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Interview with CEO of DreamWorks Animation Jeffrey Katzenberg

Aired September 6, 2013 - 05:30:00   ET




MONITA RAJPAL, ANCHOR, CNN INTERNATIONAL (voiceover): It's the tale of an unlikely Kung Fu hero. Following Po the Panda, high kicking his way through dangerous situations.

BLACK: My fist hungers for justice. That was my fist.

RAJPAL (voiceover): Topping the box office, both "Kung Fu Panda" one and its sequel took more than $600 million each in total box office sales. The second installment even breaking Chinese box office records at the time for the highest opening weekend. It raked in $19 million in China alone.

BLACK: Yes, OK, anyway, where was I?

RAJPAL (voiceover): Meet the man behind it all. CEO of DreamWorks Animation, Jeffrey Katzenberg. The man at the reins of the production house behind blockbusters like "Shrek" --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Welcome to the resistance.

RAJPAL (voiceover): And Madagascar.

CHRIS ROCK, ACTOR: Da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-circus. Da-da-da-da-da- da-da-da-afro. Circus.


RAJPAL (voiceover): Cutting his cartoon teeth at Disney in the 1980s and 90s, he was credited with breathing new life into the animation giant, producing hits like "Beauty and the Beast".

JASON WEAVER, ACTOR (singing): Oh, I just can't wait to be king.

RAJPAL (voiceover): And "The Lion King". He already knew how to spot a blockbuster story. During his time at Paramount Pictures, he spotted potential in "Star Trek" and "Beverly Hills Cop" - making sure they reached the silver screen.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Nice to meet you.

RAJPAL (voiceover): This week, on "Talk Asia", we're with the master producer in Chengdu to find out about DreamWorks' brand new venture in China. And spend time with the creatures that inspired a multi-million dollar animation franchise. Coming up, on "Talk Asia".


RAJPAL: Jeffrey Katzenberg, welcome to "Talk Asia".


RAJPAL: Thank you for being with us, here in Chengdu in China. China has become the focal point for practically every industry. At what point did you start courting Beijing?

KATZENBERG: Well, you know, mine came as sort of confluence of sort of two completely separate events taking part in two different ends of the planet. In Hollywood, California in 2004, we started production on a movie called "Kung Fu Panda", which we were doing because we loved the character, we loved the story, we loved the setting - very exotic.

We had never taken our audience to the world of China before. And then, at the same time, here in China, we started to see this sort of shift towards something that was just beginning to take root called "Soft Power". And a very strong interest in really growing a movie and entertainment industry here, in China, for China.

RAJPAL: In terms of -- when you look at "Kung Fu Panda" - would you see it or would you call it as a movie that was an easing-in movie for the country? An easing in to China? Or China easing in to Hollywood as well?

KATZENBERG: Well, no. I mean, I think we were a contributor to it. I certainly think that it was probably the most beloved of all of the movies that's come along in the last, you know, six or eight years. And that it felt to be really a Chinese film. You know, I think the audiences here really felt it was theirs in so many wonderful ways. It was - we always refer to it as our love letter to China.

But I think that the fascination with movies - you know, this gigantically growing middle class looking for entertainment, recreation, culture - these things have become very, very important here in China. And, like everything that happens here in China, it maybe takes a little longer, a little slower to get going. But once it does, it's just a rocket ship.

So, just a few little facts about the movie industry today. There are right now, today, over 14,500 movie theaters in China. They added 4,500 of them last year alone. The movie box office this year - well, last year was about 17 billion RMB. This year it will grow almost another third to 22 billion. And by the way, 17 was a third up from the previous year. So just the acceleration - all these movie theaters being built, great movies coming here.

RAJPAL: Is that how, then - or is that where Oriental DreamWorks steps in as well? To try and capitalize on this growth?

KATZENBERG: We actually wanted to come to China and build an animation company here in which we would make movies here, in China, by the Chinese, for the Chinese. But to make them competitively at the same level and same quality as what we do in Hollywood today. And so, these are films that would actually be export out of China.

Now, that was just music to the ears of Beijing. That was the thing that, you know, they realized to, you know, take our expertise in storytelling, our technology, our mentoring, and to really grow an industry here, in China is something that was really, really exciting.

RAJPAL: That's interesting, because when you look at how you deal with Beijing - how different of a script is it when you're negotiating than what you've done before? Say, in Hollywood and in Washington?

