ve got a project!’”