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DreamWorks exec has big plans for Asia, international market

By: - Columnist
/ 09:41 PM December 05, 2013

“KUNG Fu Panda: Secrets of the Furious Five” photo:imdb.com

LOS ANGELES—Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO of DreamWorks Animation, was describing his recent whirlwind trip to Asia—in line with his studio’s emphasis on the international market—and we were getting jet-lagged and exhausted just listening to his itinerary that seemed tailored for a superhuman.

“I went Saturday night after the [Academy] Governor’s Ball to LAX,” began Jeffrey, looking fresh and dapper this morning despite having just gone through this grueling schedule that he was reciting.

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“I got on a Korean Airlines flight to Seoul, landed at 6:15 in the morning. I had a two-hour layover, went to Shanghai, arrived at 9:30 in the morning. I went to our office there. I met with our team from 11:00 in the morning to 6:00 in the afternoon. It was a big strategic meeting—all of the teams were there. We did reviews of everything that we have going on. Got on a plane, flew to Hong Kong, got there at 11:00 at night. Got up Monday and had two two-hour meetings with our partners from The Sands who came from Macau and another great developer there, Lawrence Ho.”

Endurance testing sked

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Still not tired? Jeffrey continued narrating his endurance-testing sked: “Got on a plane, flew to Nanjing, met with our partner there and the vice mayor of Nanjing. Got on a plane, flew back to Hong Kong, got on a midnight flight, flew to Los Angeles, got home at 9:00 last night. I was up at 5:00 a.m., ready to go today.” And here he was indeed, looking composed, articulate and not a bit sleepy or frazzled.

But why is the chief exec of one of Hollywood’s top studios not flying around the world in private jets?

“I have flown privately a lot in my life,” Jeffrey answered. “But two years ago, with the recession and us not wanting to lay off anybody at DreamWorks, the miss of ‘Rise of the Guardians,’ which we took a big write-down on, I just felt like it was wrong for me to be flying around in private airplanes, particularly when I travel internationally. It’s just incredibly expensive to do (fly privately). When I fly domestically, more often than not I do (fly privately) because it’s much more efficient in terms of time and cost.”

The bespectacled mogul, who began his rise to join movers and shakers when he volunteered to work at age 14, for New York mayoral bet John Lindsay, credited his parents, Walter, a stockbroker, and Anne, an artist, for his physical stamina. “I actually function really well on five hours of sleep,” he said. “So basically, I have eight days a week. I go to sleep at midnight and get up at five a.m., no matter where I am.”

It also helps that he loves what he’s doing, even the “48 hours leading into the opening of a movie. It’s so hard, emotional and difficult particularly for us, where we only have two or three shots a year. So when something doesn’t work, it’s just devastating. Fortunately, we are 19 of 20. We have only had one that didn’t really work, ‘Guardians.’ ‘Turbo’ was certainly not a success but it made money. So it wasn’t as damaging as ‘Guardians.’ ”

Loves his work

“Outside of my family, what I have come to understand is, I genuinely love my work,” said the native New Yorker who turns 63 on Dec. 21. (He volunteered that he is nearing his 40th anniversary in his entertainment career and that he was 23 when he started working in the industry, for exec Barry Diller.)

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The globetrotting executive stressed the importance of the international market which has eclipsed the US market in terms of revenue. “The international box office has, from the very beginning… a very significant part of our business,” Jeffrey said. “So we have always operated as an international company, not a domestic company… For instance, our movies are now adapted into 46 languages.”

“Take a movie like ‘The Croods’—one of the things I found remarkable was that every time I traveled somewhere in the world, in each country, they felt that it was their movie,” he said. “If you imagine the visual style of the faces in those films, in Brazil, for example, they thought they were their ancestors… It’s the most successful original animated movie in China because there was this attachment to it.

