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How Jeffrey Katzenberg Made a Huge Impact on Show Business

As he moved from one studio to another, the disciplined executive left behind a lasting legacy -- and he's not done yet

Jeffrey Katzenberg Barry Diller Impact on Hollywood

When Jeffrey Katzenberg was just a privileged Upper East Side kid in summer 1965, he got tossed out of summer camp — for gambling. His stockbroker father read him the riot act. But the 14-year-old couldn’t sit in the dog house for long. Jeffrey volunteered for Republican Rep. John Lindsay’s race for mayor of New York, quickly discovering that the campaign HQ was a fun place to hang out.

“Off I went to volunteer and ended up deeply involved in the campaign,” Katzenberg says. “Within a week I was running 300 kids, a small army. That led to being part of the inner circle as Lindsay became mayor of New York.”

Hard work, people skills — and chutzpah — launched Katzenberg while his contemporaries worried about geometry and the opposite sex at the tony Ethical Culture Fieldston School. He graduated in 1969, skipped college, dabbled in the restaurant business and then worked as an assistant for Lindsay’s pal, producer David Picker. In 1975, Picker introduced him to Paramount’s Barry Diller.

“I started as Barry’s gofer,” says Katzenberg, who relocated to L.A. in 1977 and remained with Paramount until 1984. “In retrospect, Barry was the most important mentor of my career. Over seven or eight years he put me in almost every area of the business. I was in marketing, distribution, international, negative pickups, and business affairs. I think it was deliberate: he was training me for someday actually becoming the head. When they made me president of the studio I had already worked in all the key areas. That was the time of ‘Saturday Night Fever,’ ‘Nashville,’ ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ and ‘Beverly Hills Cop.’They were amazing years and it was one of the great teams of the era: Diller, Michael Eisner, Don Simpson, Dawn Steele, Nancy Hardin and more. I met Jerry Bruckheimer, my oldest friend in the movie business, on one of the first movies he made: ‘American Gigolo.’”

In 1984, the Walt Disney Studio lured Katzenberg away from Paramount. At Disney, he fell in love with animation — and made it profitable. “The first day I arrived at Disney, I went into see my boss Michael Eisner. We collaborated on what order to get things done. And, then, standing in the doorway while I was leaving the office, Eisner said, ‘Jeffrey, one last thing before you go.’ He walked me over to a corner window in his office. ‘You see that building? That’s where they make the animated movies. That’s also your problem.’”

It was a big problem. Disney’s animation business had declined and was hemorrhaging cash. Katzenberg lacked experience but, he says, “Michael told me to go figure it out.”

Dream Team: Katzenberg, left, with Steven Spielberg, center, and David Geffen at the announcement of DreamWorks in 1994. Alex J. Berliner/BEI/BEI/Shutterstock

Director Robert Zemeckis remembers that watershed moment well: “I was considering making ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit.’ When you walked the halls of the Disney animation building it was like a mausoleum, all you heard was your own footsteps. I went into the same office space after Jeffrey was there for a month and people were running in the halls. Phones were ringing.”

Zemeckis and Katzenberg stood together during the final edit of ‘Rabbit,’ an Oscar-winning hybrid of live action and animation. “I was watching Jeffrey fall in love with animation,” Zemeckis says.

Katzenberg adds to that portrait of the time: “What I quickly came to understand was that Walt Disney’s archive contained a blueprint where he explicitly discussed the elements that were essential to making his movies. To this day I consider myself a student of Walt Disney — even though I never met him.”

The exec recalls that Disney said his movies are only as good as their villains, and that he makes movies for children and for the child that exists in each and every one of us. “There were dozens or more of these guideposts,” Katzenberg adds. “That’s the company’s North Star.”

Chairman and CEO of Twentieth Century Fox Film Stacey Snider has an indelible memory of first meeting Katzenberg on the Disney lot. “I was just getting started at Tri-Star when he called me in to meet him at Disney at 7:30 a.m.,” she says. “I got there 15 minutes early so I observed the relay race of his staff passing the baton of information from when ‘Mr. K’ was still on the 101, then he was at the Buena Vista exit. By the time he neared the gate, there was a guy on a walkie-talkie, from the parking lot to the lobby, from the lobby to the assistant — an exciting ceremony announcing his arrival. And, for me, it was my own arrival. I felt like I actually work in Hollywood if I’d been summoned to a breakfast with Jeffrey.”