KATZENBERG: Right, well this is the opposite of what we do everywhere else in the world. And as surprising as it is for my colleagues in the movie industry, it's equally surprising to the leadership here, in China. This is not what they expected. Because what I was saying to them, "Listen, you know, you have great brands that you bring here from around the world. But the thing that you have done in every industry is you have created your own". And that is the thing that I consider the "Chinese Way".

And so I said, "I'll help you create your own family-branded entertainment company". And that was the birth of Oriental DreamWorks. That was the sort of big idea. And I said to them, "I'll be your partner in it. I'll actually be the majority-minority partner in it. Because I really do believe, in the long run - if we look out 20, 30 years from now - it is a Chinese company. And we'll help you build it and grow it. We'll be well rewarded for it. We'll succeed as you succeed. But it's your own".


RAJPAL: There's so much of Chengdu in "Kung Fu Panda 2".


RAJPAL: So much. I mean, to the point where it's - yes.

NELSON: Because we wanted to make sure that it felt authentic for people who were here -


NELSON: And would see this place and actually how much the [UNCLEAR] mean to them is something that we wanted to film. The movie as well.


NELSON: We actually changed the ending of the movie after we came here.

RAJPAL: Really?


RAJPAL: This will be something that will be in history books. The film that you produced and direct and work on - and the same for you. And that's a huge responsibility.

NELSON: It's a responsibility, but also bring real audiences to places like this that may not usually have access to this.


KATZENBERG: So she's on to "Kung Fu Panda 3".


KATZENBERG: And helped - got her whole creative team out. Because it's about authenticity in the end. There's this really kind of, you know, interesting line you get to where it's authentic enough that it becomes real for people.

RAJPAL: People forget that it's animation when they're watching it. That they're just sucked into the story.

NELSON: Actually, because it's animation and everything is technically made up -


NELSON: -- that you have to work 10 times harder to make it feel real.


RAJPAL: Yes. Yes.

KATZENBERG: So it's one thing to say, you know, it'd just be easier to go out and shoot this -

NELSON: It would.

KATZENBERG: Than to think about every little piece of bamboo, here.

NELSON: No one would have to render that.

KATZENBERG: Do you know what I mean? Some poor animator is sitting there going "Oh my God, I have to do 36 million bamboo shoots". And by the way, for three years, there is somebody who will create 36 million bamboo shoots. And make it perfect.

NELSON: And make it look exactly like a bamboo shoot.

RAJPAL: Well, if that's not a labor of love -

KATZENBERG: It's what that all is.

RAJPAL: -- I don't know what is. Right?

I've never seen pandas up close before until now.





RAJPAL: Oh my God.

KATZENBERG: There they are.

RAJPAL: I've never seen Pandas up close before. Until now.

KATZENBERG: So how can you not - how can you not be in love with that? Look at them. God, are they beautiful.

RAJPAL: I guess you can see why it's so important that, when you're creating a character, you know, out of these pandas, you have to stay so true. Because there's such pride in them in this country, isn't there?

NELSON: Such pride. And also, they're so unique. People would know if we sort of fudged it.


NELSON: And there's such a beauty to how they look - how they move - they're so cute that it's a challenge to us to try and make sure that we can capture that in our animation.

RAJPAL: So do you go by memory? Do you go by - do you take it -

NELSON: We took - last time we were here for "Panda 2" we took, I think someone said it was a terabyte of photos and video.

RAJPAL: Really?

NELSON: Literally a terabyte. And I think that Po, as a character, is a character that you love.


NELSON: And he's funny. He's not - he's not precious, as far as his personality. He's a guy, a normal person that's very -

RAJPAL: Accessible. Yes.

NELSON: Very accessible, very likable. And we wanted to make sure people liked Po. Because, you know, he is inspired by these pandas.

RAJPAL: I can see Po in that one right there. The way he sits -


RAJPAL: The shoulders -


RAJPAL: That's Po right there.

KATZENBERG: Very true.


RAJPAL: It all comes down to having a really good story. And that -

KATZENBERG: Every day. That's the - beginning, the middle, and an end.

RAJPAL: When it comes to animation, how much of a challenge is that to ensure that, at the heart of it, there is a good story?

KATZENBERG: Well, it's everything. And you know, all the bells and whistles and all the technology and everything else that we do - without a great story, it doesn't matter. I mean, I have to say, you know, DreamWorks Animation is 19 CG animated movies that we've released in our - since we've been a company. And 18 of those 19 movies have been successes. I mean, they've been blockbusters.

