Jeffrey Katzenberg is Hollywood’s makeover king. In his earliest days at Paramount, he was in charge of turning some old TV series into a film franchise – and the result was the enormous successes of the Star Trek series. Then he went to Disney Animation and dragged it out of the 1980s doldrums into the start of the animation renaissance. Since leaving the Mouse House, he’s created and headed up DreamWorks Animation – and with Shrek Forever After, reportedly the last in the series and about to hit DVD on December 6, Megamind hitting cinemas and How To Train Your Dragon emerging as one of this year’s best films, we sat down with the big boss to get his thoughts on the studio’s future…
You’ve said in the past that the story of Shrek is the story of Dreamworks, that it was only with the first film that you found your voice as a studio.
Yeah. I think that in addition to being a great success and coming not a moment to soon, ‘cause we were sort of struggling there a little bit, it ended up in a way being our Holy Grail. It really shined a light on a path that we have very ambitiously pursued for the last ten years, in that it really defined what a Dreamworks movie could and should be. It’s quite different from our competition. It doesn’t look like, sound like, talk like, act like the traditional animated movies that were being made elsewhere, and in particular at Disney and Pixar. So I think its success had many, many values for us, much of which was actually beyond the box office, or dollars and cents or DVDs. I think it’s the foundation on which, in a greater sense, the company’s been built creatively.
I guess it’s a fine old tradition for animation companies to be almost on their last legs before something incredible happens; I think Disney went through it about 6 times.
You’ve said that this is the last Shrek; is that definite?
We feel that Shrek is on a journey, and it’s a journey that I think many of us share a lot in common with it, which is why people have connected so much to it over the years. But it seemed to us as though it was not an unlimited journey, and what our movies and our franchises also share in common with Shrek is that they have a beginning, a middle and an end; they’re not open-ended. Each of the films is a chapter of a story and in every instance we knew what that journey was or could be before we even started. So today I can tell you pretty succinctly where Madagascar goes. Ultimately they will come back to New York, and they will come to terms with that, which they will do in this next chapter. Because of the way that movie concludes there’s probably one more for them…
So a fourth [after the currently-in-production Madagascar 3]?
Yeah, there’s probably a fourth there. Kung Fu Panda actually has 6 chapters to it, and we’ve mapped that out over the years. How To Train Your Dragon is at least three: maybe more, but we know there are a least three chapters to that story. There are actually 8 books.
But they’re very different from the film.
Yes. But there are elements of them that actually… As you know, there are many islands in the world of Berk, and different things there, so we’ll see. But right now, today, we know that there are three for sure that we want to tell and there may be more. We haven’t thought, you know, how do we continue beyond that.
What is the process at Dreamworks in terms of making movies? You hear a lot about the plussing and the Pixar Brain Trust over there. Do you have a similar kind of set up at Dreamworks?
I don’t know, I haven’t been to Disney in 16 years and I‘ve never been to Pixar, so I can’t answer the specifics of that. We have an amazing creative community inside our company; it is truly the best place in the world to be able to go to work every day. I actually feel as though when I drive through the gates to go to work I’m sort of walking in paradise, and you have to experience it to know that. I will say as an interesting, just sort of a little fact on the side, that in America the most prestigious business magazine is Fortune, does each year a survey of the best companies in America to work for. No entertainment company has ever come in the top 50. We were number 6 last year. And what that is a reflection of is how people at Dreamworks feel about their company.
As an executive my point of view is, if they love their work they will do great work. So whatever those things are, however we go about making our movies, I’m sure that 95%, 98% of what we do is similar to what others do, and that extra 2-5% is probably what differentiates us. Sometimes we’re more successful at it than they are, sometimes they’re more successful at it than we are. Sometimes we get awards, sometimes they get awards, sometimes we get reviews; sometimes they get reviews. It’s all very healthy and very important. If we didn’t have genuine competition we wouldn’t be as driven to keep doing better work. Competition is really imperative. It’s not healthy, it’s imperative.
Obviously this was the first 3D Shrek, but you’ve been a huge proponent for 3D for ages. Do you think it’s going to take a long time for that to get mass adoption at home?
Yes, because a whole eco system has to grow for it to become as ubiquitous in the home as it is now becoming in the movie theatre. It’s the hardware, television sets that are affordable on a mass level, it’s the tools for broadcasting on a mass level, and it’s the tools for actually shooting and capturing 3D on a mass level. All those things are coming, but it’ll take years for it to make its way there. But there’s no going back. It will be no different in my opinion than when black and white gave way to colour. It took 30 years for colour to become ubiquitous through all media, and it may take us 30 years for this to do it, but it’s here to stay.
How about the future? You’ve got a really varied slate of things in development, things like Alma and Truckers. Are you continually trying to reinvent the studio?
Yeah, because we make 3 movies a year now, or 2 next year, 3 the following year. We feel a high degree of ambition to have diversity in those ideas, so we actually think a lot about making sure that these things are different enough and unique enough from one another and from other things being done, so that going to these movies is still a treat and is still an event. The world we live in today, there are 6 or 7 of these animated films – and when I say 6 or 7, I mean the big, high end films that we do, that Pixar does, that Blue Sky does, Despicable Me, you know – a year. There used to be two. So if we want people to still consider these things events, then we have to make sure they’re special.