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My Ride-Along With (the Unemployed) Jeffrey Katzenberg

Up-close and personal with the exec who has left his mark on multiple studios and transformed the art of animation

Jeffrey Katzenberg Hand Imprint Ceremony
Michael Lewis for Variety

I’m driving to lunch with Jeffrey Katzenberg, heading to his favorite burger joint — the Apple Pan. I’m shocked to learn that he has just returned from Burning Man, where he slept in an RV with his 33-year-old son and his pals, didn’t shower or shave for three days, and spent four hours at one point washing dishes in the kitchen.

“It’s the wildest, most insane place,” he tells me. “It’s like a combination of Mardi Gras meets the Electric Light Parade at Disney on a massive amount of drugs.”

Huh? As far as I know, this guy doesn’t do drugs (and I’m guessing he doesn’t do dishes much either),and he’s famous for being a clean freak whose trademark bright-white sneakers never show scuff marks. His spotless white Tesla looks like it just rolled off the showroom floor.

We arrive at the classic 1947 diner and sit at the famous counter, where Katzenberg orders a cheeseburger (medium, no onions), fries (well done), and his favorite drink, a Diet Coke. He still drinks a dozen of them a day, and is unapologetic about his long-established eating habits. For dessert, we go to Scoops, where he chooses a cup of Brown, Brown Bread ice cream with Grape Nuts cereal.

“I love junk food,” he says, with teenage defiance.

As much as Katzenberg is a creature of habit and ritual (he begins each morning with a 5-7 a.m. workout in his home gym, and is famous for having back-to-back breakfast meetings on any given day), he’s also someone who has made several radical shifts over the course of his 40-year career — from politics and government, to Paramount to Disney to DreamWorks to DreamWorks Animation. And having just sold DWA to Comcast for $3.8 billion, the high-octane 65-year-old is speeding in sixth gear: Since he left DWA in late August, he has already rented office space in Beverly Hills, recruited his former DWA chief operating officer Ann Daly to work with him, and has, so far, interviewed 300 potential executives and employees to join the new venture.

Michael Lewis for Variety

Was he sad or remorseful the day he walked off the animation studio’s sprawling Glendale campus for the last time?

“No,” he says. “I was proud — excited for its future, and excited for mine.”

When I suggest it must have felt really strange for a workaholic like him to wake up the next morning with no job to go to, he just laughs at me.

“Are you kidding?” he says. “I was already well into figuring out how I was putting together my next chapter. That next morning I got up and was on that course.”

Here’s an excerpt from our conversation, which prior to four years ago wouldn’t have transpired, given how he refused to talk to me for a decade because he hated my “negative” coverage of DreamWorks. He tried to get me fired from my last job at the L.A. Times, and tried to dissuade my boss from hiring me at Variety! But we’re good now.

You personally scored $400 million from the sale of DWA. Why the hell would you ever want to work another day? Why not just take your wife, Marilyn, traveling around the world?
’Cause that’s not who I am. The money doesn’t actually change anything for me. I was already blessed. I was already rich. That money is mostly for charity. It’s not about my lifestyle.

When Brian Roberts and Steve Burke first told you that Comcast wanted to buy your company, but that there’d be no job for you, how did you take that?
I said, “Thank you very much, I really appreciate your interest, and have a nice trip back to Philadelphia.”

So what made you change your mind?
I slept on it. The truth is, I didn’t sleep. It suddenly got me really, really excited to think about having a blank slate and being able to reinvent myself and do something new and different.

Did you seek anyone’s advice, or did you come to the decision yourself?
Four people weighed in: Marilyn, [DWA chairwoman] Mellody Hobson, Ann Daly, and Steven [Spielberg]. I’d made the decision, but really wanted to see if any of them would talk me out of it.

Did any of them try?
No, they asked a lot of questions, though.

So what drives Jeffrey Katzenberg?
It’s just fun. I just love doing things. I love being active. Above all else, being able to exceed people’s expectations is the thing that consistently was my driving motivation: It didn’t matter if I was Barry Diller’s gofer — when he asked me to organize a preview, or drive to the airport and pick somebody up — or being a “golden retriever” [for former boss Michael Eisner], or, on a macro level, selling DreamWorks.

Is that your lifelong through-line?
It was true when I was 8 years old, selling lemonade on a street corner, or shoveling snow off the sidewalks for store owners and them giving me 50 cents — I always wanted to do better than was expected of me.

“It’s just fun. I just love doing things. I love being active. Above all else, being able to exceed people’s expectations is the thing that consistently was my driving motivation.”
Jeffrey Katzenberg

You’ve run several major studios and made a name for yourself and your animation company through all its ups and downs. What’s left to excite and challenge you?
I’m going to try and build something new, bigger, and better than anything I’ve ever done before. I want to build a new media-technology company in which I can invest human capital — knowledge and experience — and help entrepreneurs scale their companies. It’s a holding company, not an investment company. I would love to emulate what Barry [Diller] did 20 years ago with IAC. We’re going to incubate and buy companies like we did at DreamWorks with AwesomenessTV and Brian Robbins; we gave him unlimited resources, opened doors, and accelerated everything he was trying to do.

What kinds of businesses are you considering?
I can’t tell you what they are, only what they aren’t: in movies or TV.

Do you plan on continuing to do business in China, where you’ve spent a lot of time and resources in recent years?
Yes. I expect one of our principal investors will be from China.

Who are the leaders in entertainment you admire most?
I would say Bob Iger has done a stunning job. He was a dark horse when he got the gig, and he has so outshined, outperformed, and out-delivered on every conceivable expectation. The Shanghai park is the jewel in his well-earned and well-deserved crown. The other two people who I’m just blown away by are Reed Hastings and Ted Sarandos. The whole is greater than the sum of those two parts. Netflix will be the greatest content enterprise created in the last 10 years. Nothing out there comes close.

Looking back, what do you consider the biggest disappointment of your career?
My biggest regret was how I left Disney — how humiliating, demeaning, and hurtful that parting was. [Katzenberg was fired in 1994.] I had a 19-year marriage with Michael Eisner, and 18-and-a-half of those years were as good as it gets. He made me better, smarter, gave me nothing but opportunities. He was a great mentor. And I made him better. I don’t think he was ever more successful or productive as an executive — as a creative force — than when he was there with me as a partner helping him achieve the goals and ambitions he had. And one day, as happens in many, many marriages, the circumstances changed and it was no longer the right fit for him. It hadn’t changed for me; I thought I was going to stay in that marriage forever.

Have you ever mended ways with Eisner?
Superficially. If he walked in here, we’d all be perfectly civil. But the wounds are too deep and the level of discomfort too much — I think more on his part than mine. I don’t live in the past. I never have. I tend not to look back.

But certainly there are times when we all reflect on our own lives, no?
No. Maybe there’s some psychologist who would tell you there’s something demented or maladjusted about it, but I can’t help it — I’ve always focused on what’s in front of me. I’m interested in what comes next, what I’m about to do. I still see a peak in front of me, and I’m so focused on figuring out how to climb that right now.

Tip Sheet
What: Jeffery Katzenberg Imprint Ceremony
When: 11 a.m. Sept. 29
Where: TCL Chinese TheatreWeb: tclchinese-theatres.com