Our creative process, which is very long - it's a 4, 5, 6 year process where we really take the time to explore and understand all the elements of a story. You know, we put our movies together and storyboards and kind of look at them to see. It's like dress rehearsal in a - you know, for a play - and, you know, you see what's not working and you get to take it apart and start over. And that iterative process of being able to, you know, do it and re-do it and re-do it until you get it just right is singularly unique to animation.

RAJPAL: What kind of, I guess, a path or a road was that? To get to this point where it is given that - not just the respect, but you get the profits as well.

KATZENBERG: So I obviously, now, over many years, have become a bit of a student of this. There was Walt Disney who is the, you know, granddaddy of it all. And you know, I never met him but, you know, I still to this day feel like he was my teacher and mentor. I learned everything, really, that I know about animation from his works and his archives and his writings, which I got to see when I was at Disney for 10 years.

On my first day at work, you know, I sat with Michael Eisner. And he said, "Come here, I want to show you something". So he walked over, he looked out of the window, and he pointed at a building across the street. And he says, "Do you see that building over there?" I said, "Yes". He says, "Do you know what they do there?" I said, "No". He said, "Well, that's where they make the animated movies". I went, "Really? That's nice". He said, "Yes, and it's your problem". And that was my introduction to animation.

So that really was sort of the beginning of what really was the first renaissance, you know, which was the sort of "Little Mermaid", "Roger Rabbit", "Aladdin", "Beauty and the Beast", "Lion King" - this just extraordinary run of movies in which these films became blockbusters. They became mainstream. They became movies. That's what really sort of shined the light on where our goal line needed to be.

RAJPAL: It's interesting because you came from I guess, your career - you were in feature films at Paramount. You produced some amazing films. I mean, we're talking about "Indiana Jones", we're talking about "Star Trek". And then you go to Disney. And you are introduced to this archive - this bolt of information from Walt Disney. What was it within those notes and that archive that Walt Disney had left that triggered something inside you that said, "Huh, OK. This could be big".

KATZENBERG: As you mentioned, there were these amazing archives of Walt Disney's work products. So quite literally, you can go back and look at when he was making "Snow White". These story sessions in which he - first of all - and you know, there was a stenographer that they took down, you know, transcripts of everything that he did. They kept every script of his that he wrote notes on. You know, I always say that Walt Disney left breadcrumbs the size of Volkswagens. You'd have to be deaf, dumb, and blind not to be able to do it. So it really - I don't think it's anything remarkable other than I was curious, you know.

RAJPAL: Would you say that you found yourself in those archives?

KATZENBERG: Oh yes, for sure. Because what started out as my problem really very quickly became my love. I was so excited by the process and I understood, you know, I think, what excited him about it. Because animation is not like any other type of creative creation that I know of. Because it requires this huge collaboration. It's a team sport.


KATZENBERG: You're being polite. I got fired. It's ok, I got fired. It's - you know, it happens.




KATZENBERG: We're looking at this as a lifetime commitment for the three of us. This has got to be the dream team. Certainly it's my dream team.

STEVEN SPIELBERG, DIRECTOR, SCREENWRITER, PRODUCER: The opportunity exists to build a much bigger enterprise with many, many more opportunities in every part of the entertainment business.

DAVID GEFFEN, RECORD EXECUTIVE, FILM PRODUCER: We're going to be entrepreneurs. We're going to own the products that we create and build a business based on that.


RAJPAL: So with that said, what did you learn about yourself when you got to Disney? And then what did you learn about yourself when you left Disney? Because it wasn't an exit that you necessarily wanted.

KATZENBERG: Yes, yes. You're being polite. I got fired. It's ok, I got fired. It's - you know, it happens. You know, and there's, you know - it wasn't fatal and there's silver linings in that, too. It was - I learned everything that I know today about this from that period. So I only look back on it, you know, really with the fondest. And I met so many wonderful and talented people and they were generous and they taught me. And you know.

You know, even Walt Disney - you know, today I talk about DreamWorks. And they say, "Well, do you have a mission statement today?" And I say, "Well, actually, we do. It took us a very long time. It happened after a little green ogre visited us in 2001". You know, and I do say with both a nod and a wink to Walt Disney. At DreamWorks, we make movies for adults and the adult that exists in every child.