“So treating the international market as a primary one has been essential to us for many years. I think our focus has been really well rewarded. For the last couple of years, it represents as much as 70 percent of our business and continues to grow. Seven of the top animated movies of all time in Russia are by DreamWorks; six of the top animated movies of all time in Brazil; five of the top six in China; seven of the top 10 in Korea. So we actually had enormous success in the international market. We continue to make it a critical part of our business.”

The international factor is reflected in DreamWorks Animation’s employees as well. “If you look at the history of DreamWorks Animation when it started 20 years ago, the core under which we built it on was from Amblimation, a European company,” he pointed out. “There were about 120 artists who worked there on ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ and some Amblin animated films. We actually moved the vast majority of them to the US. That became the foundation of our company.

“From that moment forward, we have been what I always call the United Nations of Animation. We speak 36 languages on our campus (in Glendale, California, which his friend, US President Barack Obama, recently toured). It’s an incredibly rich and diverse group of artists. It’s very important that we, as a company and as a creative enterprise, reflect our audience. In order to reflect that audience, you have to have a rich, really diverse group of people.”

Source of pride

Jeffrey cited a source of pride: “One of the things we have focused on, and I think we have probably set a different level than any other company in Hollywood, is the representation of women. We’ve had the first director of an animated movie (Jennifer Yuh Nelson). We have four of them (female directors) who are working on movies at the studio.”

Louie del Carmen, a Filipino-American story artist and director at DreamWorks (which he calls DW for short) confirmed, “There is a nice mix of ethnicity at DW.” The credits of the Cavite-born Louie, whom I featured in my book, “My Filipino Connection: The Philippines in Hollywood,” include “Kung Fu Panda: Secrets of the Furious Five.” He is currently directing a TV series, “Dragons: Defenders of Berk.”

Other Fil-Am animators at DreamWorks include Paolo de Guzman and Januel Mercado. Louie said, “I know he (Paolo) worked on ‘Rise of the Guardians’ but being in surfacing, he might have worked on most of the recent DW films. He (Januel) worked on ‘Turbo’ as well as ‘Kung Fu Panda 2.’”

Jeffrey’s thrust on the international market explains all that traveling, especially around Asia. “Twenty-four months ago, I made the decision to really pivot and take the company and broadly diversify it. Our goal is a family branded, diversified entertainment company.

“Today, it’s very different for us. We moved into a number of different areas. One is location-based entertainment, everything from cruise ships to The DreamWorks Experience—which is a combination of character engagements, activities, shows including an ice show, a Madagascar water show and character breakfast meets and greets. They are on six Royal Caribbean Cruise ships, four Gaylord hotels here in America and Sands Hotel in Macau.

He added, “We have a Madagascar musical revue that’s maybe in eight or 10 places—three Sea Worlds here in the US, on the Gold Coast in Australia, a theme park in Brazil, another one in the UK and another one in Germany. These are all small steps on the way to what is a bigger ambition for us, which is creating what we think could be a new park experience. It’s called DreamWorld—it’s under one roof so it’s completely enclosed, about 75,000 square meters approximately.

“I think the thing that makes us different from any of our competitors is that our movies are about laughter, about comedy. So the experience we have created (in our parks) is very much around that. We have a partner in Russia who is permitted to build three parks there—the first one will be in St. Petersburg; Yekaterinburg, which is the fourth largest city in Russia, is the second place. Then they are right now trying to secure land in Moscow for what would be a very big one (park). We are well on our way to exploring with a partner, building our first park in China, in Nanjing.”

Stabilizing force

With all his traveling, Jeffrey’s marriage to Marilyn Siegel is a stabilizing force in his life. They have twins, Laura and David. He said, “I have been married to the love of my life for 38 years. She means as much to me today as the day I met her.

“I have two incredible kids, 30 years old. They are out working, doing great stuff. They got their mom’s looks, her brains and disposition. They are much nicer people than me, much more self-effacing and generous and all of that. But they got my work ethic so they are really good. So certainly, that is a giant reward in life.”

(E-mail the columnist at [email protected] Follow him at http://twitter.com/nepalesruben.)

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