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Jeffrey Katzenberg Talks Obama's Re-Election, Philanthropy and the Premium VOD Battle (Q&A)

Jeffrey Katzenberg
Jeffrey Katzenberg

On April 25 at CinemaCon, the DreamWorks Animation CEO receives the Will Rogers Motion Picture Pioneers Foundation's highest honor.

This story originally appeared in the May 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.

Jeffrey Katzenberg will be in intimate company when he's celebrated April 25 at CinemaCon, the annual gathering of theater owners in Las Vegas and hotspot for studio presentations. Over the years -- and more than any other studio chief -- Katzenberg has crisscrossed the globe personally getting to know exhibitors. Katzenberg, 61, will be receiving the prestigious 2012 Pioneer of the Year Award, given by the Will Rogers Motion Picture Pioneers Foundation to a top film executive or exhibitor for their philanthropic work. Katzenberg, who is constantly reinventing his company, sat down with THR at the DreamWorks Animation campus in Glendale, Calif., to talk about the honor and why Kirk Douglas remains his inspiration.

The Hollywood Reporter: Why is philanthropy so important to you?

Jeffrey Katzenberg: I've said this many times before, but many, many years ago, I had this wonderful opportunity to work with Kirk Douglas on Disney's Tough Guys. He and his family were right in the middle of this incredible effort rebuilding playgrounds at all of the schools in Los Angeles. It seems like every time I went to see him on a lunch break, or I wandered over to his trailer, this was what he was working on. And I asked him, "Why do you do this? Why are you passionate about it?" He ended up saying something that was one of those perfect phrases: "Listen, Jeffrey, you haven't learned to live until you've learned to give." My wife, Marilyn, was a schoolteacher from the Bronx and grew up in a family with very little, and we've always maintained an appreciation for how lucky we are, so it's been a very important part of our relationship to be able to give.

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THR: You are chairman of the Motion Picture & Television Fund and, with George Clooney, recently announced a $350 million fund-raising effort that already has secured $200 million in donations. Is there any update?

Katzenberg: It's going great. Nothing has been more important to Marilyn and I than the movie and TV industry; it has given us everything. And so it's been our driving idea to take care of the Motion Picture Home and the charity. Our other work has been around our children, their lives, their schools, their hospitals, their colleges and our temple.

THR: Has the MPTF overcome the hurdles with the Motion Picture Home?

Katzenberg: Yes. The greatest thing is when Bob Beitcher came in to run MPTF in June 2011 and embarked on a path to clean up the many, many mistakes of the past. If we can get to the other side of this fund-raising drive, we will have the MPTF forever.

THR: You are one of President Obama's biggest fund-raisers. How do you think the campaign is going? 

Katzenberg: He will win re-election, and that makes me happy. I don't want to say politics are as important to me as philanthropy, but it's just one notch underneath.

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THR: You also are at CinemaCon to present footage of Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted and Rise of the Guardians, the last two movies that Paramount releases before its deal with DWA is up in December. What happens next?

Katzenberg: I'm wondering what's going to happen with us too and will have to keep wondering until the middle of June. That's when we'll start to hold talks.

THR: Some are saying Sony is a leading contender. Is there any truth to that?

Katzenberg: Fortunately, there are many people that seem to be interested in our business at DreamWorks Animation.

THR: Would Paramount be in the mix to renew a deal?

Katzenberg: That's up to them.

THR: Last year at CinemaCon, there was a very public dustup between studios and theater owners over premium VOD. Exhibitors were irate when word of a premium VOD experiment by several major studios leaked in the press during the convention. Where do the two sides stand now?

Katzenberg: This isn't the forum for that, but exhibitors are among our most important partners, and just as our part of the movie ecosystem has its problems and challenges, so do they. I think collaboration between the two has to get greater, not lesser. And throwing grenades into each other's prospective worlds is probably not the most effective way to get there. There's no version of the world that I see for the movie business in the next decades that does not require a vibrant, successful, appealing, profitable exhibition community. And the values of our movies have been and will continue to be established in that first window. But there's no question the equation has been stressed in ways today that we've probably never experienced before.

THR: In what ways?

Katzenberg: The profitability of movies. The margin is probably lower than it's ever been -- ever, at least domestically. That's affected by the aftermarket and DVDs. Internationally, business is spectacular.

THR: Are you heartened that the domestic box office is back in action in 2012, with revenue up 23 percent this year?

Katzenberg: It's up because there are better movies this year. We had a run of bad movies, with disappointment after disappointment. Even the bigger movies were less good. But Hollywood is a creative enterprise, and it has great years, fair years and bad years. This year looks like maybe a great year. I looked at a trailer reel yesterday -- I've been behind -- and I can't tell you how many movies I'm interested in seeing: The Avengers, Dark Shadows, Men in Black 3, Snow White and the Huntsman, Prometheus and Ted.

THR: You told THR last year that you were "heartbroken" by the downturn in 3D attendance, saying Hollywood soured consumers by rushing to convert titles to boost ticket prices. Has anything changed?

Katzenberg: We haven't found a happy medium yet, but I think 3D is re-earning its reputation through quality.

THR: Is the family animated business rebounding?

Katzenberg: There were almost twice as many family films last year, something like 26 or 28. I think the good movies would have done better had there been fewer films -- and certainly fewer bad films.

THR: You have become known for your presence at the Cannes Film Festival and are famous for your publicity stunts. Madagascar 3 will play in competition this year, but what else are you planning? 

Katzenberg: To be among the two dozen films is a great acknowledgment for how important and prestigious animation has become around the world. It started with Shrek, which was the first animated title to play in competition. Cannes is the gold standard of cinema, so it's a great seal of approval for the international marketplace. There's also the carnival of Cannes, which I have equally enjoyed. As you know, DreamWorks Animation has actively pursued the role of P.T. Barnum at the carnival. But there won't be a stunt this year, since it would be counterproductive to the nature of Guardians. We'll promote it in a different way.