The Disney years that had begun with such promise ended with tragedy. In 1994, Disney Studios president Frank G. Wells died in a helicopter crash. For Katzenberg, who expected to be promoted, there was a sense of betrayal when Eisner bypassed him for the top spot. Katzenberg was fired, turned around and sued the company for $250 million for breach of contract in April 1996. The adversaries settled only a week before this bitter lawsuit saw the light of Los Angeles Superior Court in 1997 — a bit of executive bad blood that ended up costing Disney a settlement rumored to be as much as $270 million.

Katzenberg next partnered with David Geffen and Steven Spielberg to create DreamWorks. He followed his passion and the new business flourished. Academy Awards followed. And it was very much Katzenberg’s business, unlike Disney or Paramount.

The new studio came with a legion of mundane management tasks — human resources, cost-cutting, spreadsheets, taxes — and, yet, with his generalist background, the details didn’t deter Katzenberg. “I am, by trade, a builder,” he says. “In the partnership we each brought many different qualities. Steven was the dreamer and the storyteller. David was the entrepreneur. And I was the builder. We all understood our role in that partnership, which isn’t to say that David wasn’t also the storyteller or Steven the builder.”

“I am, by trade, a builder. Steven was the dreamer and storyteller, David was the entrepreneur.”
Jeffrey Katzenberg

In 2004, the studio spun off DreamWorks Animation with Katzenberg heading the separate company. DWA co-president Bonnie Arnold says Katzenberg wasn’t just a builder — he was also an architect. “It’s that analogy of bringing all the right elements to create something greater, because he’s really great at casting, bringing the right people together for different projects. Jeffrey rolls up his sleeves, but he’s also great at keeping the bigger picture.”

From the early days at Paramount through his time at DreamWorks Animation, one of what his closest associates call Katzenberg’s “superpowers” has been identifying ability in others. Katzenberg agrees that “the most exciting and rewarding thing is finding and nurturing great talent.”

He recalls the time when comedy filmmakers Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker, who went on to create “The Kentucky Fried Movie” and “Airplane,” entered his office. “They projected 16mm onto my wall and they showed me this thing called ‘Zero Hour.’ They were just three kids from Milwaukee. Finding and nurturing great talent has always been something that I love doing.”

Behind Katzenberg’s “superpowers” has been an exceedingly down-to-earth daily regimen and a healthy lifestyle that fuels his high-energy personality. He regularly sleeps five hours a night, awakens to a two-hour workout, never eats while flying and exercises wherever he lands.

But Katzenberg pooh-poohs the view of himself as a pillar of self-discipline: “I sleep five hours a night — since I was 15. I don’t get jet lag. I’m not a health fanatic. I eat as much junk food as everyone you know and I have a workout that allows me to eat the garbage that I want to eat.”

The three most important food groups, he says, are crispy, crunchy, and fried.

Katzenberg doesn’t expect to slow down any time soon. And, so, as Comcast purchases DreamWorks Animation in a $3.8 billion deal, the executive, whom good friend Zemeckis describes as “like a maniac,” faces a clean slate.

Although Katzenberg is cagey about his plans, expect big announcements in the future — after he returns from Burning Man. “I’m going to continue to do what I’ve always loved doing, which is building. My goal is to build a great new company. And yes, I will always pursue my political interests and philanthropy. In many ways that’s been the most rewarding benefit to me through my career in the entertainment business.”

As Katzenberg takes his victory lap, energized by a $391 million payday and all those early mornings on the treadmill, DreamWorks co-president Mireille Soria chimes in on his legacy: “I always call him P.T. Barnum because he was the greatest cheerleader for DreamWorks Animation. Nobody can go out and sell the movies like he did. He always believed in every movie we made and you’ve got to love him for that.”