KATZENBERG: So, you know, to this day, you know, I still sort of, you know, feel the great sense of debt and gratitude. I think the thing that I learned for myself and I still appreciate so much today is I actually learned, for me, what is the most beautiful thing in the world. The most beautiful thing in the world is laughter. And, in particular, the laughter of children. To stand at the back of a movie theater, which I do, do all the time. And hear the laughter of children - the product of the work of what we do - it's the best job in the world. Who could ask for anything, you know, more rewarding than that?

RAJPAL: And then a green ogre comes along -


RAJPAL: -- and helps define a studio that you created along with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen. Which, I believe you were 43 at the time when that happened? 42, 43?


RAJPAL: How big of a risk was that for you? Not the film at first, but creating this entirely new entity?

KATZENBERG: Well, you know, here's the thing. When you have Steven Spielberg and David Geffen as partners, there's no such thing as fear. There is no fear.


KATZENBERG: And you know, I mean, it certainly was exciting and challenging and I don't want to say that we all didn't have our anxious moments about it. It was a huge undertaking. No one had done it in 65 years. Personally, I put up all - you know, everything that I had, financially. It was the only way I could actually pursue my love and my passion, which was to continue to make animated movies - was to start our own company.

And, you know, I always talk about it, because it's actually kind of funny. In 1994, Steven Spielberg had won the Academy Award for "Schindler's List". And he had just released the first "Jurassic Park", which was just a bazillion dollar blockbuster. David Geffen had just sold his music company for, like, the fourth time for another billion dollars, you know. And I'd been fired.



RAJPAL: Interesting position to be.

KATZENBERG: Yes. And by the way, when I say "fired", I mean given the boot out the door. Bing RAJPAL: But you picked yourself up.

KATZENBERG: Oh yes. No -

RAJPAL: You had the guts enough and enough of an ego -


RAJPAL: -- to say, "You know what? OK, that's what you want. But this is what I'm going to do".

KATZENBERG: Yes. Either that or, yes, too stupid.


KATZENBERG: That's more likely. In other words, this things usually more out of naivete than it's out of your - too much credit there. I was just, you know, looking for like, "What do we do?" And I really wasn't focusing on the, you know, the sort of ugly part that was going on. I was trying to think of like, "Well, what would be great to do?"

RAJPAL: Is it true that you sealed the deal at a Whitehouse dinner for former Russian President, Boris Yeltsin?

KATZENBERG: Yes, we did. It wasn't at the dinner. It was at 6:30 the next morning in a hotel room, because I was so frustrated. Because the three of us - well, more them than me - I was out of work. But everybody was travelling. Steven was going someplace and David was going somewhere. And I was - all we needed - because we'd had a number of preliminary meetings and everybody was excited about the idea -


KATZENBERG: -- and we just needed, like, one more couple of hours together to sort of seal the deal, if you will. You know, and as usual, you know, I had my little list. It's like, "Here are the things that we have to agree on. And then we're going to do this". And, you know, who's going to be responsible - who gets to say, "Yes" and "no". And, you know, things that were really pretty critical here.

And so I just needed these two guys together in a room with me for two hours uninterrupted. And the only place that we were at the same time was at the state dinner. And so, literally, I said, "So let's get up at six- thirty in the morning and from six-thirty to eight-thirty we'll go in a hotel room here and we'll go through this". And so everybody agreed to do that. And that was the morning after that dinner.

RAJPAL: The industry in which you're in - it seems as though there really is no limit as to what you can do. There'll always be technology that someone is developing that takes you that much further. Is that part of the beauty? That you could see yourself working until you stop?

KATZENBERG: Well, I would expect to, because, you know, the thing that's always - you know, I wish for people. I mean, I literally - I wish for you - I wish for the other people here in the room today - and I wish for the people that watch this - the thing that I have had, and I still have, this very moment that we sit here is - I so love doing what I do that the word "work" just doesn't seem to make sense for me. Because this doesn't feel like work.

Sitting here with you, talking about, you know, my adventures here and China and the things that are going on - it's exciting. And so, you know, I only hope that people find something that they love that rewards them. You know, at our studio, we work so hard to make that one of the best places in the world to come to work. And I always say to the leadership of our company - if people love their work - they love coming to work, then we win. We will succeed at whatever it is that we set out to do. We will do great work.

RAJPAL: Jeffrey Katzenberg, thank you for your time.

KATZENBERG: Thank you.