Tuesday, February 10, 2009

In Defense of Jeffrey

The L.A. Times does kind of a tap dance on Jeffrey Katzenberg's head:.

When it comes to promoting his company, his causes or himself, Jeffrey Katzenberg has no peer. Surely Hollywood's greatest salesman, the man could sell ice to the Eskimos and oil to T. Boone Pickens. But it's been a rocky month for the DreamWorks Animation chief, who has been taking it on the chin at almost every turn ...

What really strikes me as strange is that Katzenberg is unable to resist the urge to engage in hyperbole, even when it seems to undercut a quieter, more logical argument. Bragging to the New York Times about DreamWorks' recent box-office successes, he boasted: "This company is a flower that is just begining to blossom," prompting the reporter to add, "Cut to Hollywood rolling its eyes."

Probably the L.A. Times staff is new to the ways of Hollywood, what with recent Times' turnover and all. But here's the skinny. Hyperbole and exaggerated claims have been the coin of the realm inside the movie industry for like the better part of a century.

"Never in the History of Film!" ... "A cast of THOUSANDS!" ... "Seven Years in the Making!" ... "We were thrilled when Joe Slavich came aboard!" "The Greatest love story of all time ..."

And the negative? That is also over the top, as studio head Darryl Zanuck's long-ago memo makes clear:

I have just finished reading Irving Bucher's screenplay for The Prize Fighter and the Lady. It made me vomit.

I've been in a few meetings with Jeffrey over the years, and he's cut from the mogul's cloth. Something is either great or it stinks. The storyboard is fantastic, or the sequence needs work, the film isn't coming together.

I've never witnessed subdued or pastel reactions from Mr. Katzenberg, and I've never heard a Disney or DreamWorks employee give testimony to any. Jeffrey is a guy who burns bright with enthusiasm for projects, or is dark with indifference.

Is he always right? Hell no. But there is never any doubt where he stands. He likes something, really likes something, or he doesn't.

Which is probably a good way to go when you're running a cartoon studio (or any other kind of creative enterprise). Because I've seen studio execs who shrug and smile weakly when shown outline boards or third acts on which a crew has worked its collective ass off for months, who say "Yeah, well, it's okay ... I guess." Who are, in a word, lukewarm.

Those execs usually don't end up running a studio, because wading around in the gray, muddled middle inspires neither confidence nor employees who are beig paid good salaries to create magic. And it certainly doesn't motivate chairmen of various corporate boards into promoting these gray-flannel excecs to positions of full-bore leadership.

Jeffrey Katzenberg (did I mention?) is anything but gray in his opinions. I've certainly met any number of people who don't agree with them. I haven't agreed with all of them myself. (What did they used to say about uber-chairman Jack Welsh of General Electric? Often wrong but never in doubt.) Jeffrey is a studio head who is very seldom in doubt.

In the movie business, energy, enthusiasm and decisiveness are pretty much prerequisites for ruling a Hollywood roost. You don't have them, it's unlikely you're going to be anything other than Middle Management, second-guessing yourself every other week while nervously looking over both shoulders.

Whether you like DreamWorks' animated output or hate it, there's no denying the company's success. And it's hard to deny that Jeffrey Katzenberg's personality -- including the energy, brash enthusiasm, and forceful superlatives -- has played a big part in that success.

If the essence of who Jeffrey is was different, I seriously wonder if DreamWorks' success would be close to what it is. I wonder if DreamWorks Animation would today even exist at all.


John Musker said...

Despite the recent upheavals at the LA Times, Patrick Goldstein is a veteran critic and show biz reporter and columnist. That said, I agree with your statements about Jeffrey. He is so innately a showman cut from old school mogul cloth, he speaks principally in hyperbole. Exactly as you said, Jeffrey in my experience always found things either the best, or the absolute worst. Gray was a color he didn’t traffic in. I do think Goldstein completely misreads Jeffrey when he thinks Dreamworks live action signing up with Disney would be repugnant to him. As far as I know JK’s quarrel was with Michael E. not Disney and I think he likes both Bob Iger and Dick Cook and I’m pretty sure he finds financial solvency appealing.
John Musker

Anonymous said...

Yeah, nice overview about Jeffrey defense...
Great post


Anonymous said...

When I drive into work early in the morning at DreamWorks the first thing I see is JK's car parked out front. He believes in this product as much as any of us. Hollywood execs at other companies I worked at weren't like that.

I'll be the first to admit that the 3D SuperBowl ad was a gimmick and fell like a thud but the LA times article cherry picks the worst criticism out there for it. Jeffrey wanted to generate noise and according to the movietickets.com poll it was the 3rd most memorable movie ad during the superbowl. Pixar's Up was 8th.

The MPTF issue is upsetting and sad but Nikki Finke posted the Camden Report and even an independant third party health services analyst concluded that there could be nothing done to offset the rising costs of healthcare that were bankrupting it.

Anonymous said...

The MPTF nursing home closure is a cesspool and Jeffrey is up to his neck in it. He is responsible for lying to the public about the economic motives for the closures -- lies that are disproven by the Fund's own accounting figures and tax returns.

Katzenberg, Tillman and his cronies are chopping up seventy-five years of Hollywood history for no reason except greed, while over a hundred retirees are out on the street. Some have already DIED because of Katzenberg's and Tillman's actions.

Read TheWrap.com, Nikki Finke and the Save The Hospital Facebook site for the real facts.

Anonymous said...

To read about Jeffrey's lies at TheWrap.com, go here, here and here.

Steve Hulett said...


You're right about Goldstein. I was just ladling out snark.


I really can't speak to the reasons for the MPTF Hospital closing, and I'm not dealing with it in the post.

I was told by a Fund rep that the hospital was underutilzed -- particularly its ICU, which was why the unit closed, and ultimately why the hospital was underpopulated.

Maybe this is b.s., but Nikki Finke and the rest are not unbiased observers.

Personally, I'm sorry to see the facility go down.

Anonymous said...

Steve: I posted about the closing of the nursing home; you responded with a comment about the closing of the hospital.

No one is dying because Jeffrey closed the hospital.

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